The story of St. Matthew and the martyrs of Salerno is a triumph of faith over history.
Briefly, St. Matthew the Apostle died a martyr in Ethiopia, where he was buried. Three hundred years later, the story goes, his remains were transported by Breton merchants to Legion, a town located in the westernmost part of Brittany. His remains stayed in the city for forty years. For some reason, the Roman commander in the area, Gavinio, then carried the relics home to Velia, an ancient city in southern Campania, where they were buried in a church in Casal Velino. With the passing of centuries, the city fell into ruin and all memory was lost of the place where the sacred remains were buried. In AD 954, St. Matthew appeared in dream to Pelagia, a devoted woman who lived on the plain of Velia, giving her precise directions to the place of her tomb and asking her to spur his follower, the monk Athanasias, to search for his body. Athanasius discovered the remains of St. Matthew and moved them to a church in nearby Capaccio. He then went to the Norman Duke of Salerno, said he had recovered the apostle’s bones and these should be brought to Salerno and honored as holy relics. The transfer took place in 1081.
Despite all this moving around, many people believe the bones in the Salerno Cathedral are those of St. Matthew and turn out for the annual procession on Sept. 21. In the crypt of the cathedral there is also the log upon which Sts. Gaius, Ante and Fortunato were beheaded. They are called the Salernitane martyrs. In the annual procession, silver images of the martyrs and statues of St. Matthew are taken in procession around the city.
The silver images are very different from the painted plaster statues that I associate with religious processions.
We were impressed not only by the length of the route, but by the size of the crowds who came to see the procession. The streets were packed with people lining the route of the procession of saints. Some of them were probably there to see the fireworks at midnight after the procession, but the crowds were large and enthusiastic.