Mother Mary: The merciful, mischievous interceder in Italian legends

Panel of Our Lady as Advocate from 1150s by unknown artist. National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis told a story today about a legend in southern Italy to illustrate how Mary is always nearby, watching, waiting and ready to jump in and lend a hand.

While Jesus is every person’s best advocate in heaven, Mary plays an important role in many traditions and miracles.

Speaking to hundreds of priests and seminarians attending a course at the Vatican on confession, the pope said he heard about a legend that thieves would often pray to Our Lady of the Tangerines.

Every time Our Lady would notice one of the “pious” thieves waiting in the long line outside the gates of heaven, she would give him a sign to go and hide while St. Peter let in all the others, one by one. When St. Peter was done, locked the gate and left, that’s when Mary would call out and let the good thief come through a window she had opened.

“But don’t go and say that robbers go to heaven. Don’t say that!” Pope Francis told his audience to laughter.

The point of the story, he said, is that Mary is always by everyone’s side — the priest and the penitent, and especially the sinner. When a sinner goes to confession, he said, “he has a mother in heaven who will open the door and help him in that moment” to take the right step in order to make it into heaven. She has a knack for showing up at just the right time in people’s lives, and helping them make it right, he said.

Terracotta figures made by Paolo Sandulli of Our Lady of the Tangerines and two women. (Photo courtesy of Massimo Capodanno)

The story of “Our Lady of the Tangerines” is actually a Neapolitan poem, written by Ferdinando Russo in the 19th or early 20th century.

The gist is the same, only this time it’s an angel who’s misbehaved and didn’t do what God asked. God locks him in a dark cell and tells St. Peter to bring the angel bread and water, but not to let him out for 24 hours.

St. Peter hears the angel cry and feels pity, so he asks God to just let it slide this one time. God puts his foot down and says, “No,” otherwise everyone will get the wrong idea and do whatever they want. “In heaven, I’m in charge!” he says. So St. Peter leaves.

But in the dead of night, when everyone is fast asleep, Mary sneaks by and brings the angel tangerines.

Here’s an English translation of the Neapolitan poem, A Madonna d’ ‘e mandarine:



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