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Sabina Castelfranco | Guardia Sanframondi, Italy 22 August 2010
Christian penitents known locally as "Battenti" beas themselves during a procession in honor of the Virgin Mary in Guardia Sanframondi, near Benevento south of Italy, on August 22, 2010.
Hundreds of thousands turned out for the final procession of a traditional penitential rite that takes place in the southern Italian town of Guardia Sanframondi every seven years. It is the largest self-punishment rite in the Western world.
From the early hours in the morning, tens of thousands of people gathered in the southern Italian town of Guardia Sanframondi. They wanted front row seats for the final procession dedicated to the Our Lady of the Assumption.
As temperatures soared on a very hot Sunday in August, there were a number of people who had to be medically assisted or taken away after suffering heat stroke.
During the so-called Day of Blood, more than 1,000 Christian men dressed in white and wearing hoods to hide their identifies beat their chests and strike their backs with spiked metal instruments. The rite honors the discovery of a Madonna and Child statue in a field hundreds of years ago.
One woman said its an extremely intimate gesture and that is why hoods are worn, because it is something between the person involved and the Virgin Mary. She said it is "our personal thing, inside, which does not need to be shown outside."
Participants believe they can reconcile their sin with God.
Guardia Sanframondi's penitential rite is the largest of its in the Western world and takes place here every seven years. Many have criticized it for being violent, but locals feel differently.
A local man told VOA it means so much for the people here and it is beautiful, exciting. He says there are no words to describe it because it is enough to see the people, how they think and what they feel.
Guardia Sanframondi Mayor Floriano Panza said this is a rite that has gone on for centuries and everyone in the town joins in. He said that here there are thousands of people who take on a role with great passion. For many of them it is a religious passion, for others it is a human and civil passion, taking part in the rite of a community. He says it is their identity.
Despite the blood, those who take part in the procession say they feel no pain, only happiness. Participants do not want to discuss their feelings. They say it is too personal. They also do not want people to interfere in what they have chosen to do. For them it is all about renewal and purification of the soul.
Father Filippo is in charge of the town's Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption. He said faith is of utmost importance, and without faith they would not have this rite every seven years in honor of the Virgin Mary. It is a special relationship the people have with this Mother who was given to us by her Son as he died on the Cross.
The phenomenon continues to grow as more and more people take part in the penitential rite. The next one will be in 2017.