Except for a few ethnic enclaves in the big cities, English-speaking Catholics are not used to public manifestations of their faith. The history of Catholicism in the Anglo world, persecuted and controversial, led many Catholics to be uncomfortable with what are often derided as “Latin” customs such as processions through the streets of statues, relics and images. Many Catholics of English and Irish heritage saw their faith in terms of the Mass, which was what was most virulently attacked by the Protestants. All of that other “stuff” was window dressing or frippery and foppery of various forms.
One thinks of the contrast between those two great figures of English Catholicism, John Henry Newman, whose faith was marked by intellectual orthodoxy and English understatement, and Frederick Faber, whose enthusiasm for Italian Baroque devotions led him to call the Virgin Mary Mamma from the pulpit in such a way that surely raised the frissance of his compatriots. Newman, like many English-speaking Catholics today, preferred sound preaching, rubrically correct liturgy, and orthodox teaching to what seemed like an overwrought emotionalism innate in Romance-speaking Catholic cultures.
This anti-devotional and anti-processional mentality has been aggravated in the last century by several factors.
The Liturgical Movement, in seeking to favour the liturgical processions of the rite books, looked askance at many traditions that were not “liturgically correct.” After Vatican II, the incessant drive for modernization drove not a few clerics to abandon, condemn and proscribe any kind of extraliturgical manifestation of the faith that has existed previously. As the theology of secularization marched onward, people even questioned the sense of having such popular exhibitions of piety as not in line with religiously tolerant democracies, ecumenism and secular culture. If the existentialists in France were right, then did the annual Pentecost pilgrimage of Catholics from Paris to Chartres not seem at best a relic of the past and at worst a provocation? In the quest to purify the Church of “triumphalism” the externals of the Church, from buckles on the shoes of cardinals to grand funeral corteges of public persons were all excised in the name of “noble simplicity.”
At the same time, there has been a growing feeling in the Church that we are lacking something of community in our parish life. American Catholics no longer live in urban ghettoes where people define themselves by the name of their parishes. Some lament that their church feels “cold” to them, not warm and welcoming, and there are many Catholics who are desperate for some sense of belonging, of community, of family in a world where there is increasingly less a sense of all three.
So some parishes have formed welcoming committees; others have eager greeters at the door who repeat “Good morning, welcome to our faith community!” with a smile and then give you songbook, bulletin, worship aid, missalette, pastoral letter, survey and parish financial handbook all in one bundle; others have people shake hands and introduce each other at the beginning of Mass. The desire to respond to a real human need is genuine, and parishes must be centers of Christian charity and welcome. But so often these initiatives, as sincere as they may be, do not always build community in the way they are hoped to do.
But look at what it takes to pull off a procession! What a tremendous opportunity not only to involve all the different levels of parish life as well as incarnate the reality of the Christian witness in the midst of the secular city, or suburbia, or farmtown.
I will only give you a few examples of processions I have participated in and what I have learned from them.
Vieste, on the Adriatic Coast of Italy, is one of a number of towns that Saint Paul is supposed to have visited. Saint George is the patron of the city, and the city takes it seriously. I knew I was not in American anymore when I lined up with the throngs of clergy in cassock and surplice behind all manner of confraternities, sodalities, and parish groups and walked for two hours behind the Archbishop who held the relic of Saint George. Those who were not part of the procession or on the streets unfolded bedsheets out of the windows, or carpets, anything to decorate the space of their houses as the relic passed. Rose petals rained down from on high as we made our way through the streets. The Archbishop then celebrated Mass in one of the large parishes, and while the faithful prayed, the clergy prepared omelettes for the faithful on hot plates scattered all over the sacristy so the faithful had something to eat after Mass. Never have I seen the dictum ubi Missa, ibi mensa taken so literally! What a delight it was to see the clergy serving these home-made omelettes to their parishioners on paper plates, but there was no time to waste, for Saint George had to go back home, and so the procession started up again.
At a certain point, the procession stopped, in the middle of the hot blazing sun, for fireworks that would be invisible to anyone save the onorato of the feast. The gentlemen carrying the enormous statue of Saint George began to turn the statue in the direction of the fireworks. The Archbishop, in accord with the newly Vatican-issued Directory of Popular Piety, protested this act of superstition, and a melee insued. Finally, Saint George got to see his fireworks as the Archbishop, smiling, pastorally allowed this rubrical deviation to the delight of all present.
What did I learn from this spectacular event? I learned that a procession could involve everyone in the parish, bring everyone together, and by its nature, it has to involve civic authorities. There is a lot of work to be had in granting permissions, security, and all of the organization of such an event. I meditated on the fact that the sound system was blaring the words of the Gospel and prayers into shops, apartments and office buildings. The Word was being preached and community was being formed all over town. It was a work of evangelisation. Think of the fact that those few words of Sacred Scripture, those words of comfort and consolation, may have reached people who needed to hear them at that moment, something that never would have happened if the faithful were just in church at Mass for the feast.
I also noted that while the clergy were present and hierarchy was respected (there was a place for everyone and everyone was in his place) this was a lay-driven event. The sensus fidelium was expressed, not by dissenting theologians who like to deem their own opinions as such, but by the devotees of Saint George all over the city who gave their time, talent and treasure to God in an admirable sacrifice of themselves. In doing so, friendships were formed, the communion of the Church strengthened, and God was glorified. And note that it was the laity who made sure that Saint George got to see his fireworks, in a magnificent display of the power of simple piety over boring rationalism perpetrated by the clergy!
I have seen many a grand procession in my time: the princely Abbot of Monte Cassino receiving the keys of the city from the Mayor in medieval dress for the Feast of Saint Benedict, men throwing lira at the Madonna del Carmine in Trastevere with wild abandon knowing the money was going to the poor beloved by their Mother Mary, the stately procession down the Via Merulana of a sickly John Paul II at Corpus Christi the year before he died. There are too many to count. But I have to tell you some more!
The parish behind the Vatican is dedicated to Santa Maria, Madre delle Grazie. The Blessed Mother’s feast is considered so important in this parish that, under the shadow of the cupola of Saint Peter’s, the year that I experienced it, it trumped Pentecost (I can see the liturgists frothing at the mouth already, but I also rejoice in the fact that not a few Vatican Masters of Ceremonies have also participated in the life of this wonderful parish without blinking an eye at such a preposterous notion as such a minor feast having precedence over Pentecost!). The procession through the streets of the neighborhood was like any other Roman parish procession, but with one touching exception.
Every time the large icon passed by the apartment of someone in the parish who was sick, the pastor stopped the procession, the band ceased to play music and the clergy carried the icon up the elevator to whatever floor the homebound Christian was living on, and we brought the icon of the Mother of Grace to visit her Son in the sick and the dying while the faithful prayed the Rosary outside. Invariably, we were asked to stay for coffee or a shot of grappa, and finally Don Romano once had to say, “Honey, we are in the middle of a procession. We gotta go, but the Blessed Mother had to come see you,” and we were off to start the procession again.
This was not an orderly procession like that of choirboys in Westminster Abbey. It was total chaos. But all of those people, alone and suffering in tiny apartments, were able to know in a real way that the Church cared for them, that they were valued and that their prayers were just as important as those who were part of the event itself.
The connection between Church and the civic arena, liturgy and life, devotion and the sacraments (a quick Anointing of the Sick could be administered here and there, too!), came alive by means of this procession. In towns all over Italy, the ordination of a priest and its accompanying processions, showed the same connections. I saw not a few times the traditions surrounding the First Mass of a newly ordained priest in Italy.
The morning of the First Mass, the seminarians of the diocese would wake up the newly anointed alter Christus at his parents’ house by serenading him and accompanying him to the start of – guess what – a procession! The (invariably Communist) Mayor of the town would pronounce a discourse on how proud the town was to have a new priest, one of their own, and the newly minted Father’s parents walked with him (a police escort and a band by his side) with everyone else to his home parish, where his pastor, presumably the one who saw him off to the seminary in the first place, would place a stole around his neck and lead him to the altar to prepare for Mass. After Mass, everyone would come up to kiss the palms that had been chrismated the day before and then go off to a buffet dinner for the whole town where everyone was invited and no one excluded.
These processions don’t have to be just manifestations of regional eccentricities or provincial folklore. They can be a powerful means of linking the local Church with the Church of Rome and the Pope. There is a reason why the Cross of World Youth Day, perhaps taking a cue from the Olympic Torch, is making its way through Spain right now. Last night I gathered together with hundreds of people I have never met in my life to “welcome” this Cross on the Avenida Carlos III in Pamplona, Spain.
The youth of all of the parishes in the city served as volunteers in the procession, bringing along some of their non-practicing friends to help out as well, which was a Via Crucis down the principal streets of the historical center.
The Archbishop was there, the clergy were there, but it was the youth of the city who made this happen. And they did an excellent job. The Cross arrived at the Chapel of San Fermin, the patron of the city, underlining the connection between the Pope and the Roman Church and the local church. And the youth spent the whole night in adoration and prayer before the Archbishop said Mass this morning and the Cross traveled elsewhere to inspire others to take up their Cross and follow Jesus.
These public manifestations of faith are a lot of work, make no doubt about it. But they also encourage leadership, teamwork, and communion.
Can they be sources of tension at times? Sure! But in a world where the streets are filled with the noise of rap music and debauchery, images of sex and consumerism, and sights of human misery and contempt, is this not the time to offer an alternative? Maybe it’s the lilting chant of litanies or World Youth Day ditties, maybe it’s fireworks in the middle of the day to honor saints or icons being brought to the sick to kiss, or the contentment at the end of a day well spent of people whose faith has been renewed, but whatever it is, it is a beautiful thing to behold when Christians bring their faith to the city, when Jesus passes through the streets of today just as he did 2000 years ago in Jerusalem.