For the past 141 years on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (16th of July) in my hometown of Hammonton, New Jersey, there is a procession through the streets of the statues of various saints that usually reside inside the local parish church. The faithful who are devoted to each saint distribute prayer cards of their patron as they process with the statues through the streets – St. Joseph, St. Anne, St. Anthony, St. Rita, St. Jude, St. Rocco, St. Lucy, St. Vincent Pallotti, and so forth. The Blessed Mother, while at the end under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, appears also in the procession under various names – Milagrosa, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception, whose Solemnity we celebrate today.
Sometimes, these various titles and ways of representing the Blessed Mother can be confusing for some of those who line the streets of the procession route. My mother, Angela, who has been part of the procession for over 50 years, makes a float with a large Rosary and a statue of the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception on it, although some would call the statue “Our Lady of Grace.” The statue, which is over 100 years old, is patterned after the image on the “Miraculous Medal,” around which is inscribed the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Since many who come to the procession are not necessarily practicing Catholics, my mother always offers a form of “street evangelization” to those who come to her float to receive a prayer folder that provides instructions on how to say the Rosary.
Since the statue of the Immaculate Conception is on a special float, many will come and ask if it is of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Sometimes, my mother is asked what the difference is between the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She responds cheerfully, “Same Lady, different dress.” My mother then goes on to explain why the Blessed Mother has so many titles. She also assists these curious onlookers in understanding how Mary offers us the greatest example of how to follow Jesus as his disciple. She helps them learn that Mary was prepared from the time of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, to receive Jesus and did so throughout her life.
We, too, are meant to be prepared to receive Jesus into our lives in an ongoing way, especially during the Advent season. We have not been conceived without sin, but we have been washed clean of Original Sin at Baptism (and all prior sin, if one was baptized as an adult). While we have all sinned since that time, our Baptism offers us a share in the mission of Jesus Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Though followers or disciples, he also sends us as apostles, or as missionary disciples, out into our challenging world to witness to him by what we say and do. The Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the best example of how to follow Jesus Christ. No matter what title of hers might appeal to us spiritually, she is always “same Lady, different dress.” She was the same in her following of Jesus during her life and continues from her heavenly home to invite us to follow her Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
The Catholic Apostolate Center is a ministry of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). The Pallottines and the Center staff will remember you in special prayer on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Summertime in the United States brings about a lot of great traditions. It brings longer days, shorts, flip-flops, trips to the beach, barbecues, and processions. Processions are large public demonstrations of faith and piety that have been handed down from generation to generation. In Italian American communities, processions are filled with music, color, and, of course, great food—lots and lots of great food. We celebrate in this way because our fathers did before us, and their fathers did before them. This summer I've already been able to attend to two processions and I look forward to a few more. I attended the 107th annual Festa Dei Ceri in Jessup, Pennsylvania, and the 112th feast of St. Anthony Italian Festival in Little Italy Baltimore, Maryland. Each has a long tradition and there are as many differences as there are similarities. At the core, each is a faith that is embedded within its community that is rich and deep.
Festa Dei Ceri, or simply St. Ubaldo’s Day, is a tradition that was brought from Gubbio, Italy by immigrants to Jessup, PA in 1909. Tradition states that in the early 1100s, Ubaldo Baldassini, the Bishop of Gubbio, met with Frederick Barbarossa , the Holy Roman Emperor who was on a military campaign in Italy, and convinced him not to invade and to spare the town from destruction. When the bishop returned with the good news, he was raced through the streets on a platform to reassure the town’s safety. The residence commemorated this event by racing a statue of him, along with statues of St. George and St. Anthony, through the narrow streets of the medieval town. Immigrants brought this tradition with them when they emigrated to Jessup in large numbers in the early 1900s. The Running of the Saints occurred from 1914 to 1952, then from 1976 to 1990, and has consistently been held since 2000 after being revived by local high school students. The day begins with the high school marching band waking the town up and calling them to Mass. After Mass, the statues which are about 30 inches tall are placed in 15 foot wooden structures that are designed to carry the saints and weigh about 400 pounds each. The saint statues are then blessed with holy water, first by the parish pastor or the Bishop of Scranton, then by the team captains and carried through the town by three different teams of men. A relic of St. Ubaldo is also processed and venerated with a significantly larger statue of him throughout the town. In the late afternoon, the three statues are then raced through the town at breakneck speed and over steep terrain. St. Ubaldo always wins, followed by St. George and St. Anthony. After the statues are removed and the platforms are disassembled, they are brought back to the church. The whole weekend is an expression of faith, family, and tradition.
A few weeks after that, I was able to attend the St. Anthony Festival in Little Italy in Baltimore, Maryland, which dates back to the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. While massive fire raged in parts of the city, parishioners gathered at Saint Leo the Great Church in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore. The parishioners prayed to St. Anthony for the protection of their neighborhood. Luckily, the neighborhood was spared. Many attributed this to the intercession of St. Anthony. The parishioners celebrated his feast day with a Mass, procession, and street fair which has continued ever since. Just five years after the beginning of celebration of the feast, the parish became a ministry of the Pallottine Fathers and Brothers. This year, I attended the events along with two Pallottine students in formation. The three of us served Mass and partook in the procession through the streets. Many people came out of their houses and cars to watch us. It was great fanfare with a full band, 4th Degree Knights of Columbus color guard, and a highly decorated statue of St. Anthony. Many people pinned money to strips of cloth tied around the statue as a small offering and prayer to St. Anthony. There was food, music, and an intense bocce ball tournament.
Each of the celebrations has a few core elements that all processions have. Processions are about faith and community. Processions help increase our faith by publically displaying various statues and images. It is a form of evangelization in the streets. At the same time, they help build community by calling all those together for a common cause. They reinforce not only our proud heritage and traditions, but also our faith. They promote our faith being celebrated together. Processions are also about the individuals' participation. Attending a procession invites us to feel that we are a part of the community and reinforces our own faith. When I go to procession, for example, I not only enjoy the fanfare, but am also reminded that my faith is connected to those around me.
I encourage you to seek out processions and bring your friends and family. Pray, eat, and enjoy each other's company. Processions can be beneficial for every group that continues the practice, not just the Italian American community. Ours just happen to have a bit more tomato sauce and wine than most! As the summer goes on, I look forward to many more processions and I invite you to go out and either attend or partake in a procession.