Monday, January 02, 2006

Joy in Mummerville

For the uninitiated, this is what a Fancy Float looks like. And the gentleman pictured is, indeed, pulling it. (It's on wheels, but still... you try doing that when you're 83. More photos available here.)

Good morning, Buon Anno a tutti, and greetings to the world from Two Street!

Having spent yesterday watching men in makeup and dresses with sequins dance across the streets of my hometown, it's just good to know that we've made it to another year. Time is God's blessing, and the more of it you get to experience in this life, the more blessed you need to feel, the more grateful you need to be, and the more reason there is to celebrate his goodness, his mercy and his love.

This was the message of Saturday night's Mummer's Mass celebrated, in an innovation, by its highest-ranking ecclesiastical attendee to date: Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McFadden of Philadelphia, himself a prince among men.

Yet again, the parish of my baptism was filled to teeming with Mummers and those who love them, with floods of the faithful flowing out the doors, standing along the walls, in the choir loft, hanging from light fixtures -- you get the idea. And McFadden, the rare Philadelphia prelate who can genuinely be called a "man of the people" (the bishop was a high-school basketball coach and social studies teacher before entering the seminary; he was informed of his episcopal appointment while "dozing off" and watching golf on Memorial Day 2004), took to the ritual of Irish South Philly like a fish in water. While watching it, I thought to myself, "Now this man knows what it feels like to be the archbishop of New Orleans... just without the Hurricane (and Bru-Bru)."

And what, you may ask, does a successor of the apostles wear for a liturgy at which the vesture most of the faithful will don the next day consists of sequins and ostrich plumes? Nothing but the best, of course -- choir cassock, pectoral cross suspended from the cord (under the chasuble, thank you very much), the archdiocesan concelebration vestment (made by the Holy Rood Guild, no sequins to be found), a Holy Rood mitre, heirloom gold crozier, and an alb with distintively Roman linen latticework (lines and crosses) to the thigh. (I was later told that it came from no less than Barbiconi.)

This is further proof of something I've said before and will say again: Welcome to Philadelphia. We don't do Pigshit.

For a crowd which easily exceeds 1,500 squeezed-in people, the Mummers' Mass always has a way of being a distinctively prayerful experience (no rush, healthy pauses of reflection) and an almost-unparalleled expression of the full, active and conscious participation cited as the raison d'etre of the liturgical reform of the Council. As it's still in the Octave, the music is always Christmas carols, so the congregation can (and does) sing easily along to songs they know and cherish -- the Mummers' music is always kept outside the confines of the liturgy, proper. And there's a distinct feeling of family in the room, as everyone knows everyone and the shared pride of continuing two sacred traditions is more than palpable.

The other day, I laid out a bit of the background on Mummery as a distinctively Catholic tradition -- about 90% of the 15,000 marchers are, indeed, Catholic. But, as always, I left a lot out.....


It's a tradition here early on New Year's morn that flocks of wenches -- who used to start the parade off as early as 7am in days past -- go around the neighborhood knocking on doors of the people they knew and screaming at them to get up. (As a victim of this practice, I can tell you it still happens. But, gratefully, the parade doesn't begin these days until 9.)

Once upon a different time, however, a group of Mummers were looking for any kind of leg-up they could get to take their division's prize on New Year's Day. So before joining up with the rest of their club, they went down to the Rectory and started calling before dawn for the young Curate (as parochial vicars were called in those days), Fr. Tom Wassel. Wassel was a simple, holy man, a son of the upstate coal regions who happened to find himself in the midst of the inner-city not long after his 1943 ordination. And once he settled in South Philly, he never looked back.

Wassel roused himself and came downstairs to see what was up. The marchers said they just came for his blessing, which he gladly gave.

According to the local legend, the marchers won their prize. And word spread among the Mummers -- ever-faithful, but also ever-competitive -- of the power of the priest's blessing. And every year, the practice would spread and spread and spread, and for the remainder of his vaunted era at the foot of Two Street, the Mummers' Priest would spend the early stretch of the morning presiding from his impromtu "reviewing stand" on the Rectory porch to pray with and bless the marchers, who would return the favor by serenading him with music and song. Wassel died a decade ago this April, but his shadow still looms large over the community he left behind. His legacy is evoked each year as a priest extends a blessing over the assembled marchers at the end of the New Year's Eve Mass.

Now, it must be said that -- much like hierarchs -- Mummery is often given to infighting. The Mummers can't even agree on one Mummers Mass -- another liturgy is held in late December at the Shrine of St. John Neumann, their patron. And one of the most closely-guarded elements of the enterprise is the annual picking of marching themes by the various groups (called "clubs") for the next year's parade.

Given the necessary preparations which must be made, these are usually decided by the clubs on 1 March at the latest. However, to avoid complications, it was decided that one person who all sides considered trustworthy and impartial needed to be chosen, someone who could keep the themes confidential, to notify a club if its preference had already been chosen, and to be sure that all submissions were in on time.

As no layman was thought fit to handle the task, Wassel was chosen to be the arbiter. Since his retirement, an Augustinian brother who serves at one of the local parishes has served two decades as Keeper of the Themes.

PHOTO 1: Akira Suwa/The Philadelphia Inquirer