Sunday, July 08, 2012

Midsummer Classics, Catholic Style

Even if the news has blessedly let up, it's worth noting that there are still Big Things Moving on the beat....

Just not the ones we're used to.

As the rhythm of the calendar goes, high summer always brings the year's big outbreak of devotional festivals -- a lost or unknown art in many places, but one that, where it's been perfected over a century or longer on these shores, serves as little else to bring the faith into the streets and reach that part of the world who wouldn't normally step inside (and, these days, likely many of this church's own, too).

Much as Corpus Christi processions remained well in evidence last month, while each of the later events includes at least one outdoor march (and usually more), these rites of summer are a different animal, extending over days as opposed to hours, their ritual side spilling into performances, games, merchants, amusement rides, sometimes fireworks… but always, in particular, old friends and good food -- and lots of both.

In short, it's the Catholic imagination-as-block party. And while St Anthony's Day in June makes for a popular start to the months-long roster -- the best-known of which is arguably mid-September's San Gennaro-fest in New York's Little Italy -- next week's feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel finds what is quite possibly the tradition's yearly peak nationwide, as scores of communities in the Northeast and Midwest launch another edition of the colorful inherited rites.

Even if Mount Carmel's in Israel and the site figured solely in the Old Testament, devotion to the Marian title has customarily run high elsewhere in the Mediterranean -- not just among Italians (who, even if we've got enough saints of our own, still tend to co-opt everyone else's), but likewise in Spain and on Malta, where large, long-standing celebrations of 16 July are still fairly common. Like so much else, the devotion wasn't left behind one bit when the members of the various communities emigrated to these shores -- if anything, the tributes' Stateside incarnations tend to be bigger, glitzier and more costly than their various European ancestors… and in more ways than one, Mt Carmel sees the annual appearance of its most massive proof.

While the feast is marked on one side of the Hudson by what's been called New Jersey's "best fireworks display"…

…these days in Brooklyn are indelibly observed with the emergence of the Williamsburg giglio -- the four-ton, 65-foot tower that forms the moving centerpiece of its 12-day Mount Carmel observance, its roots from Nola, hence the tandem honoring of the southern town's St Paulinus, whose statue tops the structure.

With a full band and priest standing on the platform attached to its front) the apparatus is "danced" around by a group of 112 bearers, their shoulders lugging it anywhere from 20 to 40 yards at a time.

Traditionally restricted to men both in the Old Country and its Outer-Borough offshoot, the rite of "dancing" the giglio has become such a sought task that a women's lift was instituted at the Brooklyn feast over recent years, and things have become so advanced that the celebrations are now livestreamed.

Ergo, for those who'd enjoy a the taste of the experience from afar, have at it:

Italians being Italians and all, the scene wouldn't be complete without a rival giglio and festival, which takes place in Harlem next month in honor of St Anthony.

* * *
Even as the old festivals offer up a time-honored shot of color and culture, in an era that's witnessing the most dramatic shift the Stateside church's makeup has undergone in nearly two centuries (read: you're living in it), the tradition is being duly added onto -- and, indeed, amplified -- by the new rising tides among the faithful.

After all, the biggest of today's Midsummer Classics isn't of European descent, but Asian -- early August's Marian Days in Carthage, Missouri, the five-day campout which draws upwards of 70,000 Vietnamese-American Catholics from around the country, swelling the community's usual size of 14,000.

Marking its 35th year next month, the Days (Mass-crowd, above) comprise the second-largest regular gathering of the nation's faithful, with the Mother of All Ecclesial Reunions now held in Chicago every 11 December, as roughly a quarter-million devotees of Our Lady of Guadalupe horde out to the suburban shrine dedicated to Mexico's patroness for the 36-hour outdoor mega-event that doesn't just mark the Morenita's triumphant feast, but arguably illustrates the faith's national future more powerfully than anything else.