My last assignment before coming here was Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a small Italian parish. When it was founded it served the Italian people of the area, many of whom were immigrants who did not speak English and who wanted a parish that preserved the customs of their native Italy.
Mount Carmel evolved into a place that was like a living scene imported from Italy. And that included processions.
There were three during the summer months — Mt. Carmel, Saint Sebastian and Saint Donato. Saint Sebastian was the most memorable. The Society of Saint Sebastian Martyr occupied a store front space across the street from the church. It was there that the men had their meetings, played their cards and placed their bets to the bookie.
It was also there that they planned the annual Feast of Saint Sebastian. The day came and hundreds of people lined the street in front of the church. A Mass was celebrated and when the consecration took place, a man at the door of the church gave a signal as soon as the host was raised. Fireworks were set off and a band struck up a song.
After Mass, the procession began as the statue was carried down the steps of the church and on into the street. It slowly moved past the food vendors and the rides and beneath the banners that were strung above between lampposts on opposite sides of the street.
The people followed — hundreds of people, young and old, men and women. The band played and the people moved up the street and through the neighborhood.
That was many years ago and I know that in recent years the popularity of the feast has waned. The neighborhood has become gentrified and the parish is struggling to survive. But the procession is scheduled to take place again this summer.
The anthropologist Victor Turner spent many years studying rites and rituals that involved the movement of people, movement such as that which is found in processions. He studied groups in many diverse cultures, comparing their rituals, noting the commonalities and differences.
He concluded that despite the variations of themes, what seemed to be commonly held among all the groups was a need to walk in the way of God, to imitate the way God seemed to be in their midst. It was a way to share in God’s life, going on a journey, carrying a sacred object, moving toward a sacred place.
Much like we are doing this morning. We carry the body of Jesus and do so in a moving representation of him. We carry Him; He carries us. We move with Him, believing that He lives and moves within us, bringing us forward day in and day out until we reach our home in Him.
Processions hold a wealth of meaning, a meaning that is best known through movement.
I remember the man at the feast, the one who gave the signal for the fireworks. He stood just outside the door of the church awaiting his cue. I do not remember his ever entering the church on the feast day or any other day. But he was faithful, his attention riveted to the raising of the host, the raising of the Lord.
Then he would walk down the steps and wait for the procession to begin. He played his part and played it well. And it would be a year before I would see him again. He slipped back into his life, moving from day to day in all the processions and rituals that life offers. Moving in and with the Body of Christ in this procession of life, carrying in his heart the God who carried him.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.