Every few years since the age of six, I’ve gone to Italy to see my family. My mother’s side lives on that small rock, kicked by the Italian boot, we call Sicily. There, between the ages of six and 19, I visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins and cousins and cousins and cousins. This summer, I did just the same, but I was blessed enough to also experience a beautiful part of Catholic life I as an American don’t often encounter: feast day parades.
Two days into my trip, I was trucked up to a church on a peak and told the procession was about to begin. Inside, it was loud and crowded. People weave in and out of the church, barefoot and hot, under the presence of a statue of Mary, dressed in gold and jewelry. Old Italian matrons, parked in their chairs, observed the crowd while fanning themselves in big sweeps, and chatting about how “mom” is visiting us once again.
Every year on July 2 the Sicilian city of Enna in Italy celebrates the Feast of the Visitation in special way. The men of the city shoulder a statue of the Virgin Mary known as La Madonna S.S. della Visitazione, or Our Lady of the Visitation, and carry her to a church on the other side of the city. Where she visits her cousin Elizabeth, also a statue of great beauty, in celebration of the good news. As they have done so since the 14th Century after the pagan cult of Ceres was replaced with this holiday honoring Mary.
Reveling in the fun and cool air from the altitude breaking the Sicilian heat, I could only think it was Mary that could make such an old holiday new every year with youthful joy for the people of this city and its surroundings.
My experience in the celebration began in the mother church where the men stretched their shoulders and toes to prepare for the burden that was to come and while visitors began to pile to take a close picture of Our Lady before she began her journey, like I did.
The statue, covered in pounds of jewelry given as thanks for graces by devotees, is the reason the men prepare for sore shoulders and aching feet. It’s heavy beyond belief and must be carried through treacherously sloped, cobbled and narrow streets. A picturesque, but often difficult feature of Italy.
At points the men must lower the statue almost to the ground so as to pass through certain streets, and this they do barefoot, too. For these men, the bare-footedness and the burden of the journey is all to honor Our Lady and give thanks to the Lord. They carry her, with every gold necklace adorned on her and prayer attached to her, because she carries us.
It is a sacrifice these sons of Enna take willingly every year. Even in 1943, when bombs were being dropped on Italy, this procession continued. Mary was certainly there that day protecting the townspeople as they scrambled to find the men to carry her to her visiting church before sundown.
Women, too, walked barefoot alongside their sons and brothers, to offer a small sacrifice or simply as an act of thanks.
The parade offered immeasurable joy in the crowds of spirited older women with rosaries in hand and children weaving through streets, trying to catch the next glimpse of the procession.
I felt that joy like a sigh of relief. Mary is often the Untier of Knots or the Merciful. She who knows suffering at its greatest. She who is many people’s first point of empathy. I go to her like I do to my mother, often for comfort.
On this occasion, I found Mary in a way I had not been acquainted well with. In the streets of Enna, I found Mary as the vehicle of joy incarnate. A blessing of hope in the high altitude of the tallest city on the island. She is a beacon and an example.
In a place like Sicily, this joy is welcome. The people of Enna, like all of us, look to Mary for strength and constancy, in a place where its often difficult to find either. Sicily is much loved by words and little by deeds. It’s during these festivals, honoring those who draw us closer to God, that these small Sicilian towns and cities, often languishing at the lack of employment and prosperity, have purpose once again.
And individually, I have purpose, too. Watching the men carry Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. Michael, I asked myself (and still do) how I glorify God. I may thank Him and pray to Him in the silence of my heart, but do I share His joy with others?
The Feast of the Visitation in Enna is my reminder of joy when I struggle to sing in Mass or reconsider saying an uncharitable word. The deepest parts of my faith will perhaps always flourish in private, but Mary, coming to show the world the greatest joy we can ever know, reminds me that it doesn’t hurt once and a while to let that fruit of that faith show.
Written by: Dolores Hinckley, Restless Heart Communications
Photos by: Dolores Hinckley, Restless Heart Communications