It all began on July 16, 1875 and has continued uninterrupted for 140 years in the town of Hammonton. It holds the distinction of being the longest running outdoors celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the United States. What a tradition! What a record!
It was an honor for me on the 140th anniversary to celebrate Mass with the members of the Society of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and to join the procession through the streets of Hammonton with hundreds of the faithful in attendance. I was delighted to accompany the members of the society who coordinate the event under the leadership of President Louis Pantalone. The Society works hard throughout the year to put together a great celebration of faith, family and community which keeps the tradition alive!
The procession wound its way around the town for about two and half hours. A procession is a journey as is life. In life we are pilgrims en route to our eternal destiny and we have guides, saints, who teach us how to live in this world as followers of Jesus Christ so that after this sojourn we arrive at eternal glory. Their holiness in life has been demonstrated and proven. When they lived the saints faced similar situations such as we face in our time. These blessed ones show us the way through this life to life with God.
In the Mount Carmel Procession images of Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Lucy Filippini, Saint Martin de Porres and others were wheeled through the streets. Frequent stops were made during the walk so that the faithful might express their prayer or present their petition to a particular saint. The holiness of the saints reminds us that holiness is our goal in life. At the end of the procession came the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Holy Mother of God who is holding Jesus in one arm as if she is giving Him to us while in her other arm is the traditional brown scapular associated with her.
During the walk many people requested prayers and asked for the Lord’s blessing. Clearly, the procession reminded them of their need for God in their lives which is a good thing given the rampant secularization in our society.
The 19th century ancestors organized this feast to thank God for their new homeland America and in gratitude for a successful harvest. With the beauty of their Italian culture, coupled with the strength of their Catholic faith, following the traditions from the old country, they organized a public display of faith and sponsored a time for family and community in honor of La Madonna di Carmelo. Fidelity to the Catholic faith, fidelity to family and fidelity to community are the foundations on which the feast was built and these same fidelities are as needed in the 21st century as they were in the 19th and perhaps even more.
Our Holy Father Pope Francis is coming nearby in September to celebrate family. As our teacher in the Catholic Faith, he will instruct us on the importance of family to society and to the Church. The Papal visit will be followed in Rome by a Synod on Family to which our diocese has had input through the consultation that occurred last year. Some in the media talk about changes in church teaching on family, sexuality and marriage coming out of that Synod. I doubt that very much. Often, church teaching is misrepresented and not understood.
However, there will be new energy focused on family, marriage and sexuality, as these issues face challenges unlike ever before in the history of humanity. The visit of the Pope and upcoming Synod on the Family will encourage the new evangelization for the family, sexuality and marriage.
I could not help during that procession to think how proud the original organizers of the feast would be to see their tradition alive. We owe them an enormous debt. Their immigrant stories continue to inspire and teach us about faith, family and community. May we see their example repeated in the situations faced by recent immigrants to our country. The newcomers also embrace faith, family and community as they seek a better life in the new world. Unfortunately, our country’s immigration policies and systems are broken and have resulted in unnecessary suffering on the part of immigrant and their families. It is time for a change. For this intention, we pray:
Our Lady of Mount Carmel pray for us.