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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Celebrating Mary in Jerusalem

Catholics in Jerusalem celebrate their love for the Blessed Virgin during the Feast of the Visitation.

One memory of growing up Catholic in the 1950s in St. Paul, Minn., is of an annual rosary procession. Held the first Sunday in May, the procession followed Summit Avenue, the mansion-lined grand boulevard of St. Paul, to the cathedral. Loud-speakers were strung to lead the rosary and singing. Parishes marched together, led by their pastors and curates. Catholic high school students marched in their distinctive uniforms. Catholics from outlying areas as well as from St. Paul participated; turnouts of more than 20,000 people were common. Once the procession reached the cathedral, the Knights of Columbus formed a drawn-sword honor guard as the statue of Mary, the Mother of God, was carried up the cathedral steps.

Such massive public displays of faith are less common in the United States today, but are still a custom in other parts of the world. I was in the Holy Land last year for the Feast of the Visitation and saw how the Catholics of Jerusalem celebrated their faith and love for Mary.

During May, daily evening services were held in the parish churches of the Holy Land to pray the rosary and sing hymns. The Feast of the Visitation, which is observed on May 31, was celebrated as the climax of these month-long devotions. The Latin (Roman) Catholics of Jerusalem gathered at 5:00 P.M. for Mass in the Church of St. Saviour, the parish inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Michel Sabbah, presided over the celebration of the Eucharist and the rosary procession that followed.

Acolytes carrying a cross and censer led the procession, followed by Arab Catholic Scouts in uniform, with the smallest scouts first. Behind walked Jerusalem Catholics of all ages; some parents carried young girls dressed as the Virgin. Then the clergy processed with Patriarch Sabbah bearing an icon of the Mother of God. Behind them a statue of Mary, adorned with flowers, was carried by girls dressed in white, with an Arab Catholic Scout honor guard.

Keeping a watchful eye on all this were squads of armed Israeli soldiers. The contrast between their weapons – automatic rifles and tear gas launchers – and the religious symbols borne by the procession made an incongruous sight, but there are many incongruous sights in the Holy Land. Yet everything proceeded peacefully, with those in the procession seemingly ignoring the soldiers’ presence.

The procession made its way through the winding streets of the Old City, past windows and balconies decked with bunting and images of Mary. As the participants processed they prayed the rosary and sang Marian hymns in Arabic, the vernacular language of the church in the Holy Land. Their devotion was obvious.

The procession stopped three times at altars set up especially for the occasion: in the courtyard of De LaSalle High School, run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools; in the co-cathedral of Jerusalem, within the Latin Patriarchate compound; and in a courtyard within Terra Sancta, the Franciscan complex in the Old City. Patriarch Sabbah led the prayers at each stop, concluding the formal procession in the Terra Sancta courtyard.

But the evening had not yet ended. The younger participants now began their own procession, led by Arab Catholic Girl Scouts bearing the statue of Mary. The Arab Catholic Boy Scout marching hand – a colorful drum and bagpipe corps – brought up the rear. The scouts delighted in playing loudly, and their drumming and piping resounded off the stone buildings lining the narrow streets of the Old City. This procession of young people wound its way through the labyrinthine back streets of the Christian Quarter, continuing until dark.

I had never before seen so many young Palestinians out on the streets of Jerusalem. They were clearly having a good time as well as making a public display of their faith. It brought back memories of my having marched in similar processions many years ago. I tried to remember what it had meant for me, to help me understand what these young Catholics of Jerusalem were experiencing. Public displays of faith such as rosary processions are a mixture of different elements: devotion to Mary, certainly, but also a proclamation of one’s identity and an expression of pride in it.

I surmised the celebration of the Feast of the Visitation carried more meaning for the Catholics of Jerusalem than the rosary processions of my youth had for me. There were more Catholics than any other denomination in St. Paul and our processions were done in the psychological comfort of knowing that we were the dominant group in town. But Christians in Jerusalem make up only about two percent of its population and Latin Catholics, only a portion of that. It seemed as if every one of them had turned out for this public celebration of the Feast of the Visitation; being a tiny minority within the Jewish and Muslim majority did not daunt them.

Other factors gave additional meaning to their celebration. The rosary procession had been suppressed in Jerusalem during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. The procession was reinstated in 1994, after the Israeli-Palestinian peace process took hold. The 1994 celebration had been rather low key; it was only in 1995 that the Arab Catholic Scouts were allowed to participate. I had witnessed their return to the streets of Jerusalem after an eight-year absence.

Another factor: the Israeli celebration of Jerusalem Day had occurred just three days before the Feast of the Visitation. Jerusalem Day is an annual commemoration of the Israeli capture of the Old City and East Jerusalem during the 1967 war. Israeli youth groups had been bused in to march through the Old City, and that evening loud fireworks had kept the Christian Quarter awake until late into the night.

Now it was the Palestinians’ turn to march the streets of Jerusalem. When I watched the members of the Arab Catholic Boy Scout band playing their bagpipes and beating their drums with gusto it seemed to me they were proclaiming in music, “We’re still here. We’re Catholics. We’re Palestinians. And we’re proud of it.”

There had been a political dimension to the rosary processions in St. Paul as well. American Catholicism in the 1950s was staunchly anti-communist. It was no accident that our processions were held on May 1, the same day Russian communists held their annual May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square. Our processions had a slight air of being a counter-demonstration against the communists and we explicitly prayed the rosary for the conversion of Russia.

I noticed a great spirit of celebration in the Jerusalem procession. This was particularly true for the young people of Jerusalem: if the statue of Mary had not been the focal point of their procession, one might have thought the streets were filled with youth simply out having a good time. I found their enjoyment appropriate: the Hebrew word the ancient Israelites used for celebrating a religious feast carried connotations of “enjoying themselves merrily,” in the words of one lexicon.

That I certainly witnessed as I watched the Catholics of Jerusalem celebrate the Feast of the Visitation. Their devotion to Mary was unmistakable, but so was their joy in making a public proclamation of their Catholic Palestinian identity.

George Martin visits Jerusalem frequently.

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