By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Various types of processions are very much a part of our liturgical and devotional life, and so we reflect on their significance this week.
Frequent experience of processions
We may not realize it, but we frequently experience different kinds of processions in our lives as Catholics. The most common of these would be the entrance procession, which can be experienced in a very simple form at a weekday parish liturgy and in a more solemn form at the Sunday Mass. A small procession often takes place when the gifts are brought to the altar for their preparation, and we often see a procession leading the earthly remains of someone who has died up the aisle of our churches. In a more solemn manner, we experience liturgical processions, such as the procession with palms on Palm Sunday, the procession to the Repository on Holy Thursday, the procession with the Cross at the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, and the procession with the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil.
There are other forms of processions which we may call devotional processions and they are also a part of our life of worship. The greatest of these would be the procession with the Blessed Sacrament, which takes place at the close of the Forty Hours Devotion in our parishes and which often takes place on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, which is the great feast of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
This year, on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, several hundred boys and girls who recently received their First Holy Communion joined me in a great procession with the Blessed Sacrament at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, and our Holy Father took part in the traditional Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Rome.
In December, when the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe occurs, many members of the Hispanic community throughout our Archdiocese hold processions with that much-loved image of Our Lady. As we move into summer, throughout our Archdiocese our various Italian-American communities sponsor processions with statues and images of their particular patron saints. These processions take place in South and West Philadelphia, in Tacony and in Ambler, in Bridgeport (where I will take part in their procession this year), Conshohocken and Norristown (where, I understand, three different street processions take place!). Why do we make use of processions and what do they signify?
Our pilgrim journey on earth
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council quotes St. Augustine, who reminds us that the Church is “like a pilgrim in a foreign land, pressing forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God” (Lumen Gentium).
The movement of a procession may be said to be a summary and a reminder of this reality in our Christian lives. It is the Christian journey in miniature, highlighting the beginning, movement and goal of that journey. Continuing that imagery, we may ask ourselves what the necessary elements of any human journey are. If you are taking a trip or a vacation this summer, you may be familiar with these elements.
Every journey has a goal. We may, and should, take an aimless stroll at times. However, an actual journey has a goal. In reaching that goal, we need some direction, otherwise we will be hopelessly lost. During the journey, we need some type of energy source, such as food and drink for the body and an energy source for our means of travel, such as gasoline for the car. We also need something to occupy the time which the journey takes. These same elements are part of the liturgical or devotional journey, which we call a procession.
The beginning of a procession highlights whom we are honoring or invoking. We take Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament from the Altar, for example, or we take the image of Our Lady under one of her many titles, or of one of God’s friends, whom we call the Saints. We then “travel” with this companion, seeking the strength we need for our pilgrim journey on earth. We often accompany this journey with song or with prayer and with the greeting of those along the streets who witness our journey. This reminds us that prayer and charity are important elements of the Christian journey on earth.
The fact that our procession involves walking reminds us that on the Christian journey to heaven we must also practice some penance, joining with our Lord in His sufferings, as He has commanded, so that we may also share their fruits one day in heaven.
Public witness of our faith
A procession, by its nature, is a public event. The God who created the universe and all within it deserves our public manifestation of thanksgiving and adoration. It is also a way of invoking the aid of God, Our Lady and the saints upon the places and streets through which we process.
Commenting on this aspect of a procession, Pope Benedict XVI gave the following commentary at the time of the Corpus Christi Procession in Rome in 2005. He said: “We bring Christ, present under the sign of bread, onto the streets of our city. We entrust these streets, these homes, our daily life, to his goodness. May our streets be streets of Jesus! May our houses be homes for Him and with Him! May our life of every day be penetrated by His presence. With this gesture, let us place under his eyes the sufferings of the sick, the solitude of young people and the elderly, temptations, fears – our entire life. The procession represents an immense and public blessing for our city: Christ is, in person, the spanine Blessing for the world. May the ray of his blessing extend to us all!”
The Pope reminds us also of the necessity of asking our Lady and the saints to accompany us on our journey because he concluded this same homily by saying: “Let us pray to our holy Mother, so that she may help us to open our entire being, always more, to Christ’s presence; so that she may help us to follow him faithfully, day after day, on the streets of our life.”
Another aspect of a procession that makes it appealing to us is that we find ourselves in the midst of the wider, believing community of the faithful. We are encouraged and mutually supported by the prayers, faith and devotion of those who walk with us. This is a great reminder to us that, as people of faith, we are never alone.
We are joined with one another in the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church; Jesus promises us that He is with us always; we have the companionship of Mary, whom Jesus gave to us to be our own Mother; and we walk in the company of the Saints, the special friends of God whom we honor because of their great deeds and the inspiration of their lives.
The processions which we take part in here on earth always have an end. We return our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle, and we place the revered images of our Lady and the saints back into our churches and shrines. However, our earthly pilgrimage does not end with the conclusion of a procession. We walk in faith, as part of the Christian community and aided by God’s grace, toward our eternal goal, which is heaven. There, we hope to see Jesus, whom we have honored under the appearance of bread, face to face. There we hope to see His Mother, that “Star of the Sea,” who has guided us on our earthly journey, at the side of her Son. There we hope to be among the “friends of God,” the saints, whose images and lives we have honored on earth and whose lives we have tried to imitate.
8 July 2010