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Celebrating Mary in Jerusalem

text and photographs by George Martin

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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.

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