Some time back I got into an online discussion with a woman who was complaining that her Christian beliefs were being “persecuted”—I never did find out how—by atheists. Now, I am a person of Faith and I know a lot of atheists and the closest I've come to being “persecuted” by them is when they say they don't know how I can believe nonsense. To me that beats being thrown to lions, but I digress. Anyway, while we were talking I told her about the many public expressions of Christian faith that take place in the town I live in all the time. She said she didn't believe me.
A large segment of Gloucester's population is Italian and they are very publicly Catholic throughout the year. In March they celebrate St. Joseph with feasts and special breads, decorated altars, prayers and song. In June there is a celebration of St. Anthony. In September comes my personal favorite when the Mother of Grace Club has a three day celebration during which their altar is moved out into the street, there is singing and praying and dancing and lots of food. But the most colorful and popular of all these celebrations is St. Peter's Fiesta at the end of June.
St. Peter's Fiesta actually begins 9 days before the public events begin with novenas in the homes of the participants. During this time, men build a stage in St. Peter's Square, a harborside marina downtown, just a few blocks from my house. Fiesta includes many activities: a road race, seine boat races, dances, a carnival, lots of food, dances, concerts, and the famous Greasy Pole walk. But at the heart of all the activity is religious devotion and gratitude.
St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen and we are a fishing town. At both the beginning and the close of Fiesta a statue of St. Peter is carried on the shoulders of fishermen through the streets of the town with music, singing and prayer. It is flamboyant, yes, but I find it deeply moving. I love the beauty of these expressions of faith. Often non-Catholics ask why Catholics “worship” saints and, during these celebrations, it might look like we do but that is not the case. To the Catholic mind, saints are our intercessors, they speak for us. The way I always explain it is that it is like instead of asking your dad for money to go to the movies, you get your mom to ask your dad for the money—it just seems friendlier. Of course we can ask ourselves but sometimes having a go-between is somewhat more reassuring.
So tonight St. Peter will be carried through Gloucester's streets to the altar where he will be honored for the next three days. This tradition has gone on for eighty-years and I hope it goes on for eighty more and then some. It is a beautiful, sweet, touching tradition that I love. So, as they say over and over here, “Viva San Pietro.” Buona Fiesta.
Thanks for reading.