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Bishop Richard Umbers: Let’s bring back processions

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In imitation of the celebration of Our Lady of Fatima each year in Portugal, three children were chosen to process as the shepherd seers. White handkerchiefs were waved by crowds farewelling Our Lady from the forecourt. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
In imitation of the celebration of Our Lady of Fatima each year in Portugal, three children were chosen to process as the shepherd seers. White handkerchiefs were waved by crowds farewelling Our Lady from the forecourt. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Earlier this year, Dr Tom Elich, editor of Liturgy News, asked how we might rehabilitate the tradition of processions in the life of the church in Australia. This followed upon his observation that we readily take to the streets to make a point, singing and marching with placards and banners.

Since World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney we have walked with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi. Last night’s beautiful Rosary procession around the cathedral has been another occasion for us to process.

Having attended the celebration of Holy Mass, and hearing the word of God proclaimed, we lifted up a statue of Our Lady of Fatima on the shoulders of a number of faithful, celebrating her triumphant status as a citizen of heaven with a yes that brought us Jesus Christ.

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We all walked together, united in our awareness that her example of a generous response to the Holy Spirit is the way in which we might become saints.

The impetus to hold a procession of lighted candles behind this statue came out of the famil trip to Portugal last September to scope out the cities in advance of the World Youth Day (WYD) pilgrimages in July of this year.

On October 13, 1917 the three little Shepherds, accompanied by their family, walked with an immense crowd to the spot of Our Lady’s apparitions.

They saw a great light, and soon afterwards, Our Lady appeared by the tree.

The celebration of this church-approved private revelation is very moving and we thought that it would be an ideal way for the pilgrims to WYD to prepare for their pilgrimage and their forthcoming experience in Fatima.

Thus it was that the procession on Saturday night followed exactly the prayers and hymns they we experienced in Fatima.  We even included the waving of white handkerchiefs as the final hymn, O Fatima, Farewell was sung!

Processions are an indispensable element of our Catholic tradition and identity. They symbolise our walking together towards the promised land, a “mini pilgrimage” towards God, with God, but also with one another.

Lit by the glow of their candles, thousands of people bore witness to the beauty and richness of their devotion to Our Lady of Fatima as they processed in song and in prayer outside of St Mary’s Cathedral on 13 May. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Lit by the glow of their candles, thousands of people bore witness to the beauty and richness of their devotion to Our Lady of Fatima as they processed in song and in prayer outside of St Mary’s Cathedral on 13 May. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

When we process we profess our faith as a community, and we give a public witness to it in a spontaneous and festive fashion. It’s hard to describe—you just have to be there—but it’s also a way of bringing other people in to walk with us.

The fruit of these experiences is regularly one of great peace and joy. People of various backgrounds, age groups, languages who pray and sing together, often carrying colourful banners remind us about the catholicity of the church—the Body of Christ is universal, and we need to actively participate in her life and liturgy, both internally (through prayer and worship) and externally (by words, gestures and actions).

This is why processions are mentioned and encouraged in the documents of Vatican II, the papal magisterium, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In the deepest sense, Catholic processions recall the processions that take place in the Holy Trinity itself: the Son proceeds from the Father, both in eternity (“before all ages”) and in time (through his incarnation).

The Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Father and the Son, both in eternity and in history, through his descent on the church at Pentecost.

The church has its origin in God, the Trinity, and in our lives it is we who proceed back to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

In a throwaway age, when we are often isolated and separated from each other, Pope Francis calls us to be an evangelising church: to accompany each another on our life paths and to go out to the peripheries of the church and the world; in other words, to walk together.

The church in Sydney wants to pick up this invitation and give it an external expression in the recovery of the beautiful practice of Catholic processions.

My thanks to Fr Chris de Sousa CRS, Kathy Campbell, director of chancery projects, and all those who worked so hard to make this occasion possible—I’ll be keeping you busy in the years to come!

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