With a little help from Mary, faith overcomes lockdown

One parish has found a way to honour the Blessed Virgin despite the severe limitations of lockdown in Sydney

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St Gertrude’s Smithfield Assistant Parish Priest Fr Peter Strohmayer OSPPE stands in front of the fence surrounding the parish grounds on 14 August, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption. In just one week parishioners have transformed the fence into a shrine made up of hundreds of images of Mary and of Marian icons and shrines from around the world. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

St Gertrude’s Parish in Smithfield might be shut like churches all over Sydney – but a little thing like a pandemic hasn’t stopped parishioners from celebrating their love for Mary on one of her special feast days.

In a remarkable display of devotion, parishioners have decorated the parish perimeter with several hundred images of the Blessed Virgin to mark the Feast of the Assumption, celebrated today on 15 August.

The images are of paintings, statues and icons of the Blessed Mother from all over the world.

Members of the Portolesi family, including siblings Claudia, Angelina and Tony Portolesi decided to visit the parish on Saturday evening, the vigil of the Feast, to view the spectacular display and read through the dedications and prayers of thanks to Mary for her intercession in parishioners’ lives. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Good idea blossoms into a big thing

Siblings Claudia, Angelina and Tony Portolesi decided to visit the parish on Saturday evening, the vigil of the Feast, to view the spectacular display and read through the dedications and prayers of thanks to Mary for her intercession in parishioners’ lives.

Although severely limited by the lockdown, many also donated flowers, electric lights and other shrines as a way of spiritually coming together as a community and overcoming the isolation of living in a pandemic.

Assistant parish priest Fr Peter Strohmayer OSPPE, a member of the Order of St Paul the First Hermit, said the idea began about a week ago.

A close-up photo shows some of the hundreds of images of Mary from all over the world now decorating the perimeter of St Gertrude’s Parish in Smithfield. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

It’s started with flowers

Following a lead from fellow assistant parish priest Fr Wojtek Sliwa OSPPE, some parishioners started to place floral tributes “and it grew from that – it was their initiative,” he told The Catholic Weekly.

And while it had begun with flowers for Mary, images soon began to follow.

“We invited parishioners to place images of their national and cultural shrines and it ballooned from there,” he said.

“It kept growing and growing – it’s still growing this morning.”

Mass for Australia livestreamed from Poland

“It’s about unity,” he told the paper. “No matter what image of Mary we have she’s the same one who unifies us all, the one mother we all have.”

A special Mass for Australia was also due to be celebrated and livestreamed on Youtube at 4pm on Sunday afternoon from the mother house of the Order from Jasna Gora in Poland.

The Mass was to be offered for Australia as it struggles to deal with the outbreak across numerous states of the Delta variant of Covid.

Mary is depicted in a stained-glass window at St Mary Church in Manhasset, New York. The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15 August, celebrates church doctrine that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven at the end of her life. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz

An ancient Christian belief

The Feast of the Assumption is widely celebrated as a major feast throughout almost all Christian denominations with the exception of evangelical and Pentecostal protestants.

It celebrates the ancient Christian tradition – and strongly held conviction – that as Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin because of her future role as the Mother of God, she was also uniquely free from the consequence of human death resulting from Adam and Eve’s rejection of God’s will.

As such, she was ‘assumed’ body and soul directly to heaven without dying.

Proclamation as a dogma

Tradition indicates Mary’s Assumption may have taken place in Jerusalem about the year AD49, shortly before the first Council of the Apostles and after Mary had lived in the care of the apostle John for about 19 years after Jesus’s death and Resurrection.

Peter, John and James the Just were present in the city at about that time when Paul returned there after his first missionary journey. While there is no incontrovertible evidence, it is possible that almost all the apostles were present for the occasion with the exception of James the son of Zebedee, who had already been martyred by that time.

The dating and the occasion are not historically provable because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, yet some historians have noted that the Assumption is strongly indicated by the absence of any tradition of a burial place for Mary or any veneration of relics thought to be hers, combined with the tradition of her “falling asleep” (the Dormition) in Jerusalem.

In 1950 Pope Pius XII infallibly declared the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Catholic faith.

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