Celebrating Mary’s Feast Throughout the World
The universality of the Catholic Church is one of its most impactful and beautiful facets. The very word “Catholic” comes from the Greek katholikos, meaning “universal,” and so even the very name of our faith is a strong indication of the comprehensive and all-embracing nature of Catholicism. Although the particulars of how the Catholic faith is lived and celebrated differ from country to country, the core beliefs remain the same, and so we are comforted in knowing that we remain in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church no matter where we are in the world.
Depending on where we are, the celebrations in Catholicism can differ. The celebration of feast days especially can be noticeably different across the world, so we may find traditions that are new to us but in fact have existed in that country for many years. It is especially noteworthy to think about how Mary, our Blessed Mother, is honored throughout the world. Since she is such a defining element of Catholicism, it is fascinating to see how she is celebrated in various places as the Mother of us all. Let’s look at celebrations in a few of these places and see how her feast days are recognized and honored.
History of Marian Feasts
Before we delve into the different ways in which Mary is honored throughout the world, it’s helpful to think and learn about how Marian feast days arose to begin with. Since Mary’s life on earth was so very intertwined with the life of Christ, it naturally makes sense that the earliest Marian feast days blossomed from the feast days integral to Catholicism, like the Nativity and the Presentation of Jesus.
The latter feast became one of the very first Marian feast days, since Mary’s humble acceptance of God’s will for her son was a significant aspect of the Presentation of Jesus. According to Jewish custom, the presentation of a child in the temple also coincided with the ritual purification of the child’s mother, since it was written in the Old Testament that a woman was considered unclean for some time after giving birth. Ever obedient, Mary humbly submitted herself to the law of God at that time, and was purified in the temple at the same time that she and Joseph brought Jesus to be presented to God.
This feast, known as the Presentation of Jesus and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, was celebrated in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century, at which time the liturgical year was beginning to take shape. We know a bit about the celebration of the Presentation and Purification through the writings of Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim woman. Egeria wrote that this feast was celebrated in the Holy Land with great joy, almost akin to the joy of the celebration of the Resurrection. Even in those ancient times, there are facets of the celebration that we recognize as modern-day Catholics, such as honoring the feast with a joyful yet dignified procession before the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
As the liturgical calendar took shape over the next several centuries and began to look more like what we presently know, the number of feasts honoring the life of Christ (and thus the life of Mary) increased. By the eleventh century, there were four major feasts associated with Mary: the Purification, the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Nativity of Mary. These feasts had been spread as far as England at this time in both the Eastern and Western rites. Particular celebrations continued to grow and develop over the next centuries, forming a rich liturgical history that can help us think more deeply about the core truths of our faith.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception Today
One of the most important Marian feasts that is celebrated in the Church is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8th. Although commonly confused with Mary’s conception of Jesus, this feast actually refers to Mary’s own person. The Catholic Church teaches that even from the very first moments of Mary’s existence, God chose her to be the mother of Jesus and was with her in a special way, protecting her from the stain of original sin and giving her all of the special graces she would need to carry out His will.
This feast is so important in the life of the Church because Mary’s sinlessness is inseparable from Christ’s redemption of all mankind. Mary’s fiat on the day of the Annunciation was integral as well, since God wanted Mary to be Christ’s mother of her own free will, but her Immaculate Conception set in motion on earth the plan which had existed from eternity – that God would become a man Himself and carry the weight of the sins of every person to ever exist, dying on the cross to redeem and save the whole of humanity.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception marks her as beloved among men, and is something of a prequel to the feast of the Annunciation (at which her “yes” to God was made known). This feast is thus regarded with great reverence in the Catholic Church, and is in fact so meaningful that it is liturgically a Holy Day of Obligation. Aside from the celebration of the Mass, many countries celebrate the feast with traditions and customs of their own. In Nicaragua, for example, it is customary to create altars inside of homes to show the family’s gratitude for the Blessed Virgin’s help in leading people closer to Christ. This feast is especially beloved in Nicaragua because the country is, by pontifical decree, under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception.
Other countries who have also been placed under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception include Spain, Uruguay, Paraguay, the United States, Korea, the Philippines, Argentina and Brazil. These countries honor the feast of their patron in various ways. In the Philippines, for example, there is a yearly procession on the first Saturday of December celebrating the Immaculate Conception. In this procession, approximately one hundred images and statues of Mary are collected from parishes and families and carried around the Spanish district of Intramuros, beginning at the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. This year in 2018, the 39th annual procession is expected to be held, illustrating the devotion that the Filipino people have towards their Mother.
The Unity of All Catholics
A thought-provoking question that arises from considering the celebration of Marian feasts is how all Catholics are still united in the same Church despite differences in celebrations. The fact that some countries celebrate feasts more prominently than others can cause us to ask this question: if the doctrine that the feast commemorates is equally important for all Catholics, why does each country or rite not celebrate the feast with equal attention?
To answer this question, it can be helpful to think about how God works in the lives of each one of us as individuals. For some people, a certain prayer or meditation may be especially impactful. Others may find much greater peace and a sense of prayerfulness in reading Scripture. The diversity of the members of the body of Christ is so great that it makes sense that different facets of the faith would help draw different people closer to God. Although the truths of the faith are universal, the way we contemplate and witness those truths in our lives can differ according to the differences in our souls.
Similarly, with different countries, specific feasts might carry extra weight according to cultural traditions and values. Seeing that the same feasts are celebrated differently from culture to culture emphasizes to us two of the very great things about Catholicism. The first is that the truths of the Church permeate the entire body of Christ, no matter the differences in language or custom. The second is that God has called all people to Him, values each of us as unique and beloved, and delights in the various gifts we can bring to Him. Thinking about the various celebrations of Marian feasts can help us think about our roles as members of Christ’s body, and contemplate the fact that Mary is a magnificent path to Christ for us all no matter where we are in the world.