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Sermon for the Feast of San Gennaro (St. Januarius): Preserve Catholic Culture!

by Fr. Richard Gennaro Cipolla

September 25, 2016
Church of the Most Precious Blood
and National Shrine of San Gennaro
New York City

And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.  Luke 7:37

What a wonderful thing to come to this church of the Most Precious Blood and the shrine of San Gennaro to celebrate this Solemn Votive Mass of San Gennaro!  This church is redolent with a century’s worth of religious and cultural memories centered around the feast of San Gennaro.  We know little about the saint’s life, but the most important information comes from St. Paulinus of Nola, who said:  he was bishop as well as martyr, an illustrious member of the Neapolitan church.”.  San Gennaro was martyred in the Diocletian persecutions, together with Festus, his deacon, and others from the Naples area.  But what everyone knows about him is that his blood, put into 2 vials by a pious woman after his beheading, liquefies on his feast day and two other times in the year.  So we can imagine what went on in Naples this past Monday, as the crowds gathered at the Cathedral to witness the liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood.  The Church blesses this celebration but has no official statement on this phenomenon.

But why are we celebrating this Mass and this feast so far from the city of Naples?  Because of the Italian immigrants from the Naples area who came to New York City during the waves of immigration from the late nineteenth century to the first part of the twentieth century.  They came here to escape the poverty in Southern Italy.  What they found here often was not that much better, as Mother Cabrini found out and then ministered to these people in such a wonderful way.  But they also brought their religion with them, as well as the food from the Naples area.  An integral part of their Catholicism was the feasts and fasts, especially the feasts, that are an important part of being Catholic and the manifestation of the Catholic faith.

I remember growing up in Providence, RI, in what was an Italian ghetto. I did not know I lived in a ghetto.  All I knew was that everyone around me spoke Italian, or rather some southern dialect, and everyone ate endless variations of pasta and things that Americans would never eat like squid.  I remember the processions in the streets with the statue of the saint being carried by men in special and colorful dress, the marching band, many altar boys, priests in their cassocks, surplices and birettas, the pinning of the dollar bills on the statue as offerings for the poor, the smell of the food in the carts in the street waiting to be devoured, the old nonnas dressed in black with their fans, the eyes of those who came from Italy moist with remembrance of the towns and villages that they came from, the children whose minds were being filled with memories of sight and smell and sound.  I was an onlooker to all of this, not a participant, for my family were Protestant.  Both of my grandfathers, who grew up as Catholics in Italy, became Protestant at some time in their lives, and like all Italian Protestants, were violently anti-Catholic.  My family always made fun of these festas and of the procession. They declared it as an example of idolatry and pagan superstition, and thanked God that they had been delivered from that debased form of Christianity called Catholicism.  But try as they could, they could not wash out that cultural Catholicism from their lives, for the food they ate, the language they spoke, the customs they observed were all derived from the Catholic faith in which they had all grown up.

But the opposition to public feasts did not come only from a handful of Italian Protestants.  It came from the Protestant soul of this country, where religion was understood as a private matter and involved going to church on Sunday and that was it.  In this privatization of Christianity, Protestantism paved the way to the secularism with which we are now surrounded.  Protestantism demands a strict demarcation between the sacred and the profane, with the result that the profane takes over the world.  Neither Jonathan Edwards nor the slick tele-evangelists of our time would have been at home at the wedding feast at Cana nor at the dinners with the tax collectors and publicans nor at the dinner at which the prostitute anointed Jesus’ feet with costly aromatic nard.

But the opposition to street Catholicism came also from the Catholic hierarchy at that time.  The Irish hierarchy, especially of New York, certainly were strangers to processions and such things, because of the religious situation in Ireland, which ironically forced them to assimilate the Protestant attitude towards the sacred and the profane. The hierarchy had made their peace with the Protestant soul of this country, and so they were disturbed by these displays of religion outside of the church building, where the sacred and profane were on display for all to see.  And especially all of this in its Italian immigrant form, which was not always, shall we say, in the best of taste.

The San Gennaro festival began as a lay initiative in which owners of local cafés organized a small festival in honor of the saint.  It grew to something that was an integral part of the life of New York City. And it was always that promiscuous mixture of the sacred and the profane that at once repelled and fascinated those who came down to Little Italy to take part in their own way this singular event.  And yet by the time of the 1970s the festival had taken on those dark overtones that Martin Scorsese depicted in his wonderful film, Mean Streets, where organized crime in the form of small time Italian hoods, are not merely involved with the festival but also, and more importantly, already do not understand its roots and its meaning for the first and second generation immigrants.  The irony is that the popularity of the San Gennaro festival undermined that ethnic culture that understood the sacred roots of these traditions and the relationships between family, religion and food.

The destruction of ethnic Catholic culture, whether it be Italian or German or French and even the Hispanic culture in this country that is being diluted at a dizzying pace as we speak, is part of why contemporary Catholicism in this country is often a pale imitation of secular culture although with an appreciation for upholding basic moral norms.  And this is not merely a cultural problem. This is a spiritual problem.

It means so much to me to celebrate this Mass today at the San Gennaro festival which saint’s name was that of my grandfather and given to me as well.  My Italian heritage is a deep part of the person I am.  But I fully recognize that the Catholic faith transcends ethnic culture; that’s what Catholic means.  We cannot bring back that peculiar integration of family, religion and food that marked ethic cultures of the past.  But we must never forget that what bound all these ethnic cultures was the Mass we are celebrating here today. It is the Traditional Roman Mass in Latin that both transcended and bound these cultures into the one Catholic Church.  This Mass is the distillation of many cultures for almost two millennia and therefore is the fertile womb even in our secularized world for the re-flowering of Catholic culture.  This Mass is the antidote to the decomposition of Catholicism into a porridge fit only for a baby with no taste.  Let us ask the intercession of San Gennaro that the bishops and priests of the Church come to understand and love the Mass of  Catholic Tradition as the soil in which Catholic culture will re-flower and fill the whole world with that peculiar fragrance that is a mixture of sausage and peppers and the costly ointment with which Mary Magdelene anointed Jesus’ feet.

San Gennaro:  prega per noi.