Rorate Caeli

Musings on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel - by Father Richard Cipolla

Last year I made the double pilgrimage for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel:  first to the parish dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Newark, New Jersey, once a strong Italian parish with roots that extended to the Old Country and the devotion to Nostra Signora di Monte Carmelo, and then over the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan to the Midnight Mass for her feast at her parish on East 115th Street in Manhattan.  This year I was not able to make this pilgrimage, and I regretted it.  For making this pilgrimage resonated with where I grew up, in an Italian ghetto in Providence, Rhode Island, a section called (ironically) Federal Hill, a Wasp name for a place where everyone spoke some dialect from southern Italy, where there were four Catholic churches in a row in less than a mile, three of which no longer exist.   I remember walking on Atwells Avenue on a hot summer night when it was impossible to sleep in a small bedroom on the third floor of our tenement house.  I remember passing each church, each church with its doors wide open, and peering in and seeing the flickering of the hundreds of votive lights.  I was at that time an Italian-American boy of ten years old, with the distinction of being Protestant in a local world that was so very Catholic that surrounded me. How my family became Protestant is still a mystery, whether in Italy after the Risorgimento or when my grandfathers came to this country.  We were deeply Italian, despite our virulent anti-Catholic Protestantism.  Our ministers were all ex-Catholic priests, who would give half hour sermons, half of which would be rants against the Catholic Church.  We never ate meat on Friday.  The fish truck would come to our neighborhood, the pescivendolo would get out of his truck and blow his horn, and all the housewives in their housedresses would come down the stairs and buy fish, usually cod, for seventy-nine cents a pound.  We had home-made zeppole on St. Joseph’s Day.  We had a feast of seven fishes on Christmas Eve.  But after the meal we did not go to Midnight Mass.

But I remember the devotion to our Lady of Mount Carmel in our neighborhood, with the procession with the statue, Mary holding her Child.   I remember the fireworks when her statue came out of the church to begin the procession.  So how could I not be moved when as a Catholic priest (mirabile dictu!)  in Newark last year when the image of our Lady of Mount Carmel was carried outside of the church and was greeted with a riotous (albeit smaller than in the old days) display of fireworks, honoring her with light and sound.  And how wonderful to see the procession stop at people’s houses and have the family come out and give an offering in her honor—yes, pinning money onto her statue, something so un-American, so un-American because so un-Protestant.  And the Solemn Mass in the church, with a number of young priests who were discovering the Tradition of the Catholic Church. And then over the bridge to the Midnight Mass on 115th street in Harlem, to a parish so intimately involved with the Italian immigration of the early twentieth century and that played such an important role in the survival of the Italian immigrants in New York City, the home of the Papal Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.   There were not many Italians in the congregation at the Solemn Mass (of course Traditional Mass) in Harlem.  There were mostly Haitians.  But they sang the Missa de Angelis with a fervor and resonance that I will never forget.  Again there were young priests and seminarians from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut who were discovering for themselves the stuff of Catholicism, the smell of Catholicism, the uniqueness of Catholicism, the real ethnicity of Catholicism that transcends language and culture and time and space.

The first Archbishop of this country, John Carroll, wrote to Rome at that time that the United States was a radically different country and milieu when compared to Europe, and that the European model of Catholicism would not play well in a country that was both Protestant and secular.  Many years later, in the peculiar euphoria after World War II, the Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray wrote a famous book called “We hold these Truths”, in which he claimed that the religious “freedom” in the United States was and would be in the future a positive milieu in which the Catholic faith would flourish. Both Archbishop Carroll and John Courtenay Murray were right in their understanding that the United States was a different world from that of Europe and that how things were done ecclesiastically in Europe would not work well in the United States.  Both can be understood as vindicated by the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty, Humanae Dignitatis. But the past fifty years has shown that the Catholic Church in the United States was and is no match for the steamroller of a Protestantism that inevitably led to anti-Christian secularism. The debilitating decline in the number of priests in this country after the Second Vatican Council and the accompanying precipitous decline in regular Mass attendance among Catholics is a fact.  But it is also a fact that the bishops refuse to face and talk about except in general terms the radical secularization of society and its effect on the Church.  The sexual scandals within the clergy have been an affliction of decades at this point and are not at an end. The silence of the bishops on the current attacks from within the Church on the teaching of the Catholic Church based on Scripture and Tradition is so very depressing. And now, how can one even begin to cope with the silence of the bishops on the Instrumentum Laboris of the upcoming Amazonian Synod, which reads like an uneducated version of Alice in Wonderland and which has little to do with the Catholic faith, at least understood in terms of the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus Christ?  My guess is that most of our bishops have never read this document and never will.  They have more local fires to put out that have nothing to do with the Catholic faith.

I thank God for the presence of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in my priesthood and my life.  That presence and its meaning is difficult to explain. But I know it is there. And I know that she continues to enrich and strengthen my priesthood, and in these most difficult times in the Church she fills me with great hope.

Nostra Signora di Monte Carmelo, prega per noi.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla