When thinking about our Catholic traditions, the summertime brings to mind some of the less formal and more light-hearted customs centered around things like parish festivals. Such things seem to find their origins in the feast days of various saints, and also in the time of the year when planting and harvesting happen. Before the twentieth century, the great majority of people were involved in agriculture, and planting, weeding, cultivating and harvesting were all done by hand, so a day off from this constant and demanding labor was greatly appreciated. The occurrence of the feast day of the patron saint of the parish, or Holy Days like the Ascension of the Lord and the Assumption of Mary often provided very welcome opportunities to relax and enjoy a very pleasant season. Even as society changed from being primarily agricultural to industrial to post-industrial and beyond, the need for breaks from the usual routine of busy lives has remained and has become a part of the of contemporary culture as well.
The determination of when festivals and like events will happen are still often connected to the feast days of Saints and other Church occasions, the classic of which would be Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. This is one day (and often the better part of the week leading up to it) that is the occasion for all kinds of festivals and carnivals. Locally, here in the diocese of Cleveland many parishes host festivals at various times of the year. Some are celebrated to promote the ethnic origins of the people involved, so ethnic foods, dancing and other cultural activities are highlighted and draw many people to a particular celebration. So many of these celebrations developed from the idea of a “parish picnic” which was seen as a “community builder,” an opportunity for people to see each other outside of the context of worship and just get to know one another a little better as neighbors and friends. Hopefully that community building aspect of these celebrations remains even though in more recent years many festivals become a way of raising funds for the operation of a parish or school.
We are privileged to live in an area where there is a rich variety of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Learning other cultures and traditions by sharing in the foods of those various groups as well as deepening our understanding of their traits and customs can be accomplished in a very congenial way of taking part in the festivals and like opportunities that are offered throughout the year and especially in the summer.
Simple things can often have profound effects. On a parish level, getting to know one another better can only be a good thing and that extends out into the wider community as well. When we get to know people who are different from ourselves, we begin to get a bigger and clearer picture of the wonder, richness and variety of God’s creation. The simple experience of a parish festival can be a step in realizing that an old Catholic custom is not exclusively ours. Enjoy the summer! And if you are able, take in a festival or two!
This column was written by Father Ralph Wiatrowski, pastor of St. Barnabas Parish in Northfield.