Friday, July 14, 2023

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Giuseppe Calì, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Church of St. Cajetan, Hamrun, 1879

The feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on July 16 began in the fourteenth century as a way of thanking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her protection of the Carmelite Order during its difficult first years. The order, which was founded in Europe in the twelfth century, strives to carry on a tradition that began with the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land.

Later on, the feast came to be associated with what is formally called the Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, more commonly known as the “brown scapular.” It is believed that this sacramental was given by our Lady to St. Simon Stock, the English general of the Carmelite order in 1251, along with the promise that whoever wears the brown scapular and fulfills several other conditions will not suffer damnation.
The brown scapular and the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel are also linked in popular imagination to the so-called “Sabbatine Privilege,” the belief that Our Lady will rescue her disciples from Purgatory on the first Saturday after they have died. Technically, this belief is not attached to the brown scapular per se but to members of the Carmelite order, and moreover, the specific belief about a “first Saturday” deliverance (as opposed to a more general speedy deliverance from Purgatory) has received a pointedly icy reception from the Magisterium.
The feast of Mt. Carmel is observed in grand style throughout Italy, but nowhere as much as in Trastevere, located across the river Tiber from rest of the city of Rome. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel has been the patron of this charming district since the sixteenth century, when local fishermen discovered a statue of the Madonna del Carmine at the mouth of the Tiber during a storm. That statue is the focal point of the two-week long annual festival for Our Lady which the Trasteverini call the Festa de’ Noantri. In Italian Noantri (noi altri) literally means “we others” and is a nod to the civic pride the people of Trastevere take in being different from the rest of the Eternal City.
The Festa de’ Noantri consists of various devotions and activities (such as boat races), but it is most famous for its three processions. The opening procession, which takes place on the first Saturday after July 16, transports the bejeweled and splendidly-attired statue on a hand-carried litter from its home in the church of Sant’Agata to the church of San Crisogono, where it stays for the next eight days.
The second procession, which takes place on a Sunday, is called the Fiumarola, from the Italian word for river. The Trasteverini call the statue the Santissima Vergine del Carmine la Madonna Fiumarola, and as you might expect, part of this procession takes place on the Tiber. It begins at the Castel Sant’Angelo near the Vatican, proceeds to a dock near Tiber Island, and then winds its way through the streets to the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Madonna Fiumarola
I had the privilege of observing this part of the festival in 2005 from the Ponte Garibaldi. The Madonna came downriver around 8 p.m. in a boat festooned with flowers and surrounded by a motley flotilla, some of the boats carrying flowers, others dignitaries lay and clerical. Our Lady shared her boat with a Cardinal in scarlet and lace and a young Carmelite priest in his white habit and long brown scapular. As the boat approached, the priest shouted to us through a megaphone, announcing Our Lady with the same excitement, pride, and joy as if she had just won the Heavyweight Championship of the World. The packed crowd cheered wildly, tears running down some of their faces. It was one of the most moving displays of piety I have ever seen.
The third procession, la Processione del Rientro or Procession of the Return, takes place the next day and concludes the festival. The statue of Our Lady is solemnly carried from Santa Maria in Trastevere back to her home, the church of Sant’Agata.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Messenger of St. Anthony 118:7-8, international edition (July/August 2016), p. 30. Many thanks to its editors for its inclusion here.

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