The festa season has a peculiar way of announcing its annual arrival. By mid-June, those who are not festa enthusiasts need to develop an immunity to the sound of fireworks, the inconvenience of traffic diversions, the stench of grease emanating from food kiosk and the rowdy revellers accompanying village bands.
Festa enthusiasts will wince at my rather cynical portrayal of what they may perceive to be the highlight of the summer season. Others may begrudgingly agree that the village feast has morphed into an event of folklore; rich in tradition but void of meaning.
The festa is centred around the persona of the patron saint of the town or village. The theologian Lawrence Cunngingham describes saints as “prophetic witnesses” who encourage us to deepen our discipleship with Christ.
The popular author, Fr James Martin SJ, writes: “there’s no reason to feel as if devotion to saints somehow takes away from our devotion to Jesus: everything the saints say and do is centred on Christ and points us in his direction.”
He quotes a beautiful section of the prayer of thanksgiving for saints from the liturgy of the Mass: “You renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of your unchanging love. They inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayer to be the living sign of your saving power.”
We are all called to sanctity. The saints can be seen as signposts and companions on our journey of faith. They witness a life lived in companionship and communion with Christ.
The word companion is derived from the Latin com and panis – “with bread.” This brings to mind two facts. Bread considered to be a staple food in the Mediterranean. It is also one of the gifts brought to the Altar during Mass for consecration.
In a set of reflections on the Rosary edited by Fr Peter John Cameron OP, the author reflects on the mystery of the institution of the Eucharist: “At the Last Supper, Christ chooses a scrap of bread to become his body in order to prove his desire to do the same with our nothingness… the Eucharist reminds us that we are possessed by God, and that communion fills us with gladness and peace.”
It is very fitting to have the celebration of the Eucharist as the focal point of the festa since the saints lived a life of such intense communion. They are a fitting reminder of companionship with Christ – where His presence becomes that necessary staple rather than an optional extra.
Church celebrations are sometimes regarded as an ancillary to the outdoor festivities rather than the focus of the feast itself. The latter are now emblematic of the festa. These outdoor celebrations are symbols of community, folklore and tradition. They represent some continuity with the past and yet they are sometimes shorn of the real spirit which should encapsulate the festa.
In August 2011 the Bishop of Gozo, Mgr Mario Grech, issued a pastoral letter in which he made reference to those who would like to see the Church become a “showcase of traditions.” He said: “whoever wants the Church to remain a showcase of religious traditions does not truly love the Church. We are far too complacent with the Church and within the Church – how we celebrate the sacraments, the respect towards the teaching of the Church… Excessive familiarity breeds abuses, even in holy matters!”
Christians believe in a living God who constantly invites us to grow in faith, hope and love. Celebrations, prayers and the liturgy must reflect this experience of faith. Certain festivities seem to be devoid of authentic devotion. It is our task to rediscover and reclaim the authentic spirit of devotion which underpin these commemorations.