Italy has more public feasts to celebrate the saints, the Madonna, and sometimes Jesus, than any other culture. The feast of local patron saints is often the major event of the year in many villages, especially southern Italy. They are usually marked with religious processions in the streets upholding their patron saint, marching bands, fireworks, costumes, food, and special markets. Elaborate staging and lighting are often used to enhance the effect of the festival.
The cliff side town of Polignano a Mare on the coast of Puglia was the stage for this particular celebration that I witnessed in June of 2015. Although it was a week before the greatly anticipated 3-day feast of Saint Vitus, where the saint’s arm is carried by a procession through the streets, it may have been part a preliminary event. It was quite small but very serious.
On the blue banner below are the words UNITALSI which I discovered stands for the National Union of Transporting Sick Italians in Lourdes and International Sanctuaries. The banner continues with the words, “Virgin of Lourdes, pray for us.”
Intrigued, I did a little research and found that this organization was founded in 1903 by John the Baptist Tomassi, a young man who was greatly afflicted with deforming arthritis and bound to a wheelchair. He made the pilgrimage to Lourdes for healing and as he sat before the grotto where Mary had appeared to Santa Bernadette, he was greatly affected by those around him who reached out in love and kindness to the sick and disabled. Although he did not find physical healing, he came home and founded a charity that today has over 100,000 volunteers.
The procession included many young, some of them disabled, as well as religious organizations, societies, and orders.
Today, UNITALSI is present in all regions of Italy and run by voluntary commitment. Based in Rome, it is an outreach of the faithful to disabled, sick and elderly people to provide them with loving assistance and encouragement. The organization promotes pilgrimages to Lourdes as well as local and international shrines.
There were very few, if any, tourists in sight other than my two friends and myself. What was happening before us was simply life….it wasn’t geared towards tourists. It was a local celebration in a beautiful town on a warm summer evening. I felt honored to just be there and witness a bit of culture that is a vital part of the lives of these people.
Have you ever seen or experienced a festival or celebration, religious or other, in Italy? Please tell me your thoughts…