This is the day Pope Francis asked Christians worldwide to fast and to pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria. It also is the feast day of Our Lady of Good Health (Vailankanni). Today, I traveled with our younger son and three of my CL friends from New Jersey to a Staten Island parish where we joined hundreds of others in fasting for Syria and feasting for Our Lady of Good Health.
St. Rita's Parish has been celebrating this feast day for the past six years. Before today, I never had heard about this Marian apparition, which is known as the "Lourdes of the East." The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health is India's most popular Marian shrine and draws two million pilgrims a year. Oral tradition says the Blessed Mother appeared in 1550 to a handicapped boy selling milk for his widowed mother. He was cured of his disability. In 2005, a tsunami hit that region of Southern India. One thousand people died, including hundreds of pilgrims. But a miracle occurred at the shrine.
"The killer waves surged and came up to the entrance of the main basilica where the statue of Our Lady of Vailankanni is present and receded after touching the first steps of the basilica's outer door," church officials said in a Dec. 30 statement.
(The iconic image is unique because it is one of the few that depicts the Blessed Mother wearing a sari.
There are just two statues of Our Lady of Good Health - this one at St. Rita's and another at a parish in Washington, D.C.)
Our day began with all of us reciting the rosary. Next came a Mass celebrated by seven priests, including the pastor, Father Rich Veras, who has served as chaplain to Communion and Liberation. The Mass intentions were in Malayalam, English, Hindi, Tagalog, and Tamil, including this one:
"For peace and harmony in the world. May the nations and peoples search for peace and harmony and an end to all conflicts everywhere. "
In his homily, Father Rich told us Christ "wants to come close. He wants us to know who He is and that we are not alone. ..Our greatness comes from the fact that we are loved. "
Like the young boy trying to support his widowed mother by selling milk, "we feel helpless" in the face of violence, he said. "Every time Pope Francis prays for Syria, he says - 'pray to Our Lady. 'At the root, we want to let these people know 'You're not alone.' " He said he felt incredibly "preferred" that the day of prayers and fasting fell on the same day his parish celebrates this feast day.
After Mass, we processed around the city streets surrounding the church, with some people holding colorful parasols and others - including our son - bright banners. A slight breeze blew as we walked, making the metal tassels on the muthukkuda (glittering silk parasols) jingle as we prayed the rosary. Onlookers leaned out their windows or stood in the doorways of their homes. On one corner, as he heard us praying, a man fell to his knees and joined us in prayer.
Later, there was a healing service, the veneration of the statue in the parish chapel, and a beautiful buffet lunch in the school cafeteria.
My small group of friends and I were among the few in the large crowd who were not of Indian or Filipino heritage. We were strangers to the parish and we were welcomed like longtime friends. The gestures of kindness, including folks who made room for us in crowded pews and invited us to break bread with them at a cafeteria table, reminded me yet again of the richness and universality of the Catholic faith, and our common duty to pray for and to serve our brothers and sisters across the globe.