This past weekend, we went to Mt. St. Mary’s Basilica in Bandra. Sunday was the start of a novena celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary, or as we say here “Mother Mary’s birthday.” The celebration includes daily masses, offerings to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of this church, and a large church fair. The celebration runs Sunday to Sunday and on the first day alone drew about 1 lakh (1,00,000) worshippers to the church.
For Catholics and non-Catholics in Mumbai, this religious celebration is one of the biggest of the year. Much in the same way that Ganesh will be celebrated by Hindus and non-Hindus next week, this feast brings together people from all faiths.
As an American Catholic, I have no real frame of reference to describe the experience. In the US, we don’t celebrate church feasts in quite the same way as the rest of the world. We have our six days of holy obligation, and that’s it. Except for Easter and Christmas, we usually don’t have special festivities around church feasts. The only American Catholic experiences that might come close to the Mt. Mary fair are the carnivals most American churches hold a couple of times a year, but those carnivals are not always tied to religious feasts.
We started our pilgrimage by walking about half a kilometer (0.3 mi) to the church. The road to the church is blocked off from traffic and is lined with hundreds of stalls selling devotional items like candles, flowers, rosaries, and wax figurines. The wax figurines represent your prayer intentions. Originally, the figurines were primarily of children, but now include houses, motorbikes, and cars.
Masses began on Sunday at 5:30 am and ran continuously until 12:30 pm. There was a mass every hour on the half hour at the church—no breaks to allow the crowd to disperse. The mass took place outside the church under a huge canopy erected for the occasion. We arrived while the other mass was in progress and before the next one began, so we waited along the wall. When people began leaving their seats after the service ended, we quickly located a seat a few rows from the front.
We were fortunate to attend the 11:30 am mass, which was the high feast mass. The celebrant, as one kind gentleman informed me, was Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Archdiocese of Bombay. To see a cardinal celebrating mass is a special experience. He is one of only six cardinals from India currently in the College of Cardinals.
The experience of mass in India is much the same as in the US or anywhere in the world. The new words implemented about six months ago are even the same (if only I could remember to say, “And, with your spirit”). Brian really liked the homily on the importance of family. The majority of masses in India are in English, although some churches offer services in other Indian languages such as Marathi or Kannada. The Catholic population here is English-speaking to a large extent, as a result. Our Catholic driver and housekeeper both learned English through classes taught by the Church.
After communion, we followed the crowd into the church. At the altar is the statue of Our Lady of the Mount, dating from the 16th century. During the feast, pilgrims cannot approach the statue but instead must give their offerings to workers who place the flowers and figurines in huge containers. When full, these containers are placed at Mary’s feet.
As we filed out of the church, we were directed down the church steps. These steps are no ordinary church steps. They number more than 100 and are large, flat stones on which vendors can erect stalls. Before there was a road to the top of the church, people walked the steps of the mount.
The fair dates to as early as 1699, so it has been associated with the church almost since inception. While items for sale include books, devotional items, and toys, people come mostly for the street food. Sweet food. Fried food. Sweet, fried food. You get the idea. Here they roast gram (to the Americans, chickpeas) much the same way we would roast peanuts in the States. My favorite foods were the fried green chillies and cakes that resembled cake doughnuts.
Going to the fair is like stepping back in time. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, large cathedrals would host local fairs like this one on their grounds. Because the basilica was founded during the late Renaissance period by Jesuits on a mission, that tradition has been preserved.
The most amazing thing is how all faiths came together to celebrate Mary’s birthday. The intertwining of religious beliefs and respect for other beliefs is a hallmark of Indian culture. Sure, there are tensions here, but considering the sheer volume of people and diversity of beliefs, everyone manages to still coexist in relative harmony. Today, as I watched Secretary Clinton’s statement about the attacks at US embassies in the Middle East, I thought about how peaceful the fair was. Here, so many people, from so many places, with so many beliefs were gathered together to celebrate and praise God, no matter what name we use.