By Tom Piatak
August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption of Blessed Mother, a day that always makes me particularly glad to be Catholic.
In Cleveland, the principal celebration held outside of a church building is undoubtedly the one sponsored by Holy Rosary parish in Little Italy, my parish for some 20 years.
I made the long trek to Little Italy for years, because the music was excellent. But I avoided my own parish like the plague during the week preceding August 15, because the area was hopelessly crowded and parking, always hard to come by, became impossible.
But never going to the major festival at a parish I loved was a source of regret. I remember a very pleasant conversation on a beautiful and mild summer day in downtown Cleveland, where I chatted for some 45 minutes with a Nigerian Catholic lady that I had just met.
Nigerian Catholics are models for the rest of us. They go to Mass every Sunday, they give numerous priests and nuns to the universal Church, and they have stayed true to the Faith despite periods of intense persecution, including now.
This Nigerian Catholic woman was an Igbo, as are many Nigerian Catholics, including the redoubtable Cardinal Francis Arinze. (She was a great admirer of Cardinal Arinze, as am I).
Arinze did his dissertation on the easy compatibility between Catholic teaching and Igbo culture. The Irish missionaries who taught the Igbo that the Mass is a true propitiatory sacrifice were pushing against an open door: the Igbo already believed that worship of God always involved sacrifice.
Another thing the Igbo readily accepted was veneration of Mary. They understood that Catholics did not worship Mary, because the Mass was not a sacrifice offered to or by Mary.
But they also quickly understood why the Irish missionaries venerated that teenaged girl in Nazareth, whom Gabriel greeted as being “full of grace,” and Elizabeth greeted as “the mother of my Lord.” Indeed, how could you not love Jesus’ Mom?
It takes, I think, a particularly grim personality to turn your back on the woman Jesus gave to the Apostle John to be his mother (and, by extension, ours) from the Cross. Whenever I think of this peculiar personality type, I think of John Knox in 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots, wherein Knox is seen once, a brooding, bearded man dressed in black, accompanied by several lookalikes, all shouting at Scotland’s young and beautiful queen.
John Knox would not have made it in Igboland. My new African friend told me, emphatically, that I needed to ignore the logistical nightmare and get to Little Italy for the end of next year’s Feast of the Assumption, when a prayerful, reverent crowd surrounds the statue of the Madonna, borne aloft by sons of the nation that basically created the Western artistic tradition by devising one mode of transmitting beauty after another, all in an attempt to convey some sense of the immense grace bestowed on the world by the Son of the Woman whose knowing “yes” made it all possible.
Alas, I never followed the good advice given me by my Nigerian friend.
I did stand, awestruck, at the bottom of a staircase in Florence, at the top of which Fra Angelico painted the picture we all have in our heads when we think of that exchange between Gabriel and Mary. I had the same sort of emotion when I saw the only statue to which Michelangelo affixed his signature, and when I came across Titian’s masterful depiction of the Assumption in a Venetian church.
I have been awed, too, by multiple visits to the two great cathedrals, an hour or so apart by train, built to honor Mary in Paris and in Chartres. I have knelt before the icon of the Queen of Poland on the “Bright Mountain” in Czestochowa and climbed “Mary’s Hill” in Levoca, in Slovakia, where people from the village my Slovak great-grandparents left for America have gone on pilgrimage for centuries.
For many of our fellow Christians, Marian devotion seems strange: unnecessary at best, idolatrous at worst. I understand that. And, unlike John Knox, they never turned their backs to Mary. They simply grew up, more or less, without her in their religious lives.
But many of those raised outside of Catholicism or Orthodoxy also appreciate at least some of the beauty created to honor Mary. Many, too, admire the sanctity and heroism of some of those whose Marian devotion still draws theological demurral. Think of Maximilian Kolbe, or the Copts beheaded on that beach by ISIS rather than renounce Christ.
By your fruits you shall know them, instructed Our Lord. I think veneration of Mary passes that test.
As for me, I find August 15 an easy day to be a Catholic.