The Church has natural ways of forming societies to live together in virtue. When people are united in their deep-rooted Faith, organic communities and solutions naturally flourish.
One refreshing example is the way pilgrims have developed customs and beautiful traditions at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Genazzano, Italy. There, the pilgrims’ Catholic faith served as the foundation for fulfilling their mission of honoring the Blessed Mother. They provide lessons on how society should function naturally and organically without excessive planning and rigidity.
Unwritten Laws Preserve Order Amidst Pilgrims
Following Our Lady of Good Counsel’s miraculous arrival in Italy in 1467, pilgrims began to stream to her shrine in large numbers—numbers that would ordinarily cause logistical problems.
Large groups of people traveling together usually suffer from disorganization and other complications. In the beginning, the modest town of Genazzano was not prepared to shelter the crowds. Multitudes wishing to visit the same place at once could quickly descend into arguments or fights.
Even secular events like concerts must be coordinated lest they become impossible and unrewarding. However, well-founded in their faith, the pilgrims cultivated unwritten rules and methods to overcome the obstacles that crossed their paths.
The Journey to Genazzano Filled with Pious Precautions
Pilgrims to Genazzano developed ways to preserve order from the very beginning of their endeavor. As they made their way to the Shrine, they adopted customs that allowed them to receive as many graces as possible with the least amount of inconvenience.
The pilgrims prepared months in advance. They followed guide books written by spiritual directors with years of experience dealing with such devotees. These manuals urge the reader to discern the feasibility of such a journey before vowing to make it. This precaution ensures that the pilgrims did not neglect the duties of their state in life, a neglect that could easily result in a crisis upon returning home.
A leader of the party was also selected in advance. If a priest was among the number of travelers, he was usually in charge of his parishioners. If not, the group selected the most capable man to maintain order and security. He would walk at the head of the group with the other men, who preceded the women to ensure their protection. The rest willingly obeyed the leader’s instructions, which gave the group that essential unity that facilitated the journey.
A Mass preceded their departure, setting the tone for a prayerful pilgrimage. On the way to the Shrine, the travelers constantly prayed, contemplated, read and sang hymns to the Mother of Good Counsel. Distractions and small-talk were avoided. Instead, the pilgrims maintained a serious demeanor on their faces. Thus, the fervor of the pilgrims was not disrupted by petty squabbles that perturb most large trips.
Additionally, virtue is protected at all costs. To avoid occasions of sin, the men and women travel separated throughout the trip. The pilgrims observed modesty in dress and demeanor, resulting in a most amiable cortege heading towards their miraculous destination.
As they approach Genazzano, the steeple of the Shrine first emerges from the mountains. The custom was that the faithful would immediately fall on their knees with the group’s head leading the others in prayer. The prayer would vary slightly, but they all expressed the unshakable devotion in the pilgrims’ souls. The following is one such prayer that beautifully illustrates this point:
Hail venerable and Holy House of Mary where Her wondrous Image resides. Hail Mary, Mother of Good Counsel, Who hath selected this Shrine to be Thy dwelling place, from whence as from Thy throne of mercy and grace, Thou dispenses to all, with extraordinary liberality, Thy benefits and the blessings of Thy Good Counsel. O Brightest Star, Who dost guide us over the boisterous sea of our life. Purest Star, which comforts us in all the distresses of our exile. We devotedly salute Thee, O most sweet Star who recreates and floods us with joy and gladness. Long Live Mary! Long Live Mary of Good Counsel! Animated with sweet hope and with the greatest confidence, we come to Thee, O Dearest Mother, and we rest secure we shall obtain from Thy goodness abundantly the fruit of this our pilgrimage. Amen.
The pilgrims would then approach the Shrine in a set order. An image of Our Lady would be carried in front, followed by the leader and group. The men would all remove their hats regardless of the weather in reverence of the miraculous image they approached. At this point, the pious songs and litanies would be ceaseless.
Customs Developed by the Pilgrims at the Shrine
The order the pilgrims observed on the way to the Shrine was not abandoned but continued upon arrival. In addition, other customs were established to keep order.
For example, all the pilgrims knew that once their request was made before the miraculous image, they should move and make room for other pilgrims. No guards or ushers were needed to force them along. This custom prevented tension and disagreements that would result in lost graces during the trip.
Another beautiful custom developed at the Genazzano Shrine was the exclaiming of the phrase Evviva Maria! This ejaculation was common among the pilgrims. It means Long Live Mary! in Italian. The pilgrims would use this exclamation to spread a message of a grace or special favor received at the Shrine. The meaning of the exclamation would be different depending on its volume and tone. The cry was not limited to a select few but instead was taken up by all the Faithful present. The exclamations would continue until everyone present knew what had occurred.
One time, a new prelate named Cardinal Castracani found out about the practice. He observed that sermons were not given in the Shrine. Not knowing the reason, he thought it would be beneficial to preach a sermon in order not to waste such an excellent opportunity. However, he soon realized why such attempts always failed.
The Cardinal no sooner started his first homily there when he was interrupted by loud cries of “Evviva Maria!” One of Our Lady’s devotees received a great grace, and the cheers served to inform those within the Shrine of the miracle. Startled by the phenomenon, he continued his sermon after the cheers had subsided. However, it was not long before the cries recommenced. This time, the cries emerged from outside the church, warning those inside to make space for a sick person that needed to be carried inside. Finally, a third pious outburst convinced the Cardinal to leave the pulpit, realizing any attempt to repress this organic development would be futile.
These customs were not developed and implemented by decree. Instead, they were the natural fruit of traditions developed by Catholics entirely focused on cultivating their devotion to Our Lady.
An Example of What a Catholic Society Should Look Like
It would be impossible to list all of the customs of the devout pilgrims of Genazzano. However, the sample given demonstrates what a Catholic society should look like.
These Catholics were not afraid to bear public witness to their Faith. They proudly displayed their devotion to Our Lady throughout the ages, even during dangerous Revolutionary periods of unrest. When the nineteenth-century Garibaldi government outlawed their beloved pilgrimage, the Italian Catholics made such an uproar that it forced the government to lift the immoral prohibition.
The pilgrims also made no compromises with evil in temporal society. The way they structured all aspects of the pilgrimage left no room for the sinful elements of the outside world to disrupt their devotion.
Finally, the pilgrims developed their customs in a way that allowed them to adapt to the circumstances. They did not simply state that everything old is good and that everything new is evil. Instead, they found a balance that allowed them to formulate new developments based on traditional principles.
Presently, the Genazzano pilgrimages are an example of how customs should develop and grow. The modern world needs a return to such an organic, Catholic society centered upon God and devotion to Our Lady.
Let us pray to our Mother of Good Counsel to reestablish a society similar to that which surrounded her Shrine in Genazzano.
Photo Credit: © Stefano – stock.adobe.com