Since I grew up in the Lutheran church, saints were never a big part of my life.
But when we lived in Italy, I became more aware of saints and feast days. There were two saints in particular that I took a liking to.
One was San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Our apartment was about 100 feet directly downhill from the chapel memorializing the spot where San Gennaro was beheaded. It was hard to avoid the twice-yearly festival booths that lined the main road through town. The cathedral in Naples has a vial of the saint’s blood. The speed with which the blood liquefies each year at the September feast day service foretells the yearly fortune of Naples. This was vividly demonstrated in 1980 when the blood took an abnormally long time to liquefy and Naples and surrounding areas were hit by a devastating earthquake that November.
The other saint I became fond of was St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. His feast day is the same day as my birthday. Where we lived in Italy there were no large celebrations for the day, but nationally there is a pastry (zeppole) made just for St. Joseph’s feast day.
I may have just added another saint to my list.
Last week, Dave and I were in the town of St. Anne de Beaupre, near Quebec. The basilica is huge, and a destination site for half a million pilgrims each year. And we were there just in time to celebrate the feast day of St. Anne.
So, who is St. Anne? She is by tradition the mother of the Virgin Mary. In other words, she’s Jesus’ grandmother. There is no mention of her in the Bible, but a tradition of honoring her has existed since about 200 CE, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox church. Anne and her husband, Joachim, were an elderly, childless couple, when their prayers were answered, and God promised them a child. Anne promised to dedicate the child to God’s service.
St. Anne is the patron saint of unmarried women, housewives, women in labor or who want to be pregnant, grandmothers, educators, horseback riders, cabinet-makers and miners. She is also said to be a patron saint of sailors and a protector from storms. Martin Luther is believed to have prayed to St. Anne and promised her that he would become a monk if she would save him from a horrible thunderstorm.
The basilica ceiling in St. Anne de Beaupre is covered with mosaics showing images from the life of St. Anne: meeting her husband after being told that she would bear a child, teaching Mary to read, doing daily chores, being a grandmother to Jesus.
Over the course of two days, we saw three worship services at the Basilica, one in person and two on the local television station.
People were there for a purpose. Some purposes were visible. The front of the sanctuary was filled with people in wheelchairs. Most people were there for purposes unknown. Maybe they were unmarried and seeking a husband. Maybe they sought to become pregnant. Maybe they were remembering their own grandmothers. Maybe they sought healing.
For whatever purposes people were there for, the intense devotion to St. Anne was clearly visible.
A pilgrimage group entered while we were there, singing and carrying a statue of St. Anne. (St. Anne is almost always depicted as holding the Virgin Mary in her arms).
The camping site across the street from the Basilica was full, and even early in the morning people were starting to come over for prayers and blessings and worship. (There are worship services all day long, though the main service is the candlelight procession at 8 pm.) The separate building where you could receive a blessing seemed to never be empty.
The television screens showed the love and devotion on peoples’ faces as they raised their arms toward the eucharistic elements while singing the Magnificat.
Tears could be seen on peoples’ faces as they responded to the prayer petitions, “Good Saint Anne, pray for us,” “Bonne St. Anne, priez pour nous.”
Devotion could be seen in the items left behind at the shrine to St. Anne: rosaries, family photos, shawls, flowers.
It reminded me of what I had seen at the cathedral in Naples on San Gennaro’s feast day: people responding to the prayers with an intense look of devotion and love that I didn’t remember seeing anywhere before.
I can’t begin to understand the dedication to the cult of a saint. But being able to see the devotion is astounding.
Going to church every Sunday can get routine. We need something occasionally, to shake us up and renew our devotion. Last year’s joint Reformation Service was an example. There’s nothing like hearing several hundred people sing A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
The Irish-inspired service that we used last year during Lent was another example. The structure of the service was the same, but the fact that the music was so different allowed us to experience worship in a different way.
Don’t let worship get old and routine. Look for ways to keep that love and devotion to Jesus fresh in your hearts.
- Ann Iona Warner