November 27th is the date the Catholic church dedicates to celebrate the Virgin Mary. I am not Catholic, and I don't have a good understanding of the holiday. But as a Christian, I was interested in understanding what this day means to the people in Santiago, who celebrate it more fervently than elsewhere in Panama. I also wanted to observe the manifestation of their celebration and faith.
I did, and the experience was emotionally powerful, uplifting, entertaining, spiritually humbling, and a little perplexing. I am a Lutheran, and the Lutheran church does not practice devotion to saints or to the Virgin Mary. It was a little hard to wrap my head around this celebratory event. At the risk of possibly being incorrect in my reporting, I will try to capsulize what I came to understand about the day and the parade.
Apparently, on November 27, 1830, [Saint] Catherine Laboure, a novitiate to the order of the Sisters of Charity in Paris, France, had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who showed her a medal and instructed the young girl to have other medals forged just like it. She told Catherine that those who trustingly wore the medal around their necks would receive her abundant blessings. Two years later, when Catherine's priest and confessor, Padre Juan Maria Aladel, commissioned the production of 1500 medals, Europe was in the throes of a cholera epidemic that had extended into Paris. More than 18,000 people died from the disease according to conservative reports. The Sisters of Charity began distributing the medals when they arrived, and the medals were subsequently credited with healing the sick who wore them. People claimed the medal was miraculous, and that's how the name Medalla Milagrosa (Miraculous Medal) came about. Other miracles are also attributed to the medal, including the conversion to Christianity of a Staussburg banker who had previously been an enemy of the church. The story goes that a french nobleman gave the banker the medal, which he begrudgingly accepted to avoid appearing rude. A few days later, the Virgin Mary appeared at the church Sant’Andrea delle Fratre. Her appearance sufficed to convert the banker, and later he and his brother funded missions dedicated to spreading Christianity. My understanding is that Catholics revere the Virgin Mary as the mother of God and as an interventionalist with the ability to bestow blessings and miracles upon those who ask for her help. She also symbolizes unconditional love and the "sum total of the love of all the mothers in the world and even more". She is granted November 27th as her special day with the church.
The city of Santiago, Panama, celebrates with a parade in her honor every fourth Sunday in November. Small towns and aldeas, churches, neighborhoods, and even some businesses in Santiago and the surrounding areas, construct floats featuring statues of the virgin Mary. These floats are then pulled, pushed, or propelled by people on foot several kilometers through the streets and barrios of Santiago. Each float is attended by many devotees who walk in front of and behind the float, carrying banners and singing songs. After marching through Santiago, they return to the cathedral, when the floats are parked and admired. A winning float is designated, but I'm unclear if there is any kind of prize other than the satisfaction of being voted the best float in the procession. The final float to arrive is the float belonging to the city of Santiago. It is generally the largest and most elaborated float. When all the floats and their entourages have returned, the cathedral priest leads the multitude in prayer requesting Mary intervene for everyone and bestow blessings upon them.
At Sunday's procession, there were 252 participating floats. The procession ended around 4 pm, having started early in the morning. As people returned from their marches in the sweltering sun, they were met by members of their community who distributed food and drink to refresh them. As things were winding up, prior to the priest's benediction, it started to rain heavily. People around me explained, "It always rains for the benediction. That's part of the blessing!"
During the priest's benediction, one could have heard a pin drop in downtown Santiago, Panama's 3rd largest city. All heads were bowed and not a single car horn, child's cry, stray voice or dog's bark interrupted the silence. It was truly awesome. The spiritual energy of the faithful was almost palpable. I felt myself trembling and was briefly moved to tears. Would have been embarrassed, but noticed I wasn't the only one wiping their eyes. I don't believe in religious medals, nor in the need for someone to intervene on my behalf with God. But I was definitely moved by the faith & devotion expressed within that huge crowd.