Parishioners from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Toronto hold a procession to celebrate Mary, Mother of God in 2016. Photo by David Chen

Procession permit requests on the rise in 2017 as parishes mark milestones

  • June 24, 2017

Catholic communities around the world have been publicly proclaiming their faith with processions for centuries, but this year in the Archdiocese of Toronto they are proving particularly popular.

The archdiocese’s Spiritual Affairs Office has helped process 56 permits with municipalities for church processions on city streets this year, which already exceeds the permit requests for all of 2016. On June 18 alone, about 20 parishes in the archdiocese held processions marking the feast day of Corpus Christi. That, of course, doesn’t include the processions parishes hold on their own property where permits are not required.

“There is a particular interest in processions this year as the faithful commemorate” and celebrate the anniversaries, said Neil MacCarthy, a spokesperson for the archdiocese.

Processions are most popular around the Easter season and Corpus Christi, but this year, however, there are noteworthy milestones, which include the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparition of Fatima celebrated on May 13, the 175th year of the Archdiocese of Toronto and July 1, Canada’s 150th birthday. Over the past decade the archdiocese’s Spiritual Affairs Office has helped process between 50 and 70 permits a year for church processions.

“Some parishes have also organized pilgrimages in association with a milestone anniversary of their parish,” MacCarthy added.

But processions aren’t just for marking milestones. In fact, they serve a much more important role in the ongoing life of the Catholic Church, said MacCarthy.

“Processions are an important part of both our liturgical and spiritual journey,” he said. “They unify our community in prayer and are a public expression of our commitment to our faith, gratitude for our many blessings and illustrate the joy that faith brings to our lives.”

Sheila Dunn, a parishioner of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brampton, Ont., always looks forward to her parish’s feast day procession. In the past the procession had been held on the Sunday closest to the St. Anne’s Feast Day, July 26, but this year the hour and a half event will take place on Oct. 1.

“It has been changed to try to include more children and families that are away in the summer months,” she said, noting that previous years attracted about 150 participants from the parish. “It is still in the planning stage, but will be a bit smaller than in previous years. Most likely there will be singing and praying because (this year) there will be no band included.”

But that doesn’t take away from the importance of the procession, which has a history from the Old Testament processions of the Ark of the Covenant, to Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem, to today’s annual marches commemorating Church figures and pivotal moments.

“The purpose of having a religious procession is to give public witness to our faith,” Dunn said. “The first few years had specific prayer stops along the way .... (and) we had very colourful costumes (of) saints and angels, flags, a huge banner and a large statue of St. Anne ... carried by four men. Each ministry within our parish was represented by a smaller banner and parishioners from that ministry walking together.”

Fr. Martin Hilbert, pastor of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, agreed with Dunn about the importance of processions, not just for the parish, but for the community.

“The procession is an important public display of our faith,” he said. “And it gets parishioners a chance to get to know one another better.”

Since 1987, parishioners of the Oratory have processed into the streets surrounding the parish on Mother’s Day in the name of Mary and “in honour of our mother in the order of grace.”

The annual tradition, which takes about 45 minutes, brings together not only the faithful parishioners but also members of the surrounding community.

“There are many people who come out on their balconies to watch us,” he said. “All sorts of people take pictures (and) sometimes bystanders join the procession. So it is also a tool of evangelization.”

This year members of the De la Salle High School Marching Band joined the procession, about 400 strong, adding an extra musical punch to the public profession of faith.

“We pray the rosary and sing hymns,” said Hilbert. “In the past we had a van with a keyboard in the back and speakers on the roof.”

Not only do processions serve as a means of celebrating the faith, saints and ministries, they are also a means of celebrating one’s ethnic origins or cultural background.

“It is mostly ethnic parishes that organize processions,” said Dunn. “It is a celebration of both faith and culture, especially when the culture is strongly influenced by faith traditions.”

At her multicultural parish, those from the Portuguese community have taken the lead on the annual procession.

“Given the propensity of the Portuguese community for processions, they were asked to take the lead,” she said.

At Cristo Rei Parish in Mississauga, the ethnically diverse demographic in the pews has generated a monthly procession schedule from Easter through November.

“We do organize a lot of processions in our church,” said Fr. Carlos Macatangga, pastor of both Cristo Rei and Ss. Salvador do Mundo Parish in Mississauga. “We have processions here almost every month.”

Along with having a strong Portuguese population in pews, Macatangga’s parishioners include members of the Indian, Filipino and Sir Lankan communities, each of which is represented by an annual feast day procession.

In places such as Asia and Europe, processions have a long history. For decades the Palm Sunday procession in Rome, which ends at the Vatican and began centuries ago, has attracted tens of thousands of parishioners from around the world.

Although lesser in size, the processions held at Macatannga’s two parishes also serve as a means of bringing people together from around the world.

“We need to recognize that popular devotions have a special place in the lives of our people who come from different countries and cultures,” said Macatangga, a priest of The Society of the Divine Word. “It is our way of celebrating the popular religiosity of the people. But more important we organize these processions to gather together our people coming from different ethnic communities.”

Since taking over as pastor of both parishes seven years ago, the fruits of these efforts have become visible within the parish community, he said.

“I have seen the results of our celebrations in the lives of our parishioners,” he said. “In any given procession you will see Portuguese-speaking people mingling and praying with English-speaking parishioners. Sometimes they could not even understand each other because of language, but they always reach out to one another because they have become familiar to each other.”

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