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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Papa Guédé

Today, for faithful Roman Catholics everywhere, is the Feast Day of St. Gerard of Majella.

It's also the Feast Day of  Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, two Anglican saints who were burned at the stake by Queen "Bloody" Mary. As the flames quickly rose, Latimer encouraged Ridley, "Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out."

Ah, the English. You can always trust them to know the right thing to say in difficult circumstances. 

I'm so sad to have missed the big Feast of St. Gerard in Newark, NJ this past weekend.  You may not have known this, but there is a National Shrine to St. Gerard - by Papal Decree and everything - at St. Lucy's Roman Catholic Church on 17th Street in Newark.

St. Gerard in Procession at St. Lucy's
Every year, they have a huge celebration in his honor.  I mean, HUGE. It began on Friday night with a Vigil mass in his honor and ends today, his feast day.

He will be covered in traditional "money blankets", painstakingly made by various women's guilds who save up their dollar bills and sew them together. As the statue of St. Gerard is processed by, women and men will throw these money blankets on the statue, yelling, "St. Gerard! St. Gerard!"

It's all very emotional - very Italian - because St. Gerard, you see, is the patron saint of pregnant women. Indeed, he is credited with interceding in the prayers of women who struggle with infertility.

Pray to Jesus through St. Gerard and you will not only be guaranteed to get pregnant but wear his medal during your pregnancy and you'll also be guaranteed to have a safe delivery and healthy baby.

Never mind that the patron saint of pregnant women and infertility is a man and a virgin - the 18th Century Italian St. Gerard Majella - much less praying directly to anyone but one of the members of the Trinity.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York tried shedding light on it in a Sept. 10 tweet, writing, "When folks ask me about intercession of the saints, I like saying this: In prayer, we always go to Jesus. Sometimes we bring friends with us."

HaHaHa. The jovial, corpulent Irish prelate made a wee joke. Some people, however, are as serious as a heart-attack about this.

A woman named Josephine Spano from Yonkers, N.Y. - the mother of sixteen (16!!) children - created a website dedicated to him,, where she writes dramatically: "Mothers by the hundreds, the thousands, seek and win his intercession at that crucial hour when they must go down to the grim gate of death to open for a little one the frail door of life."

Which brings me to the thing I love the most about the Feast of St. Gerard at St. Lucy's, Newark.

Papa Guédé
There's a large Haitian community in Newark. They live amidst the various, amazing diversity of The Brick City, which includes Italians, Portuguese, Irish, Greek, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. 

I've heard it said that about 80% of Haitians are Roman Catholic and about 95% of them find an easy and comfortable synthesis between the 'lwa' (sometimes called 'orijas' - or, spirits - of their traditions in Haitian Vodou and the large panoply of RC Saints.

The Haitian lwa known as Papa Guédé (pronounced "gay-day") is supposed to be the corpse of the first man who ever died. He is recognized as a short, dark man with a high hat on his head, a cigar in his mouth, and an apple in his left hand (an illusion to Adam, no doubt).

Papa Guédé is a psychopomp who waits at the crossroads to take souls into the afterlife. If a child is dying, Papa Ghede is prayed to. It is believed that he will not take a life before its time, and that he will protect the little ones. Papa Guédé has a very crass sense of humor, a divine ability to read others' minds, and the ability to know everything that happens in the worlds of the living and the dead.

St. Gerard
So, for the Haitians who attend the Feast of St. Gerard in Newark, it's easy to see that Papa Guédé has manifested himself in the form of St. Gerard, who answers the prayers of infertile women by ushering in the souls that have died and gone into the afterlife into the bodies of women for a resurrected new life.

I mean, even the picture of St. Gerard is holding a cross and has a skull on his prayer desk, with the lilies of resurrection nearby.

Get it? I mean, even Josephine Spano - the one in Yonkers, NY with the 16 kids - gets it (Read her again quote above).

While everyone else is yelling, "St. Gerard! St. Gerard!", the Haitians are yelling, "Papa Guédé! Papa Guédé!"

Everyone thinks, "Oh, see! They are calling for St. Gerard in their own language!"

Ummmm.....not so much. They are actually calling for Papa Guédé who they see disguised - That old trickster spirit! - as St. Gerard.

If "Father" knows what's going on, he ain't sayin'. And, why would he? I'm told that there are literally thousands of money blankets that are thrown on the statue of St. Gerard as he passes in procession. Each blanket has one hundred one dollar bills sewn together. One estimate I've been told is that St. Lucy's Church makes anywhere between $30-50,000 alone in money blankets. 

Besides, there will be lots of distractions: Faithful women will be in the shrine in round the clock prayer vigils, pleading for pregnancies or giving thanksgiving in tearful testimonies for their pregnancies or children.  There will be carnival rides and games for children of all ages. Tons of street vendors will be selling Italian sausage and hot pepper sandwiches and cups of gelato and fried dough (Zeppoli) covered with powdered sugar or served with plastic cups of gooey honey. Beer and wine will flow freely. By this morning, the neighborhood will smell like a subway stop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Oh, and of course, there will be the obligatory sermons about the evils of abortion and the peripatetic and obsequious demonstrators with signs that decry abortion, replete with gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses. You know. Just to keep the faithful.....faithful.

No counter-demonstrations from Reproductive Justice Organizations will show up. Not at St. Lucy's. I mean, why bother when you know Papa Guédé is in the house? 

It's all great fun. I'm sorry to have missed it this year.

If you're of a mind, you may want to pray this prayer for a special blessing from St. Gerard today. I found it on the back of a prayer card I picked up years ago at a Feast of St. Gerard.
Dear Saint Gerard: We rejoice in thy happiness and glory; we bless the Lord Who endowed thee with the choicest gifts of His Grace; we congratulate thee for corresponding so faithfully with them. Obtain for us, we pray thee, some part of thy angelic purity, thy burning love for Jesus in the Tabernacle, thy tender devotion to Mary Immaculate. In thy brotherly love which made thee the support of the poor, the comforter of the afflicted and the apostle of the most forsaken souls, grant me the favors for which I now pray. (Here mention them privately)
O most Powerful Patron, who hast always helped those who prayed to thee intercede for me before the Throne of God. O Good Saint, to thee I confide my fervent prayers; graciously accept them and, before the end of these days of prayer, let me experience in some way the effects of thy powerful intercession. Amen.
Totally Catholic
It's okay to pray this prayer. I mean, even Cardinal Dolan says that we always pray to Jesus, but sometimes, it helps to take along a few friends.

Why not St. Gerard?

As for praying to Papa Guédé, well, there aren't so many prayers as there are dances and songs and chants. 

Apparently, he likes money and cigars and rum, so if you're not of a mind to dance and sing, you might leave out a bowl of shiny coins a cigar and a jigger of rum on your mantle or prayer desk, or wherever it is you light your vigil candle or mark as a prayerful space.

I can't make any guarantees, much less promises about the outcome - for prayers to either St. Gerard or  Papa Guédé, much less Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley - but, if you follow Cardinal Dolan's jovial advice, maybe it helps to take a diversity of friends along with you when you pray to Jesus.

Happy Feast of St. Gerard to all my RC Friends!

Happy Feast of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to all of my Episcopal / Anglican friends - well, as happy as you can be about two men burning at the stake for their faith!

And, Happy Feast of Papa Guédé to all my Haitian friends!

May we always find opportunities to pray and praise God, each in our own way. 


Malcolm+ said...

Of course, the invocation of saints, properly understood, is not about praying to the saints, but about asking the saints to pray for us, much as we would ask friends to pray for us when we are in some need or distress.

Unfortunately (as with so many issues) our Roman friends aren't always clear about these things.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think the lack of clarity is quite intentional - except when they get to the "thou shall not" part. Then, they are very, very clear.