Bishop prays for people of Azores, Diocese of Fall River at moving Santo Christo feast

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By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor
davejolivet@anchornews.org

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Fall River Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., made his first-ever visit to the centuries-old Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles) on the Azorean island of São Miguel (St. Michael) last month, and told The Anchor it was a very moving, uplifting and unique experience.

“I was asked to attend when I was Bishop of Newark (N.J.), but I had too many commitments to be able to,” he said. “Then my first year as Bishop of Fall River I was asked, but again, so much to do prevented me. Then I was asked the next year, but Bishop João Lavrador was just installed as Bishop of the Diocese of Angra, so I wanted to wait. But this year was the perfect opportunity to be able to attend.

“I was so impressed by all the people there, whether they are Catholic or not, there was a reverence as the procession made its way through the streets of Ponta Delgada.

“Nearly everyone had their homes decorated and the streets were adorned with flowers and colored sawdust, giving the effect of a carpeted road — all to honor Jesus Christ.”

Bishop da Cunha went on to say that, although it’s a Spiritual event, “it’s also a great cultural event for the people there as well. Even the secular bands that processed played hymns to honor Our Lord.”

The three-day celebration took place from May 19-21 and the bishop, along with Deacon Alan Thadeu, arrived on the 17th. “I got to see the triduum preparations and I was so amazed at the large number of volunteers who took the time to make it a beautiful, Sacred event,” the bishop added.

Bishop da Cunha preached at the Saturday Mass, and the main Mass on Sunday, the culmination of the feast.

“There were thousands of people lining the streets and processing, but I didn’t expect the large congregation gathered for the Sunday Mass,” the bishop told The Anchor. “It was very inspiring. While venerating the statue is good, it is a statue, a representation of Christ. But the true Jesus Christ is present at the Mass in the Eucharist.”

With Bishop da Cunha at the Mass on May 21 was Bishop Lavrador and his predecessor, Bishop Emeritus AntÓnio Braga.

Bishop da Cunha greeted his brother bishops, attending priests, deacons, religious, seminarians, civil and military authorities, and “the people of God.”

He began, “Thank you for the invitation to preside at this great feast. It is a joy and a great honor for me, to be here in your midst and to experience closely the faith and devotion of this people, faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. I bring with me the greetings, the prayers, the faith and devotion of so many Azoreans of the Diocese of Fall River, where God has placed me to guide His flock.

“When I arrived here, the first thing that I did and the first place I visited was the Chapel of Santo Cristo. Upon visiting it, I took a good look at His face, I looked into His eyes and I asked Him to bless all of these devoted and faithful people, full of faith and confidence in Our Lord Santo Cristo. I petitioned Him for so many Azoreans here in the islands, as well as for those in the diaspora, who left this land in search of opportunity so as to construct a new life with dignity for themselves and their families.”

Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor that while the nearly-400-year-old statue is a representation of Christ, as he prayed before the statue, he had a sense that “the Church is alive and well and there is hope for the future. There is just something about the eyes and the expression. You cannot duplicate the original.” 

The bishop also marveled at the fact that it is the very same statue that has made its way through the streets of Ponta Delgada for four centuries. “No one knows who originally carved it, but through the years it has led so many to think about Jesus and His sacrifice for us,” said Bishop da Cunha. “I just marveled at the faith of the people there. There was a synchronicity; many people connecting with something transcendent. I was amazed at the penitents who walk on bare knees, fulfilling a promise made for a favor granted by the Lord.”

The Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres was simply beautiful and inspiring Deacon Thadeu, told The Anchor. “The faith of the people was just a wondrous sight to behold. If you take a good look at the statue, it’s not pretty — it’s clear Jesus has suffered — and suffered a lot. 

“On the night before the grand procession, the people were allowed to walk past the statue as it sat, fully adorned in the plaza of the shrine — and it took a couple of hours. Peopled walked by in the street, eight to 10 rows deep. We guesstimated at least 10,000 people. And everything was so reverent and peaceful. Police were present — but there wasn’t a hint of any bad behavior. People only came to revere and pray in the front of the statue.

“During the grand procession, as the statue made its way through the streets, hats would come off heads — cigarettes would be extinguished — talking would stop — there was just such a feeling of reverence. And everyone would be pulling out their phones to take pictures — it was a great example of the old world joining the new world. As the statue passed through the narrow streets, it was such a beautiful sight to see so many people — and their bedspreads hanging out their windows, all decorated with beautiful floral displays.”

Bishop da Cunha also said that the feast garnered a great deal of media coverage. “The Masses could be seen around the world,” he said, “People in the Fall River Diocese watched. There were TV and newspaper interviews to give, and when I returned, I was sought out by O Jornal, the Portuguese newspaper in Fall River. The interest is universal. I would be happy to go again.”

“As beautiful as all this was, I unexpectedly found the trip very emotional for me personally,” added Deacon Thadeu. “My paternal grandparents were originally from Agua del Alto, about 10 miles east of the shrine. One of my goals of the trip was to visit their neighborhood. When we arrived, the bishop was kind enough to mention to the rector of the shrine who was organizing the festas that I wanted to see my grandparents’ homestead. As it turns out — and in a story as only the Holy Spirit could write — the rector has two brothers, twins, who are also priests. It turned out that one of his brothers was the pastor of my grandparents’ church, São Lazaro. Through his generosity, I was able to get into the church and see where my grandparents worshiped and see their Baptismal records and their Marriage record. It turned out they were the fourth Marriage at the church in the new century (1900) and my grandparents were married on Valentine’s Day. 

“I never knew my grandfather and I barely remember by grandmother who died when I was only five. But I recall my dad telling me how my grandfather’s greatest regret was not being able to see me grow up. And I can tell you I had tears welling up in my eyes as I served Mass, thinking about them and how his grandson, now a deacon, had come with his bishop to his homeland and was serving Mass as part of the Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, a Mass that my grandparents very likely attended many times before they immigrated to the United States. It was very humbling and I simply cannot express my thanks to God — and our bishop — for granting me this very special grace.”

The following is Bishop da Cunha’s homily at the May 21 Mass at the chapel of the Convent of Our Lady of Hope in Ponta Delgada:

“Thank you for the invitation to preside at this great feast. It is a joy and a great honor for me to be here in your midst and to experience closely the faith and devotion of these people, faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. I bring with me the greetings, the prayers, the faith and devotion of so many Azoreans of the Diocese of Fall River, where God has placed me to guide His flock.

“When I arrived here, the first thing that I did and the first place I visited was the Chapel of Santo Cristo. Upon visiting it, I took a good look at His face, I looked into His eyes and I asked Him to bless all of these devoted and faithful people, full of faith and confidence in Our Lord Santo Cristo. I petitioned Him for so many Azoreans here in the islands, as well as for those in the diaspora, who left this land in search of opportunity so as to construct a new life with dignity for themselves and their families.

“Upon looking on that face of Our Lord Christ, He seemed to say to me, ‘Do not be afraid. Don’t fear. I am with you.’

“He seemed to tell me to communicate to the people the wonders of the Lord. Communicate all that God did and continues to do for His people. How much He loves us, how He wants good for us, how He blesses us and how He protects us. Remember everyone, what the Lord promised us, ‘I will be with you. I will not leave you orphans.’

“This we can say, ‘I believe, Lord, but help my unbelief.’

“For more than 300 years this feast of Our Lord Santo Cristo of the Miracles has been celebrated. Many miracles have been done by the Lord in the lives of so many people. Even just the preservation of faith and devotion for such a long time and transmitted to so many people is a miracle. But the bigger miracle is that which the Lord continues to want to have happen in our lives and in our world, which is our conversion and our Sanctification.

“Everything that we do here: our prayers, our Eucharistic celebrations, our devotions, our processions, hymns, decorations, all of this must have an objective, an end: our conversion, our union with Christ, conforming our life to His plan, doing His will, making ourselves true disciples of Jesus, and finally, our Sanctification. 

“None of this happens without great faith. Faith is the foundation of all that we need so as to arrive at Sanctity.

“I believe, Lord, but help my faith to grow.

“Sometimes we think that being holy is not for us, that it is just for those who were already born with this gift and already destined by God to be saints. We all received this gift in our Baptism. So do not give up, do not be discouraged, do not lose hope, do not lose confidence. The Lord Himself has promised us, ‘I will not leave you orphans, I will not leave you alone.’ He is with us on this journey, as He Himself promised us: ‘Behold, I will be with you until the end of the age.’ No matter how difficult our journey is, or how bad the situation may be, He is with us.

“Thus we say, I believe, Lord, but increase my faith.

“Recognizing that He is with us is a privilege and at the same time a great responsibility. This means that we must live in the presence of the Lord. And if we have the Lord present in our lives, we must comport ourselves in accord with His presence. Therefore, this requires behavior which is according to the will of God. Jesus, having fulfilled His mission here on earth, knowing that He was going back to the Father, gave us the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Consoler, our Teacher, our Guide, Our Helper, our Advocate, our Defender. “The Spirit of Truth the world cannot recognize. You know Him because His lives in you and is in you.’ How can I know that the Holy Spirit truly lives in me? If my life has present in it His fruits, which we encounter in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

“The return of Jesus to the Father left the disciples sad, a little lost and disillusioned. But the Spirit comes to change everything. 

“In two weeks we will celebrate that great event of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is because He came that we have the Church, the Sacraments, that we have this faith which has been transmitted for 2,000 years. The Holy Spirit transforms. Now it is our time to live the faith, to practice the faith, to give witness of the faith, to transmit the faith. 

“Thus we say, I believe, Lord, but increase my faith.

“What would our world be without the presence of the Holy Spirit, without faith in Jesus and in His teachings, without people who live according to the faith, people who are committed to following the teachings of Jesus? People whose lives, actions and decisions are guided by the faith?

“Thus we say, I believe, Lord, but increase my faith. 

“What would we be like without our faith? How would our lives be? To what would we hold, what would we lean on? How would we confront sufferings and difficulties in life?

“The faith changes our vision of ourselves, of the world and of life. It helps us see things as God sees them. It helps us see ourselves, other people and the world as God sees. 

“And with faith comes hope. We cannot lose hope that we can improve, that people can convert. 

“Thus we say, I believe, Lord, but increase my faith.

“When we are surrounded by evil and sin, we walk guided by the light of faith and hope. Let us not be beaten down by the prophets of evil, by those who wish to sow doubts, terror, hatred, selfishness and darkness. Let us walk in the light, guided by the Holy Spirit. We have to maintain the flame of faith and the fire of the Holy Spirit. We are going to meet many who wish to extinguish the fire. In any group, there are always some people who light the fire and others who extinguish the fire. Never give up continuing to light the fire. In the time of the Apostles, they also encountered much opposition, selfishness, and indifference. They fought a lot to evangelize! Today, we are the Apostles of the 21st century. 

“It’s enough to just connect with the news of each day and see a world torn by war, injustice, violence, lack of respect for life and dignity of the human person; Christians being persecuted for the simple fact that they are Christians. Governments and political systems want to eliminate the values of our faith.

“They take God out of the world and see what will become of Him. Christ came and suffered, not because He liked to suffer, but because only then did man become convinced of how much God loves us and thus could accept the message of God and change his life.

 “Now, brothers and sisters, it is our turn to kindle the fire of God’s love and to renew the face of the earth. If everyone said, ‘I’m going to take a person to church,’ it would make a big difference.

“How many people are just Catholics in name only? The Church today goes out to encounter them. It doesn’t sit and wait. It goes out to the peripheries, as Pope Francis reminds us: ‘The Church exists to evangelize.’

“I would like to make an appeal to families: dedicate time to your children. Pray together as a family. Don’t leave your children alone with the TV, the Internet, social networks. Some parents give a lot of presents to their children to compensate for their own absence. Instead of giving them presents, be present. Hug your children every day and tell them that you love them.

“Now I would like to make an appeal to young people: don’t let yourself be influenced by social networks, by the Internet, by friends. Life is more than your smartphone, computer, tablet, Facebook or Twitter. Listen to your parents, grandparents and teachers. Don’t think that God, religion, Sacraments, the Church and prayer are things of the past and only for old people. I know that you want to be happy in this life. Happiness consists in conforming our lives to God’s plan for us. Thus, we need to discover what God wants of us.

“What does God want of me in this life? To what is He calling me? For this to happen, we need to hear the voice of God. Many times God talks to us, but we are busy and we don’t hear His voice. He speaks to us through the Sacred Scriptures, through the happenings of our lives, through other people and nature, among other means. 

“And now, heading out from this feast, what will be my resolution of change? What will be the legacy of this feast in my life? What am I going to change in my life beginning today?

“I hope that starting today we will dedicate more time to prayer and less to television; more time with the family and less to personal interests; more time of silence to hear the voice of God and less time with the racket of life; more time with Jesus and less with the social networks. I am going to let myself be guided more by the Holy Spirit and less by the gossip of Twitter and Facebook.

“Lord, I do believe, but increase my faith.”


© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts