Inspiration to write a post this Christmas season comes from a traditional pilgrimage that I took part in for the first time last June. The custom belongs to two small Abruzzo places- the town of Montereale and the village of Mascioni. Both lay claim to a saintly man named Andrea Artesi born around 1402. Beatified centuries ago, he is affectionately known as Beato Andrea. I first learned of him when I visited my cousin’s home and picked up a prayer card from her nightstand. Asking about it, I was directed to the site of his 15th century home. Rebuilt as a chapel, it stands as one of the more recently renovated buildings in Mascioni.
His story as I am about to tell it comes from a page in Abruzzo’s best guidebook called Abruzzo A-Tour. Rita Salvatore, the editor, gave me a copy a few years ago. If you register here, you can download a PDF of thisbook and scroll to page 293 to read more about Beato Andrea’s history researched and authored by Stefano Di Giannatale.
Mascioni born Andrea was poor and helped his family by tending sheep. One day a Prior from the Augustinian order went to see him. When Andrea played his whistle, the sheep began to jump about in a miraculous dance. Thus began his association with the Augustinians. He became a theologian and Prior in monasteries throughout northern Italy. Elderly by 1476, he withdrew to the monastery in Montereale. When he died three years later, legend has it that the bells rang for twenty four hours. Other miracles followed including deflecting earthquake devastation to the town in 1703. The 2009 quake did, however, damage his monastery and burial site.
What I relish most in the story is how the people in both Montereale and Mascioni continue to honor Beato Andrea. Long ago- whenever the custom began- Mascioni folk walked on well worn mule paths to the outskirts of Montereale where they were met by a procession of Montereale citizens. They exchanged gifts and celebrated Mass in the church. These days the procession follows a well paved road to an outdoor spot set up for Mass since the church is closed for structural repairs.
After learning about this annual procession, I booked a cot in my cousin’s earthquake relief house to be in Mascioni on June 17th. A relative gave me a lift to the piazza and starting point. I stood alone looking foreign. Because I speak little Italian, I armed myself with old photographs of my Mascioni born nonno. This helps to explain what I’m doing there. Sort of.
Carrying a banner with Beato Andrea’s image, an elderly man led a small procession of women singing the same song over and over for the hour and a half that it took us to walk to the Mass site. We had been walking for only 5 minutes when we stopped for cake and espresso hosted by a family who seemed to enjoy the role of refreshing pilgrims. After a bit, some men joined in and by the time we arrived at the designated field joining in with folks from Montereale, the atmosphere was picnicesque. Most people drove there and hugged and chatted throughout the Catholic mass. I was a little surprised by the lack of reverence. I suppose the pilgrimage in its modern form is as much about civic pride and maintaining tradition as it is about religious adoration. It most certainly is a friend and family re-union.
I like to think of it as an all day party for a hometown shepherd who became a scholar- a twist on the usual poverty and immigration stories. And I liked that he returned home.
These days only about 30 people live year round in Mascioni. Most of the Mascionari who came for the event live in Rome. But a hundred or so come back every June to take part in the ritual walk and afternoon feast in the piazza. I came too, and one of the organizers named Pino gave me a tee shirt to take home that reads BEATO ANDREA STAFF. That shirt widened the circle of gift giving a bit, and after just one walk I feel welcome to journey through time on the paths from Mascioni toward Montereale any mid-June.