A Pilgrim's Experience

San Nicola, Bari, Italy
San Nicola Statue
Basilica di San Nicola, Bari

A report from St Nicholas enthusiast, Canon J M Rosenthal, Director of Communications for the Anglican Communion, who made a visit to the Basilica of St Nicola in Bari for the Jubilee 2000 celebration which lasted three days. It was a life-changing experience.

The enthusiasm and devotion to the saint were evident as soon as I stepped within the grounds of the basilica. Police barricades and market stalls gave the hint that many people were expected. Little did I realise that on the second day of the three day festival a crowd estimated at about 75,000 would attend an open air mass in celebration of the relics' arrival in Bari 913 years ago. Italian fervour and Catholic piety instilled in this Anglican a true sense of emotion and joy as I tried to be faithful to the vigorous festival schedule. On Saturday May 6th, immediately within minutes of my arrival, I found myself attending the final novena service in the basilica and for the first time viewed the extraordinary statue standing to the left of the altar. Bari has its own unique representation of the saint, sort of a mixture between the traditional Russian or Greek Orthodox icon image and the western Catholic tradition of a bearded, jolly bishop in cope and mitre.

Bari Shop
Many shops in Bari Old Town are filled with San Nicola items

My first stop, of course, took me to the basilica's official souvenir shop where images of St Nicholas are found on virtually every imaginable kind of item. I certainly bought my fair share.

Happy bands of pilgrims started arriving on Sunday May 7th. This day, with the usual round of Sunday services, found thousands gathered at the Molo St Nicola for arrival by sea of an icon-style painting of the beloved saint. The arrival comes on the Caravello, a replica of the ship that originally brought Nicholas' bones to Italy. Following the festival arrival, the city streets become a parade route for the Corteo Storico, a literal retelling of the entire Nicholas story, organised by the local community. It was a breath-taking spectacle, accomplished by dedicated and well-rehearsed people. The floats were grand and their message clear.

For me the marathon day would be Monday May 8th when I spent nine hours wandering through the city of Bari visiting many of the beautiful churches in the Old Town section. Almost every church has an image of the saint and candles blazed and prayers were offered by the organised pilgrims who found their way to Bari for the festival. I was told to be early, so two hours I waited in the streets near the breakwater for a solemn con-celebration of the Eucharist with the Archbishop of Bari Bitonto as the celebrant. The pilgrims' arrival was accompanied by splendid banners and staffs covered with crucifixes and flowers. I felt a great sense of expectation in the crowd, as they knew something I didn't. Just at the appointed hour, I turned to look to see how many more pilgrims were coming and there, in a bigger than life representation, came St Nicholas himself, bedecked in flowers and gold and carried by twelve men in traditional costumes. The statue actually looked like it was walking. Great cheers accompanied the procession as the statue reached the altar area where it stood, police guarded and pilgrim watched, during the two hour liturgy.

Bari Procession
"Walking" statue in procession
Bari Pilgrims
Pilgrims process with devotional objects

The faithful were barricaded off while a group of VIPs were allowed to come closer to the high altar. At the end of the mass came the long-awaited departure of the statue for its day-long visit to the waters of the Adriatic Sea. The crowds rushed to the port side as the Archbishop blessed the sea and set the statue on its day-long flotilla journey. There were dozens of boats surrounding the main vessel and within moments the statue was up and away.

The city is completely decked out as if it were Christmas itself—at night, fireworks, and during the day markets and entertainment, including popular music concerts and food as only the Italians can provide.

Bari Festival screens
Lighted festival screens
Bari lighted screens
Lighted screens decorate Bari Old Town

In the evening the statue arrives back and is placed in a position of honour in the public square Piazza Ferrarese. There the statue stays for a couple of days and is visited by many, many thousands who pay tribute and receive prayer cards and prints of the sacred image. I found myself with two Italian friends sitting in the Piazza having dinner in the presence of the great saint, a memorable meal indeed.

San Nicola in Procession
San Nicola Statue in Procession
San Nicola in Procession
San Nicola Statue in Procession

As if this wouldn't be enough, the major celebration, the 913th anniversary of the translation of the relics, was held on Tuesday May 9th. A complete round of masses were offered in the basilica but the major celebration, and indeed it was every bit that, was held in the evening. Again, the Archbishop of Bari presided and notable in attendance were members of the Orthodox church who have a chapel in the crypt. The Institute of St Nicholas in Bari is a great Dominican centre dedicated to Christian unity. As a staff member of the Anglican Communion, I was greeted warmly and welcomed from the altar at the beginning of the service. I was asked to sit in a certain section of pews, but I didn't exactly know why. Soon I would find out. At the end of the Eucharist, all of the altar party, choir and clergy, and the first few pews of the basilica congregation made their way to the crypt chapel where the actual tomb of the saint is located. What I didn't know was that this was the moment that everybody waited for. It is called the Preliero Della Santo Manna and what a holy moment it was. The rector of the basilica literally crawls under the altar in the crypt and takes from the holy site a liquid called the holy manna which has flowed from the relics from the earliest days of their veneration in Myra. One ofthe great tests of faith was to see whether manna would continue to flow once the relics were removed to Italy. Indeed, for 913 years the "Miracle of the Manna" has brought tears of joy to the faithful as a small container is shown to the people containing a sizable volume of liquid that exudes a sweet smelling myrrh. Applause, cheering and alleluias sounded forth as the Archbishop blessed the congregation, holding the manna in his hand. However in his brief homily he made it very clear that the true manna a good Catholic should seek as his primary source of strength is the manna of the Eucharist. The manna is diluted with water and offered to the faithful in small bottles for use for devotion and anointing.

St Nicholas Reliquary
Large San Nicola Reliquary in Basilica nave

The evening continued well past midnight with three major fireworks displays and a party that attracted young and old alike. I must say that my fervour for the tradition of St Nicholas has been heightened beyond belief by this experience. It is my prayer and hope that more and more young people and adults alike will know the St Nicholas tradition and how it relates to our Advent and Christmas celebrations in the western church. We have everything to gain by recapturing the legends and examples that this beloved saint, patron of almost everybody from children to sailors, affords for the faithful.

In another section

More Images from Bari

By Canon J M Rosenthal, former director of communication for the Anglican Communion
Photos: St Nicholas Society/JMR

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