On the first Sunday of February, for thousands of Catholics in and around Bihar, and also for some who are journeying from other places, all roads lead to the Mother of Divine Grace. This shrine dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, attracts large numbers of people on the occasion of the Feast day.
‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death!’ is the prayer mumbled 53 times, the supplicants clicking through their rosary beads, as they walk in procession around the shrine. The prayers are led in Hindi, but the responses come in several languages, as each individual intercedes.
The Catholic Church traces its ancestry through the line of popes all the way to Peter, the Big Fisherman. Peter was the one to whom, according to the gospels, Jesus symbolically handed down his mantle. Peter, the one who faltered as he walked on water; the one who was awed at a miraculous catch of fish; the one who declared the divinity of Jesus, but who also denied him three times … Peter, the bumbler, the one who was sometimes chided by the Master, ‘get behind me Satan!’. This same Peter is the rock on which the Lord built his Church. He was asked to switch jobs from Fisher of Men, to Chief Shepherd : ‘Feed my Sheep’.
Younger Christian sects and denominations frown upon and even condemn devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. They say that Mary should not be worshipped, and that Mary is not God, so why pray to her? But do Catholics worship Mary? Why do thousands of people go to shrines like Mokama?
The Hail Mary is a Biblical prayer. It is the very theological point of where Judaism evolves into something immensely more fulfilling. The Christian Church, which I believe is a Pilgrim Church, begins its journey with the Hail Mary. The incarnation can happen only through Mary. The Immaculate Conception is an article of faith common to all Christian denominations.
“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” This is what the Angel Gabriel said to Mary, what Catholics call The Annunciation; and to the best of my knowledge, you will find these words in every known version of the Bible. The Annunciation story is also featured in the Holy Koran, and so is the concept of Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.
Back to Mokama. The thousands of people converging here are seeking a miracle or maybe a dozen. They ask the Mother of Divine Grace to intercede on their behalf, just like she did at the Wedding feast of Cana, another Biblical event. And there are hundreds of people who come here to give thanks for favours and graces received. They have experienced miracles big and small.
Bijendra Kumar is a twenty year old from Odar Village in Kaimur district. He has come to the shrine with his mother and sister who stay in Haryana. “I am a Hindu boy who believes in the power of the Lord, and I myself have received so many blessings. My mother and sister have great faith in the power of prayer. This is the second year we have come. To give thanks and to ask the mother to pray for us. My faith in the Lord has nothing to do with the religion I was born in,” he says.
The ways in which the faithful coming to the shrine express their thanks, in tune with their local cultural expressions, are many and varied. Some light candles, others offer scarves and shawls, some may seek to shave off their hair, and so on.
This year, it is expected that the numbers will be more than last year, especially because this is a special occasion. The Archbishop as well as several other bishops will be here to give thanks in the Centenary Year of the Patna Diocese, of which the shrine is a part. The Archbishop of Patna, the Most Reverend William D’Souza SJ, is to deliver a special Apostolic Blessing from Pope Francis. The spiritual benefits of such a blessing- the total forgiveness of sins – is available to those who have truly repented and have availed of the sacrament of reconciliation.
The shrine is being readied to cope with the deluge of visitors, many of whom have already begun arriving. Tomorrow brings with it a celebration, renewed devotion and an affirmation of Divine Mercy.
[Frank Krishner is an independent communicator and a member of Signis Bijhan- the communication association of the Catholic Church]