In a small town in India's Goa state, the Feast of Our Lady of Miracles draws devotees from multiple religions — and coconut oil plays a role in their observances.
“It’s a unique Marian devotion, where Catholics and devotees of other faiths, with their deep conviction of the presence of God, show their love and venerate our Blessed Mother,” Father Mario Saturnino Dias told CNA April 20.
Fr. Dias directs the center for missions for the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman.
He said the annual Feast of Our Lady of Miracles “draws people to a change of heart,” encouraging them to be “authentic witnesses of the new evangelization in sharing our faith and strengthening interreligious harmony.”
The feast takes place once a year on the Monday following the third Sunday after Easter.
The pilgrims to the shrine make acts of surrender and reconciliation, and place their prayers in the hands of the Virgin Mary. Fr. Dias said hundreds of people receive graces, find healing, and witness miracles.
The annual festivity starts with spiritual preparation of the faithful through novenas, catechesis, confession, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and several Masses. The devotees are undeterred by the hot summer weather, travelling for miles from distant villages. Many come on foot to venerate the Virgin Mary and to pour coconut oil over the statue.
Some place tokens of gratitude at the feet of the statue of Our Lady of Miracles in thanksgiving for healings, the gift of a child, and other answered prayers. The week-long festivities also attract a street fair with vendors selling traditional goods and handcrafts.
Fr. Simon Rico Fernandes, O.F.M. Cap., presided at the solemn thanksgiving Mass April 11 with a large number of concelebrant priests, religious, and hundreds of faithful. They gathered at the Church of Saint Jerome in the Mapusa, located nearly 10 miles north of Panjim, capital of Goa.
The Franciscans built the Church of St. Jerome in 1594 in Mapusa. On its main altar is the statue of Our Lady of Miracles flanked by two smaller altars on either side, each with the statue of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome.
At the end of the Mass the faithful held a colorful procession. They carried the statue of Our Lady of Miracles and sang Marian hymns of praise. They lined up to venerate the statue, presenting flowers and candles, and pouring coconut oil over the statue.
According to Fr. Dias, the custom of pouring oil is devotees’ humblest way to express their gratitude. It’s a version of anointing, which has been a common custom as a mark of hospitality and a token of honor and gratitude. It is also a practice in the consecration of priests and monarchs in the ancient cultures of the Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs, Indians, and others.
The use of oil and anointing is also found in many places in the Bible.
“Many instances in the Bible show the ancient Hebrews observed the practice in the anointing of Aaron as high priest. The Prophet Samuel anointed both Saul and David,” Fr. Dias added.
Oil has long been considered a valuable product. At times it was the only form of wealth poor people could offer in Churches and temples for the lighting of lamps.
One Marian devotee, Laura D’Souza, reflected on the devotions.
“It’s difficult to understand the soulful expression of religiosity by our people with the eyes of intellect or with theological understanding,” she said.
“Only a person touched by a faith encounter will understand a devotee,” she said, “If there were no felt presence of our Blessed Mother, how can people be drawn in the thousands without force or invitation?”
Fr. Dias reflected that in Goa, “People converted to Christianity under the Portuguese colonial era. They may still carry some traditional influences where some popular devotions may need purification.”
“But,” he added, “we need to study and educate and catechize people before introducing changes, because popular devotions sustain the religiosity of our people and lead them to the Eucharist.”