Of all the pictures I took at Saint Anthony’s Feast in Boston’s North End today, this is my favorite. If you’re not Catholic–or even if you’re a non-observant Catholic or a Catholic who didn’t grow up in an Old World ethnic enclave–it’s easy to be mystified by over-the-top Catholic festivals. Boston’s North End is a tourist magnet for its Italian restaurants, gelato shops, and bakeries, and the North End’s annual saint days, celebrated with much pomp and festivity, are particularly popular with visitors. The look in this woman’s eyes as she hangs a dollar-adorned scapular on a statue of Saint Anthony of Padua, however, says everything you need to know about the spirituality of Italian-American festivals. As Saint Anthony was processed through the North End and then enshrined in an open-air structure on Endicott Street today, believers covered his image with dollar bills–ones, tens, twenties–each one representing a solemn prayer.

Adored and adorned

It’s easy to scoff at someone else’s beliefs, seeing another’s spirituality as nothing more than superstition: my favorite wry definition of the word “cult,” in fact, is “The house of worship down the street from yours.” But as someone who’s grown fond of my own Buddhist gold guys, I have no right to criticize Catholic devotion. If I’m going to argue that Buddha statues are visual emblems of spiritual attributes, I have to admit the same for Catholic statuary. You might not believe that pinning money on a statue will make your prayers more efficacious…but believe me when I say an entire neighborhood of Italians and a fair share of visitors believe there’s something spiritual about coming out on a hot summer day to do your praying and processing in public.

If nothing else, Italian-American festivals make for great pageantry. The last time I was in Boston’s North End, I’d just graduated and was relieved to spend an evening celebrating in the presence of my people. Today there were no graduations, only an abundance of pomp and (spirited) circumstance. (Click here for more photos from today’s festival.)