Puerto Ricans honor St. John the Baptist as patron of their island

The first celebration of St. John the Baptist started in Europe. St. John was an itinerant preacher spreading the message of repentance in the first century. Converts showed they had received his message of repentance by being baptized. St. John the Baptist would sink a person into the Jordan River on their back three times to symbolize the washing away of sins and a new life upon rising from the water.

Today, St. John the Baptist celebrations take place in Ireland with water and bonfires that are lit with the ashes spread on the land. Scandinavians gather and jump over bonfires as a sign of courage. Brazil also lights bonfires to celebrate the birthday of St. John the Baptist.

Every June in Puerto Rico, St. John the Baptist is a great celebration. The annual festival of St. John the Baptist (La Noche de San Juan) is similar to our Independence Day or Labor Day celebrations in popularity.

The celebration begins on the night of June 23, when people jump backwards into the ocean at the stroke of midnight. St. John was born on June 24. Puerto Ricans have taken this holiday very seriously, since Ponce de Leon chose St. John the Baptist as the patron saint of the island. The island was first named San Juan, but later the name was transferred to the capital city and the island was named Puerto Rico, which means "Rich Port."

Just as St. John the Baptist cleansed people's sins in baptism, the Noche de San Juan ritual of water purges evil spirits and sinful acts. On June 23, people count down the seconds while standing in the ocean, then throw themselves into the water backwards. The beaches are full of people celebrating with music, fireworks, dancing and food.

We, in the diocese, will celebrate with the Puerto Rican community at St. Patrick Parish in East Chicago. On June 24, a bilingual Mass will begin at 10:30 a.m., with food and music following Mass in the parish hall. The food menu will include lechon azado (pork), chicken, ham, Puerto Rican rice, salads, bread, and pastries. Tickets may be purchased in advance after weekend Masses at St. Patrick Parish, 3802 Grand Blvd., East Chicago; at the parish office, 398-1036; or through Milagros, 801-0588.

Adeline Torres is director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry. The preceding column appeared in Spanish in the NWIC edition dated May 25, 2014.