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SPAIN and Catholicism

John Heelan reports on Holy Week in Spain from of all places fun-loving Marbella, an Andalusian coastal resort: "The ambivalent attitude of Spanish people to the Church has long fascinated me to the extent that I believe that trying to understand that dichotomy it is vital in appreciating Spanish culture. I have studied the Semana Santa phenomenon for many years in efforts to deepen my understanding of Spanish culture and have just returned from Sevilla investigating more on the Andalusian culture, especially that connected with the Semana Santa. (I have to say that despite witnessing processions in most parts of Andalucia over the last thirty years, the next procession still astounds me -a cradle Catholic and now an agnostic- a feeling that I have often tried to analyse without success so let me try to describe the emotions.)

The most moving processions I have personally attended recently were in Marbella (the epitome of jet-set hedonistic Spain with deep religious undertones). There are at least one or two processions every night in the town. The crowd starts gathering about midnight, noisily thronging the streets almost in party mood. Children are running about playing, men are smoking and chatting in small groups and the women are looking in the shop windows of the expensive stores along the main street. The best place to see the processions is in the narrow streets of the Old Town, especially in the main square, Patio de los Naranjos. From the distance one hears the (always slightly discordant) tones of the trumpets accompanying the procession. After what seems an interminable wait, the crowd falls eerily silent as the beginning of the procession appears edging its way around the sharp corner of a street perhaps no wider than a sub-compact car. A hooded man with a cross leads two files of people carrying large candles. All are wearing the uniform of dark robes and high peaked masks; those of the "nazarenos" rise to a sharp point, those of the "penitentes" flop behind the neck. All have one hand to the front of the mask pulling it down just a little so that they can see through the small eye holes. Behind the them is the procession's centrepiece, the platform bearing a statue representing a stage in Christ's Passion and Mary's sorrow, almost alive as it sways from side to side as it is borne by the 30-60 men underneath walking in step. The setting of the images is breathtaking, lifelike figures adorned where appropriate with heavily embroidered clothes and surrounded by candles and flowers. The crowd is now completely silent. The only sound is that of the band playing a slow dirge. Every so often, somebody in the crowd says "ĄGuapa!" ("Beautiful")- and it is true. Sometimes somebody spontaneously sings a saeta, usually a line of a prayer undeniably rooted in the flamenco cante jondo tradition. Following the platform in the last processions I saw was a penitente, bare-footed with heavy chains around his ankles. Every step must have been painful, I could see his traces of blood following him. Then come the town's dignitaries, Mayor, Police Chief, top Guardia Civil man, prominent businessmen and clerics- followed by the band, more nazarenos and the other members of the specific Brotherhood in smart clothes. I look around and see tears in the eyes of the on-lookers, matching those in mine. They probably have a lump in their throats similar to that I feel now as I write these words.

The ambience is deeply Spanish, an expression of group "hispanidad" that even long-term hispanistas such as I feel a bit excluded. Non-hispanistas might feel even more uncomfortable at such exclusion; nothing is said or indicated by the crowd, but the feeling is like being a stranger witnessing an intimate family event.. Holiday-makers, still in shorts and loud shirts at midnight, sometimes react to this feeling by making ribald comments in undertones to the other members of their group. The crowd ignores them. Eventually the foreigners fall silent and usually go off somewhere to find an "English Pub" where they can feel more comfortable.

But why is it so important to Spanish culture? Undoubtedly the various Brotherhoods are important aspects of the social structure of every Andalusian city. Their members enjoy benefits derived from just belonging to the organisation rather like those add-on social benefits enjoyed by members of charitable, Masonic lodges and golf clubs; that is not to undervalue the apparent religious devotion of the Brothers/Sisters. Semana Santa is major event of the year justifying their existence.

But what is the reason for so depth of devotion? Theologians will explain it better, however to me it is linked to the safety-valve concepts of "carnival" and the subsequent re-introduction of social control by the Church through the processes of Lent and Easter. A further question concerns the strength of devotion given to Mary, equal to that given to Christ. Some people say that Andalusian "marianismo" is another link to the pagan traditions of the Earth-Mother and the pre-Christian fertility rights represented the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Whatever it is, to me Semana Santa processions reveal some of the inner workings of Spanish psyche. Further they move me greatly for reasons I cannot explain".

RH: John, Even the faithful are agnostics, faced with the magnum misterium. Way back in the 1930s I saw similar processions in Toledo. They were not marked by Christian love. Andalusia may be different, with the Virgen de la Macarena and other shrines.

Ronald Hilton - 4/19/03