I knew I was not in America anymore when on the night before Palm Sunday we walked into a bar in Moron de la Frontera. The bar belonged to the Confraternity of Loreto, and the men and their sons were all abuzz, for the next day would begin once again the most famous celebration annual celebration of Holy Week: Semana Santa in Seville. The men were comparing the knots that had developed on the backside of their necks after years of carrying floats called pasos in these celebrations. And the young boys looked up to their fathers and the day that they too would carry in their bodies the sign of the Passion they celebrate in such a sumptuous manner.
Two Americans, Fr Luke Melcher of Louisiana, and I, went to visit our friend Don Pedro, who is Chaplain to the American Air Force Base in Moron as well as pastor of two parishes outside of Seville. This Palm Sunday morning I celebrated the Mass in the parish of Moron for the community there, and after Mass we began the great adventure Semana Santa in Seville.
I had heard of the world-famous celebrations of Holy Week before. I had seen the pictures on the Internet and Youtube videos. But nothing would prepare me for what really is the largest Catholic block party in the world. Of course, before we could begin, we had to have lunch in the one of the chic quarters of cosmopolitan Seville and plan out our day.
Good thing there is a IPhone App for Semana Santa in Seville. But we also had the ABC Newspaper’s several sheet spread timetable to choose which processions we would follow. As we drove into the city, we were listening to the ESPN of Religion, a running commentary on the radio of every moment of every procession. Of course, having as our guide one of the most well-connected young priests in Spain was like having an all-access pass to be up close and personal with this amazing religious event.
In the early afternoon, we were able to work our way to the area around the famous Cathedral with its imposing belltower, the Giralda. To say that it was crowded does not begin to describe it. But on this incredibly hot afternoon, what struck me was how everyone was dressed. Nowhere in all of my travels through the Americas and Europe have I ever seen such a large number of snazzily and preppily dressed people. I don’t know if the indomitable blogger of the Sartorialist has ever been to Semana Santa, but he has no idea what he is missing!
Every procession follows a similar pattern. The first float depicts a mystery during the events of the Passion. The statue compositions rest upon wooden or silver and gold tables and often weigh up to two tons. Beneath them are from 36 to 56 men who carry the float. Each float has an elaborately carved knocker. A precentor uses the knocker to give instructions to the litter-bearers, who are hidden beneath the float by richly embroidered velvet cloths. Water boys occasionally steal under the floats to bring these men something to hydrate them. The famous penitents, in their distinctive robes and hoods, process in full anonymity. Behind the float depicting the mystery of Christ is a band, always playing a hymn in a minor key. Not far behind are more penitents. Many carry silver staffs, crosses, or the Rule of the Confraternity that sponsors that procession, often a book itself encased in silver.
Each procession also has another float with a statue of the Blessed Virgin, under a canopy, often of fine silver filigree work. Each canopy as eight or ten poles, and tassels of precious metal. Around the Blessed Virgin is a forest of candles as well as wax flowers as well as real flowers. The interesting thing about these floats is that everything is in motion. While the candlesticks, poles, and vases are all attached, they are attached in such a way that the entire float moves graciously and there is a peculiar sound of metal in perpetual motion. Acolytes with crucifix and torches are vested in dalmatics of velvet and couched gold embroidery over handmade lace albs, and are accompanied by several thurifers with so many charcoals in their censers I still do not know they did not melt every thurible in Andalucia. Following the Marian float would be another band, playing lively music in a major key.
The music for the procession that the bands use dates mostly from the 19th century, and not a small portion of it sounds suspiciously Puccini-inspired. Occasionally from a balcony a Spanish VIP with a stentorian voice would intone a saeta, a haunting Arabic-sounding serenade to the Blessed Virgin.
While this is the general procedure for a procession, it is important to understand that at any given time, day or night, for an entire week, there are several elaborate processions going on at the same time. As Our Lord of Victories, triumphant in his resignation to the chalice of suffering was making His way in front of us, behind us He was also marching triumphantly into Jerusalem as two processions skirted opposite ends of the plaza.
One of the most edifying things was the comportment of the faithful. Extraordinarily well-dressed young men and women climbed on top of anything that could give them a better view and kept a reverent silence when the floats passed, and the Sign of the Cross was reverently made. In some of the processions, those who processed walk backwards as a sign of reverence to Our LORD and Our Lady.
After several hours of watching processions under the blazing Andalucian sun, we stopped into Starbucks (America, America everywhere) for cold Frapuccinos. By this point, around 9pm, I was ready for a liter of sangria and bed. But the night had just begun.
We went to the Cathedral where the Confraternity that Don Pedro’s family has belonged to since time immemorial, La Estrella (Stella Maris), was beginning its procession. He was avidly looking for his brother, but how do you find your brother when he is dressed in a robe and a hood along with thousands upon thousands of other penitents? But they did find each other, and so Fr Luke and I gazed upon the delightful scene of two brothers, one a priest and the other penitent, chatting in the nave of the Cathedral, one shrouded in anonymity and the other in his clerics, taking part in a ritual that existed centuries before Christopher Columbus, who awaits the Resurrection of the Body in the Cathedral of Seville, ever thought of a voyage of discovery.
We spent several hours in the Cathedral, working our way through the endless files of people in procession. The Archbishop of Seville and his Auxiliary were seated in a makeshift throne room in a side chapel where we were granted a brief but warm audience. But one of the most emotional scenes of the day was when the Archbishop rushed to one of the floats, and went under it and knelt before the men who carried it. With those poor men who had been carrying the float through the streets of Seville for hours he prayed. He asked them to pray with him for vocations to the priesthood, for holy priests to shepherd the flock of Christ. He prayed for World Youth Day, for young people. He begged their prayers and prayed with them. Fortified by the blessing of their shepherd, at the sound of the knocker, the men in unison jumped as high as they could in the air and the procession began once again.
The greatest honour of the day was to accompany this procession through the streets of Seville, rather than being mere spectators. We saw so many tears of gratitude, prayer, and repentance. We saw so many acts of kindness to the penitents and the float-bearers. And what an edifying thing to see among the hooded throngs barefoot children walking through the streets with candles taller than they were, all meditating in their own way on the Passion of Christ.
It was quite the introduction to Holy Week. It is now after 3am. The streets of Seville are still thronged with worshippers, and they are still at it. They are predicting rain this week, but as absolutely exhausted as I am (and I can only imagine those who carried the floats or walked barefoot through the streets in procession), I am praying ad repellendam tempestates. I do not want to miss a minute of this extraordinarily Catholic manifestation of faith.
As one float passed by of Christ silent before the unjust judgment of Pilate, I was moved to pray for the Church, for her priests, for those who have been abused, for those who have been accused falsely, for all of those who do not have a voice. Somehow the prayer that comes from meditation over a scene like that seems so much useful than the angry words, political machinations and ideological battles which ruin our lives in society and the Church.
Something like Semana Santa is not strictly liturgical. It does not correspond to historical-critical interpretations of Scripture. It is impervious to the politically correct mindset of those who would force reforms on the Church hardly consonant with Catholic tradition. It is folkloric, but it is not pagan. It is a massive movement of humanity in dialogue with the power of the narrative of the Passion of Christ. A movement which brings tears to the eyes, which are tears of joy, repentance, fatigue, and wonder.
The world needs Semana Santa. The world needs Semana Santa because in Seville at least, people recognize their own fragility and limitations in a dramatic way. But they recognize even more that there is Victory in the Blood of Jesus, and they call down the power of that Blood upon them and the whole world in prayer, penance and works of mercy. I can hardly think of a better way to live Holy Week than that.
Check out my PicasaWeb Album of Semana Santa pictures I will be updating ALL WEEK LONG!