Friday, June 22, 2012

San Fermines, Bullfights and Popular Piety



My parish has had Corpus Christi processions almost every year for several years now.  This year, we decided to have it after the Solemn Mass at 10am, in the hopes that more people would come, even though the showing was always respectable when it was held after Vespers.  And, to the credit of my good people, a very large number stayed for the Procession, which I take as a good sign of their spiritual health!  (Of course, we also had the First Communion kids in their dresses and suits and a cookout afterwards!)  We had to move it indoors because of a torrential downpour, but that did not dampen the spirits of the faithful.  Yet, as any good shepherd is always solicitous for those of the fold who wander away, I was not unaware of the much smaller number of disgruntled parishioners who moaned, “Oh my God, Mass is going to be longer and why all this pre-Vatican II crap” as they slithered out of the doors anxious to get to the breakfast buffet to beat the Baptists.

I have to confess that such an attitude I find incomprehensible, if for no other reason than my experience in Spain has been so different.  In South Carolina, there are those who will go to Mass and not go to a Procession, and in Spain, there are those who will go to a Procession but not to Mass.  In South Carolina, pretty much no one but Catholics, and then just the pious ones, are going to be found taking part in a Procession, while in Spain, the most diehard atheist is still going to take part, because, well, it’s a party, isn’t it? 

Pamplona is gearing up for the biggest party in the world, the Sanfermines.  It starts on the evening of 6 July and goes for, well, you guessed it, 8 days.  How Catholic!  The last day of the festival is called the Octave, and the beginning and the end are marked by religious ceremonies.  The festival used to start, at least since the 13th century, with Vespers, until 1946, when someone threw a firecracker off City Hall right before Vespers in the church of San Saturnino across from it.  So, since then, this primitive Lucernarium has announced the start of the festival.  A great example of tradition being able to integrate innovation!  Organic development, anyone?

San Fermín was the son of a Roman senator, a native of Pamplona, who converted with his whole family to Catholicism.  Saint Saturninus baptized them with water from a well, which is now covered with a beautiful medallion that you can still see and venerate in the middle of the street outside the elegant church of San Saturnino.  Fermín went to Toulouse, where he was ordained a priest, and then he was made the first Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 24 and sent off to France, where he was beheaded at Amiens in 303. 

The city had always had a kind of summer fair, but when some important relics came to town in the 14th century, devotion to San Fermín grew to a fever pitch, and with an entire Octave to celebrate him, the people grew the feast that has become one of the most famous Events in the world.  The first bullfight to mark the feast also dates from around the same time. 

What makes San Fermín interesting is the role of tradition in it.  There is a definite way of doing things, an order of events, during the festival, and it has grown and changed over the years, but always substantially remaining the same.  Everyone, and I mean, everyone, wears the iconic uniform of white shirts and white trousers, with the red sash and bandana, red for the blood of San Fermín and white for sanctity.  No one has to be reminded.  In fact, when you go to the department store, El Corte Inglés, it is hard to forget, when every floor for two months before the feast has displays where you can buy t-shirts, trousers, and even white shoes with red stripes.  That, and the big posters reminding you to check the box for the Catholic Church on your tax forms!  (Can you imagine this at Wal-Mart or Macy’s?)   

There are so many events during San Fermín it is hard to describe them all.  One of the most interesting ones is the presence of the gigantes.  There is no way to describe it other than these really, really huge puppets, kind of like those fun Call to Action puppets but made of wood and beautiful and much larger and without the self-hating Catholic edge to them.  They dance around through the streets of Pamplona to the delight of children of all ages, and of course, they get very excited and twirly as they approach the Cathedral, reminding me of David dancing before the Ark. 

Now, of course, this is a music blog, so there has to be some mention of that.  Besides the large volunteer choirs of men and women who sing religious and folkloric music at events in Pamplona all year long, there are smaller and larger bands and ensembles that play music around the city.  While the gigantes dance their way through the city, recorders, flutes and tambourines play music which goes back to the Renaissance.  Megachoirs come out of nowhere and fill the streets and churches and public squares with cascades of sound.  And of course, we all know it’s all about dressing up, so no one is surprised to see ensembles dressed in anything from formal evening wear to costumes that look like they have been rented from a Society for Creative Anachronism conference.  And, what is better, is that there is no schedule like the book that comes out for our Spoleto event in Charleston every year, but the music just happens, and it always comes at the right time!

The famous corrida, or running of the bulls, is of course the most well known part of the festival.  The link between the religious festival and the bullfight goes back seven centuries, and I am sure that the link is little more than, “Let’s do something fun during all this praying stuff!”  Of course, when you’re Spanish, fun has elements of spectacle, daring and just plain crazy.  These are the people who throw tons of tomatoes at each other in Palencia, who create towers of flowers in Zaragoza for Our Lady del Pilar, and let wild bulls run through the streets in the silliest game of hide, seek and gore ever invented. 

Of course, not everyone in modern Spain goes in for all this.  Native Pamplonese often leave the city for the week, because, well, no one can sleep.  It is hard to imagine incredibly conservative, elegant, tiny Pamplona (remember the world epicenter of Opus Dei is here, and the Navarre region of Spain is home to perhaps the highest level of practice of the faith in Western Europe) convulsed with wall to wall people sleeping on the sidewalks and green spaces of the city, in a party that makes Woodstock look like child’s play.  Well, Woodstock without the drug abuse and the music that you have to be high to appreciate.  Many of the post-Vatican II clergy types, the ones who like to give 40 minute homilies on liberation theology and wear grey clerical shirts without the collar, rail against the procession.  I once had a conversation with a priest from another part of Spain, who when I mentioned I was a convert from Protestantism, groaned, “We need a Reformation here in Spain.”  He was convinced that the Spanish really are statue-worshippers, and that the whole of Spain should be evangelized properly after 1800 years of Catholicism.  Of course, somehow I think that his boring sermonizing on liberal politics from the pulpit is less likely to get people to the faith than large puppets dancing through the streets during a procession/parade/unclassifiable action were sacred and profane have mixed for so many centuries no one knows where the one ends and the other begins.


But if the statues and the puppets and the saint veneration were not enough to give a die hard Calvinist a stroke in Pamplona, the alcohol might.  The teetotaler prude that is a genetic inheritance somewhere deep inside me (I have tried very hard to repress him as much as possible) could not help but notice that, no one seemed to find it odd to pause in the middle of a religious event, pop into a bar with a buddy, grab a to-go cup of beer, and bring it in Procession.  No one goes into church with their Mahou, but they do go down the street with it.  And no one seems to mind.  In fact, I can imagine the canons of the cathedral, vested in red copes, lace rochets and concave birettas with the purple pompon, taking a caña offered by a well-meaning pious old lady during hour number six of the first Procession. 

All of this to say that, in Pamplona, I have seen how the sacred elevates and permeates the profane without trying to get rid of it.  I am sure that, through the centuries, there have been very well-meaning clergy and laity who have sought to “purify” the Procession of what they perceived to be its excesses. (I don't want to paint too devoted a picture.  All of the religious fervor is mixed in with behavior that makes New Orleans Mardi Gras and Rio's Carnival look tame.  But isn't that at least more interesting than doing nothing at all?)

I don’t think that, at Prince of Peace, I could ever sell a march downtown with giant puppets, relics, beer and fireworks.  But there is something about a deeply inculturated Catholicism which sees the liturgical cycle as an opportunity for great fun.  I am disconsolate that, as I defend my dissertation next week and leave Europe, I will never get to participate in these festivals again (at least as a resident).  Now is the time to get to the business of making that sense of fun and faith come alive in my part of the vineyard, so our manifestations of faith may be attended by believer and non-believer alike (after they stay for the High Mass, of course)!