If, like me, you spent an inordinate amount of time researching how Holy Week was celebrated throughout the world two weeks ago, then you would know that the andas used for the processions in Guatemala are some of the largest in the world; that Franciscan priests use the Greek Orthodox altar in the Shrine of the Holy Sepulcher for the rite of the deposition; that Nazarenos are the ones with the pointed hoods, and costaleros are the ones with the sacks over their heads carrying the paso in procession. You would know that Taranto, Italy, has excellent marches to accompany the processions of Good Friday, and that an Australian comic was crucified in Pampanga here in the Philippines, who planned to use the footage of him in agony for a TV show (he should not have been let down that cross).
In Seville, capital of Andalusia in Spain, they hold what is, quite possibly, the grandest Good Friday procession in the world. Starting at the crack of midnight, La Madruga, as this procession is called, typically lasts 14 hours, with a minimum of a million people joining. The high point of the procession is the image of Nuestra Senora de Esperanza de Macarena-- a three hundred year old image of the Blessed Mother, which Sevillanos believe to have been carved by angels. The face of La Macarena is haunting; it is the face of one trying to comprehend the agony and grief of a loved one. It is at once restrained and gut-wretching. La Macarena is borne on a huge paso (processional platform), a giant, velvet palio above her announcing that she is the Queen of all Andalusia. Before her burn several tall candles, to shield her eyes from the sight of her Son in agony.
The video above shows the much revered image of La Macarena exiting the church where she and her confraternity 'reside'. Amidst much fanfare and cheers from the crowd, and the piercing trills and passion of haunting saetas sung in honor of the Virgin, the image makes its way through the crowded streets of Seville. Grown men and women cry upon seeing their beloved Queen in her grief; words of admiration, as if whispered to a lover, are dedicated to the Virgin, accompanied by thousands of kisses and rose petals blown at her by many a devout member of the crowd. Women in long, flowing mantillas accompany La Macarena, as the carefully choreographed procession relives the passion and drama of Spain's much revered Semana Santa.
All of these scenes seem to paint an image of militantly Catholic Spain, fiercely proud of her Christian traditions. But the reality is far different. Spain today is a vastly secularized nation with a growing population of atheists and agnostics. Three decades ago, it would have been unthinkable to equate Spain with secularism; even today in the Philippines, the contrite prefer to confess to Spanish priests, because they are perceived to be guardians of tradition, and many still equate that country with glorious, triumphant Catholicism. If Wikipedia is to be believed, then the downward spiral of the Church in Spain poses a serious problem, if Europe is to preserve its Christian identity. How did it happen that the land of the Dominicans, the Jesuits, Opus Dei, which traversed the whole world for glory of God and country become so secular?
The answer is not easy to pinpoint. One can perhaps trace it to the La Gloriosa Revolucion in 1869, when Masonry began to visibly flex its muscle against the Church. More recent is the Civil War of 1936, and its Red Terror, which claimed the lives of thousands of priests, bishops, and religious. But popular sentiment simply does not change overnight; less than 40 years before the Civil War, Spain was still an Empire (technically, a collection of kingdoms), but the loss of Cuba and the Philippines, as well as its defeat at the hands of America (then the new kid on the block trying to assert its place among the old powers of Europe)is sure to have played a role in secularization as well. But the bottom line is that the country's Catholic identity had been under attack for a long time. As easly as the mid-19th century, missionaries in the Philippines were already decrying the lax attitude of Spaniards when it came to the reception of the Sacraments.
Today, while the Church still retains a measure of esteem in Spain, its voice has been growing weaker by the decade. We need not look further than the legalization of same-sex marriage in that country, the pitiful church attendance (20%), and the fact that Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in all of Europe. In the face of all these numbers, one is tempted to think that all is lost for Europe. The former champions of Christendom are gone, and with it, a sense of tradition. We ask ourselves, 'Is there still a Christian nation left in Europe?'
For many, there has been a shift in thought in what constitutes a Christian nation. Many of us see the United States, for example, as the pre-eminent Christian nation on earth today, and proof of this are its great wealth and dominance in world affairs. But the United States has never received the Cross, received its pain and its love. It has received its fruits and its commerce, but not its humility, and its glory. Sometimes it can get depressing to think of the rapidly declining voice of Christianity in the world. But then along come these veritable scenes of splendor from the past, and for a brief moment, all the fears brought about by 'supercategorical thinking' cease to exist. We are alone before the Virgin of Hope once again, crying our eyes and our hearts out like children. Streets fill with the thunder of a million footsteps simultaneously pounding the pavement, and the roar of trumpets heralding the passing of the Queen.
The more I think about it, the more I see the Church like an immovable rock wall, or a majestic mountain undaunted by the tricks and artifice of man. You can butt heads with a wall all you want, but the wall always wins, leaving you with a cracked skull and perhaps more than a few broken bones. In Spain, as in Italy, Portugal, and especially France, the Church has so embedded itself in the culture that it is practically impossible to think outside of its framework. The Church has influenced food, culture, music, even the way we talk, or bid someone goodbye (e.g., Adios - to God)-- even the way we hate has been influenced somewhat by the Church. Even Luis Bunuel, who was rabidly anti-clerical, who toasted the death of bishops and priests in the Civil War, and who threw an image of the Virgin into the sea, would recall the God-haunted days when he yet had faith, citing how the rituals of Viernes Santo always brought a chill to his spine, and not a few tears.
Perhaps it is a new phenomenon to Americans and other people of non-Catholic countries, but Church attendance is never really an excellent gauge of one's faith or religiosity. To be sure, it helps a lot, but at the end of the day, it is not a direct correlate to something that is unquantifiable in the first place. In Italy and Spain, for example, one can be non-religious but still feel insulted by Communist politicians disobeying the Church. Similarly, people who are not regular church-goers can still be moved to tears by the sight of the Virgin in her grief. They cry out to her, their Mother and Queen, and wish that it was them suffering instead. Again, there is that image of the Church as an immovable brick wall; ultimately, it still deserves our respect, whether given grudgingly or not.
Admittedly, the diminishing influence of the Church is something to be lamented. But at the same time we should not expect an overnight 'reversion' to Christian truth. One thing which I fervently believe in is that being a Christian is to be incorporated into the Body of Christ, in all its wounds, bruises, and brokenness. It is not for naught that the defining symbol of Christianity is the crucifix. It is no accident that He died, and it is certainly not a mere trifle that we celebrate His sacrifice. And while a Catholic culture is not the be-all-end-all of our woes, it is certainly a good place to start. A nation is built on ideas; we cherish them with great affection, and in so doing, form our consciousness as a people. I believe that Spain's identity as a Christian nation is crucial for the Church, not only for the sake of its history, but ultimately for the sake of its survival. If indeed culture is the expression of the ideas upon which our nation (or other imagined communities) is built, then the tradition behind it must be preserved as well. You can only have too many glass houses and diamond-studded skulls to last a lifetime before obscurity or the next big fad swallow them into oblivion.
It is said that a drunk man once hurled insults at the image of La Macarena, punctuating it by following his sacrilege with a beer bottle that hit the right cheek of the Virgin. Later, upon reaching sobriety and realizing what he had done, the man was overcome with great grief and resolved to walk in the procession of La Macarena with his ankles bound in chains, and a heavy cross on his shoulders. Even when the man had died, his descendants continued the tradition, and even today, it is said that the tradition continues. Those who wish to purge Spain and indeed the rest of Catholic Europe of every last vestige of their Christian heritage seeth in hatred at the processions of Sevilla's Semana Santa, but the great multitudes who participate seem to defy the desired effect of their opinion-makers. They hate this relic of the superstitious past, because they see that it is alive, despite the onslaught of years and ideologies. They hate it, because ultimately, they are the ones in most need of the light and peace of Christ.
Semana Santa is over, and most of Spain has returned to its former habits. But the Church remains, undaunted-- though perhaps diminished and more than battle-weary-- waiting for that day when it may start to rebuild itself in Europe. And while that day seems far off, one should never underestimate the power of the Church. It is a pledge of hope and a sign of future victory that we can cling to, and ironically, but not accidentally, its herald is the image of the Crucified Lord and His Sorrowful Mother, who is nevertheless ready to forgive and forget all our offenses. That is why she is called Esperanza---Hope--, after all.