Holy Week in Spain (1911)

Fr Michael James O’Doherty, then Rector of the Irish College of Salamanca (later Archbishop of Manila), wrote a fascinating series of articles on Spanish Catholicism and society in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1911. Here is his report on Holy Week from April of that year:

Outside Oberammergau with its Passion Play, there is no place in the world where the story of Calvary is brought so vividly home to one as in the streets of the Spanish cities during the days of Holy Week. Spain is famous for its beautiful processions, and amongst them those of Holy Week easily hold the first place. For the subjects of a Protestant government, especially where the Catholic religion has been banned for centuries, it is difficult to form an idea of the magnificence of the public manifestations of an entire Catholic people, their importance in the religious life, or the enthusiasm evoked on the occasions of the great anniversaries.

During Holy Week in Spain many well-to-do country families change their residence to the cities, in order that they may take part in the more important religious functions which are held there; the poorer folk who live near a city pass the days or part of them in it, and the villagers in the remote districts celebrate their own ‘Holy Funeral’ in a less ostentatious manner.

In those days religious fervour is much in evidence all over Spain; the churches are being constantly visited, the vast majority fulfil the Paschal precept and all look forward to the solemn representation of the sad scenes of Calvary, still honoured and recalled with gratitude throughout an interval of well-nigh two thousand years. Following the advice of Scripture, the Spaniards join fasts and almsgiving to their prayers at this time: ‘Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to lay up treasures of gold.’ (1) Ecclesiastics are bound to observe a continuous black fast on all the days of Holy Week, the lay people only on the last four days; and the Cathedral Chapters and other religious confraternities distribute their alms between the feast of Dolours and Easter Sunday.

Holy Thursday is a great national holiday, all the public offices are closed, no business is done, and even carriages of any kind are not allowed to drive through the city streets. People may drive to the holy Offices in the morning, but they return on foot the carriages go back to the stables and are not required until after the ‘Gloria’ on Holy Saturday morning. Even the King when he attends the ceremonies outside Madrid walks to and from the Cathedral and the other points where he may have engagements.

After the mid-day meal on Holy Thursday the universal occupation is visiting the innumerable Altars of Repose. These are called in Spanish ‘monumentos’ and in some churches, as in the Seville Cathedral, there is a specially constructed beautiful monument standing a hundred feet high in the central nave and intended for the custody of the Blessed Sacrament. Etiquette on this day prescribes for the military of all ranks full-dress uniform, for gentlemen a dress suit, tall hat, with white tie and gloves; and in the ladies’ toilette the most remarkable item is the beautiful white lace mantilla which is worn at church functions only, at weddings and on Holy Thursday. The appearance of the vast crowds that throng the streets and churches is always a pleasing sight, and when one remembers that their presence is an act of homage to our Divine Lord in the Blessed Eucharist, it cannot fail to become a source of deep consolation. The evening is occupied either by a procession or by the Offices of Tenebrae. The most notable event in connexion with the Tenebrae Offices is the Eslava Miserere, which is sung in the Seville Cathedral on the nights of Wednesday and Thursday in Holy Week. The best singers in Spain are invited to help in its rendering, and it is listened to by probably fifteen thousand people standing spell-bround in one of the most beautiful and largest temples in Christendom. Father Eslava was a Canon of the Cathedral, and composed the music specially for Holy Week and Seville. A recent visitor to Seville described the scene in the following terms: —

Never to be forgotten was the Cathedral echoing…to the sound of Eslava’s Miserere sung by hundreds of trained voices. Men and women stood in silence with upraised faces as they listened to the music of the old Canon who once sat in the choir. The lightest mocker would be awed to silence under the soaring arches…Two scenes stand out unforgettable in Seville’s Holy Week: Eslava’s Miserere, and that other picture…the ladies in mantillas paying their silent visits to the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday. (2)

On Good Friday the Passion sermons commence as early as five o’clock in the morning, continuing in the different churches until the dinner hour, and when the midday meal is over they are resumed in the early afternoon. It is hardly necessary to describe the church functions of Holy Week, as they are identical throughout the whole Western Church, but there are two touching ceremonies in Spain which are not universal and are worthy of notice. Both are performed at the Chapel Royal in Madrid, and one of them also in all the cathedral churches. The first is the washing of the feet of twelve poor men by the King or the Bishop, performed on Good Friday, and the other is the pardon granted by the King from death sentences during the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified. Some time before Holy Week the poorest and oldest dozen men in the diocese or in the neighbourhood of Madrid are sought out. They are presented with a suit of clothes, part of which is a comfortable cloak, a very common garment in Spain. Seated on a raised platform, and arrayed in their new costumes, they assist at the Passion sermon, and afterwards the King, assisted by the court officials, or the Bishop by his canons, washes the feet of each, and they are dismissed, after being regaled with the best dinner the day allows and a present of money. After the Elevation of the Host on Good Friday the Minister of Justice approaches the King with the documents destined to save the lives of some unfortunate men from the hands of the public executioner. It is a solemn moment and a moving spectacle when the King signs his name, then stands up and declares publicly: ‘I pardon those misguided men who have broken the laws of my kingdom, even as I expect the Almighty to pardon me and my people.’

In some places processions are held every evening from Palm Sunday until Easter Saturday, and processions of the Resurrection are not uncommon on Easter Sunday. The only difference between the various processions consists in the emblems which are carried along for instance, the beautiful casket representing a coffin is only displayed on Good Friday. To give an idea, then, of all the Holy Week processions it will be sufficient to describe that of the ‘Holy Funeral’ which takes place on Good Friday evening. It requires no small spirit of sacrifice to take part in any of the processions, as the shortest time occupied in covering the whole route is usually not less than four hours. Some of the confraternities leave their churches at four o’clock, and when they return after visiting the principal plaza and the cathedral it is often close on midnight. Furthermore, many carry a wooden cross about ten feet long on their shoulders, and I have seen some making the whole pilgrimage barefooted, although it is most unusual to see even poor children without boots in Spain. Those who wear no boots during the procession suffer intensely when passing over the cold stone pavements of the cathedrals; and if the weather be sharp, as it frequently is in March, the whole journey is a series of mortifications.

The success of the processions depends altogether on the numerous confraternities that take part in them. These are attached to the various churches, and are under the direction of the parish priests. The members hold meetings from time to time. They have one day set apart for a general Communion, when a special preacher is invited to address them; and whenever any member dies there is a solemn Requiem Mass, at which all the living members are expected to assist as well as at the funeral. These privileges, with the indulgences granted and each member’s own desire to honour the Passion of our Lord, are the only motives members have for joining the confraternity. In the processions the Nazarenes, as the members of the confraternities are called, cannot be recognized, for all are covered from head to foot in the uniform of their guild. The head-dress is of a conical shape and descends to the shoulders, with openings only for the eyes and mouth; the gown is like an alb bound by a girdle, except that it has a long train and is usually made of rich purple velvet. There are slight differences in colour and form between the costumes of the various confraternities.

The most important emblem of the confraternity is the large platform of wood on which appears one or more statues of the principal personages that figure in the history of the Passion. Some of them represent the Agony in the Garden, others the Scourging at the Pillar, the Meeting with Veronica, the Crucifixion, the Mater Dolorosa, etc. As these tableaux are supposed to give a consecutive history of the Passion the processions of Holy Week are not called ‘procesiones’ in Spanish, but ‘Los Pasos,’ that is, ‘the Steps,’ towards Calvary. Some of the most touching of the scenes presented to us are those of our Blessed Lady. She is often represented as sitting alone beneath the vacant cross, overcome with sorrow it is called ‘La Soledad,’ or the bereavement. The huge tableaux seem to move of themselves; each is carried by some thirty men who walk beneath, completely concealed by a curtain which falls from the platform to the ground on all sides. The men walk very slowly, and rest every hundred yards or so; this explains the long time occupied in carrying out the procession.

The figures of the tableaux are generally worthy pieces of workmanship, and frequently rare works of art, the creation of Spain’s most famous sculptors. The most remarkable statues of our Lord are those of Martinez Montanez, who united a deep religious sentiment with a profound study of the anatomy of the human body. On Good Friday afternoon the members of the confraternities foregather at their respective churches, assume their costumes, and proceed slowly towards the principal square in the city. First comes the parish cross and other parochial insignia, then two long lines of Nazarenes, who carry lighted candles if they do not bear a cross; the tableau is carried in the centre, and some societies have more than one; finally comes the body of clergy, supported by their most important parishioners. All the confraternities follow this order, and are often separated from each other by a city or military band, which at intervals discourses sacred music.

If the procession passes before the home of a sick person the friends sometimes ask the carriers to make a halt before the house, in order that they may get the prayers of the multitude. The carriers turn the ‘Paso’ towards the house of sickness, and the bystanders go on their knees and pray for a few moments. It is very edifying to see the multitudes bowed in prayer in the public street beneath the shadow of the cross, on which our Lord is represented as suffering even unto death for all the ills of mankind.

The exuberant piety of the Spaniards often finds expression in a weird musical salutation sung by men and women during the procession. They are short fervent outbursts of love or compassion addressed to our Lord or the Blessed Virgin as their statues appear at a turn of the streets. They learn these couplets as children, or compose them later in life. The most remarkable thing about them is their unexpectedness; nobody knows who is going to sing a ‘saeta,’ as they are called; they are sung under the influence of deep religious fervour and go quivering through the still air. For this reason they bear the name of ‘saetas’ or arrows. In Salamanca the procession files through the cloisters of the University before reaching the Cathedral; and as each ‘Paso’ reaches the western entrance it is met by two doctors in academic dress, and conducted through the University to the exit on the opposite side. These are the same doctors who kept guard before the Blessed Sacrament during the whole time it remained in the Altar of Repose at the University church.

The favourite stand for witnessing the ‘Holy Funeral’ is the chief square of each city; for the whole procession, including all the confraternities, makes it a point to pass through it. As each tableau enters the square it becomes the cynosure of all eyes, and many drop on their knees to pray for a few moments. At one time we notice the cruel attitude of the Jewish leaders, again the compassionate conduct of Veronica; at others the harrowed features of St. John and Mary Magdalen, or the utter desolation of the Virgin Mother. Each sad scene that goes by suggests its own peculiar series of reflections.

After the Crucifixion, at some distance comes a casket with glass panels and a waxen representation of the dead Saviour. It is accompanied by four priests in albs and stoles, and four members of the civil guard with arms reversed. Then comes the tableau representing the bereaved Mother of Christ sorrowing alone beneath a tenantless cross, and the procession is closed by the Bishop, supported by the chief authorities, both civil and military.

It is an impressive experience to find oneself in a Spanish city during a Holy Week procession. The ghostly processionists move slowly and in perfect order; on the sidewalks a dense highly-strung crowd, and the houses from roof to cellar are a sea of human faces. There is very little conversation for a Spanish crowd, and the air is filled by the solemn strains of the bands. Suddenly an agonizing ‘saeta’ strikes on the ear, and the whole assemblage is moved in sympathy with the sorrow of the singer. Practically the entire population of the city witness the processions, and in important centres, like Seville, they are joined by thousands of strangers and foreigners. The great majority follow the proceedings with profound sympathy. One feels with thanksgiving that despite the ignominious death of our Lord, He still reigns supreme in the hearts of a great people who understand His message.

I fancy I hear some inhabitant of those cold Northern climes carping at the Holy Week celebrations of the Spaniards as being too theatrical: Oberammergau also has its critics. De gustibus non disputandum, and if we allow individuals their peculiar likes and dislikes a fortiori we should allow them to distinct nations. To others the Spaniards may seem extravagant; but to themselves their customs are most natural; they are too artistic to tolerate what is not genuine. On the other hand we never hear anyone complain of their excessive courtesy and unbounded good-nature, which are proverbial.

For my own part, I can honestly say that far from their being a travesty of sacred subjects, one feels better for having witnessed these grand solemn processions of Holy Week; and my prayer is that Spain may long keep in mind and act on the promise (3) of our Divine Lord: ‘Everyone that shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven.’

(1) Tobias xii.
(2) E. Boyle O’Reilly, Heroic Spain, pp. 302-315.
(3) Matt. x. 32.
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Posted on April 8, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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