I had the opportunity some years back to spend Palm Sunday and Holy Week in Seville. No one does Holy Week like the Spaniards and Seville is the most famous of the Spanish cities for the marvelous processions of the pasos depicting scenes from the Passion and Death of our Savior. The figures —some centuries old—depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the apostles and others in the various tableaux are made of wood, wax and wire. They are dressed, for the most part, in exquisite silks, velvets, and brocades with jeweled ornaments set in gold and silver. The figures are arranged in their various scenes on large platforms that are carried by several dozen men standing beneath the curtained stages on which they arearranged. The platforms are then filled in with silver candelabra and magnificent floral pieces. The carriers can move only a few steps at a time—perhaps as little as two or three yards—before needing to rest due to the weight of the pasos.
Each procession—and in Seville there are eight and nine each day—are sponsored by the various hermandades and confridias (brotherhoods and confraternities) which plan their processions for the entire year from the previous Easter. The members of each brotherhood or confraternity wear their distinctive silk and velvet habits—a tunic, mantle, and large pointed hood covering the face but with slits for the eyes. The different confraternities and brotherhoods are distinguished from one another by the color combinations of their habits. Each pasos is also accompanied by its own crucifer,thurifer, and lucifers—carrying the processional cross, the incense, and the candles. These men—usually young men in their early twenties—are clad in lace albs and tunicles of various liturgical colors. The confraternities and brotherhoods also hire bands to precede each pasos in the procession. The most famous and revered of the pasos is La Macarena, Our Lady of Hope (also Our Lady of Sorrows). Her procession is in the very early hours of Good Friday morning.
One would expect all this to be very moving—and it is—but not in the way intended. As hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Seville for the spectacle, it has become something like a weeklong circus parade. Vendors go up and down alongside the procession selling ice cream and cold drinks and balloons for the kids. Viewers stand there with hot sandwiches and beers as the processions pass by. Even some of the “penitents” lift back their hoods and quaff a quick glass of wine or, when their procession is done, sit in the cafes, still in their gorgeous robes, feasting on tapas and beer. And the churches are empty!!! I was staying in a monastery where I have some friends—all services were cancelled for the week. I went to church after church planning where to go for the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Liturgies only to find out that, other than in the cathedral, there were no scheduled services. At the suggestion of my priest friends, I took a train to nearby Jerez de la Frontera and stayed with the friars there. In Jerez there were the processions too. Not as many, but five or six a day. They were just as splendid with flowers and the silver ornaments and the bands and hooded penitents. But the crowds along the street were dressed in suits and ties, the women in the traditional high combs holding their mantillas. They watched in respectful silence as the various tableaux were carried by. Yes there were people in the cafes and bars—we all have to eat—but the atmosphere was both serene and profound. The churches were filled for theevening services. The music was beautiful and young families were well represented.
When the processions started—centuries back during the late fifteenth-century reforms of the Church of Spain, they were genuine acts of piety. The immense amount of gold and silver ornaments, processional crosses, candelaria, processional staffs and other accouterments testify to the genuine devotion of the faithful. But with the increasing secularization of our culture the soul has been eaten out of so much devotion. What was once faith is now often reduced to mere show. The urgency of a new evangelization is cannot be overstated.