Three weeks ago, I had to suffer through all my friends’ Facebook statuses welcoming Spring Break with open arms and new swim suits. I, on the other hand, had a week of classes and a week of midterms between me and my own “descanso de primavera.” Unlike most of my friends, though, my break was bound to feel holy.
Spain’s school system follows a different schedule than its U.S. counterpart, to say the least. Not only does the second semester start at the beginning of February and finish at the end of June, but the week-long “spring break” (which includes the Friday before and the Monday after) coincides with Holy Week, Christianity’s celebration of Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection. For a country with progressive abortion and gay marriage laws, Spain retains a cultural Catholicism that allows Sundays with family, saints’ days as public holidays and a break equal to the holiest part of the Church year. Like mixing vinegar and olive oil, the liberal and conservative strains of Spain stay very separated but taste wonderful together.
I decided to treat my Holy Week (“Semana Santa”) like a true culturally conscious Spaniard. On either end of a four-day trip to the Canary Islands (a trip devoid of all religion, unless you worship the sun god), I bookended two very Catholic events. I spent Palm Sunday in Seville and the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday) in Barcelona and Gerona.
Seville should figure into any Catholic Spaniard’s Semana Santa plans. It houses the third-largest church in the world, a former mosque converted into a cathedral during the Reconquista. Even more impressive are the Palm Sunday processions: each of nine brotherhoods organized one starting at 1 p.m. and ending at 3 a.m.
The morning’s Masses provided more than enough public displays of faith, especially in the small parades around churches; I had never seen people carry such finely woven palms.
After four days of sun worship, I arrived in Barcelona for Holy Thursday. It was a simple service at the Sagrada Familia, an unfinished church designed by Antoni Gaudí. The procession of candles around the chapel gave the feeling of an intimate ceremony perfect for a commemoration of the Last Supper. To me, it seemed simple enough to have been performed by the early Christians in Jerusalem.
I got a rare twofer on Good Friday. I attended a service in the morning outside the Sagrada Familia, in front of a massive façade depicting an interpretation of the Stations of the Cross. Then it was off to Gerona with my parents, where I attended a Seville-like procession at the steps of the cathedral. Thanks to a kid named Ignacio, I sat right at the foot of the steps, so I could see everything from Roman sandals to penitents in hoods and from a float of the Pieta to a close-up of the archbishop.
Sadly, I missed the Easter celebrations in both Barcelona and Gerona (blame the check-out time at the hotel). Even so, I noticed a theme I had seen all week: the effect of the celebrations on secular life. Seville blocked off streets for the Palm Sunday processions, as did Gerona on Good Friday. And Gerona stopped working, in effect, as nearly everyone attended Mass at 11 a.m. at the cathedral.
Although the 1978 constitution says “no religion shall have a state character,” Spain still retains much of its (very public) Catholic heritage. To many, that’s perfectly acceptable. The constitution also says public authorities shall “maintain appropriate cooperation relations with the Catholic Church and other confessions” and public religion has “no other restriction on expression than may be necessary to maintain public order as protected by law.” The Spanish mix of church and state, much like vinegar and olive oil, serves to enrich the culture and liveliness of the country.