It was on the feast of Christ the King. I remember it because it was a particularly gorgeous day in Buenos Aires, and we seminarians had been given the afternoon off in order to tour the city. We went to the renowned Church of Our Lady of Pilar, though I was not as impressed with it as many of my fellow seminarians said I should have been.
On the cab ride back to the priory on Calle Venezuela, we listened to the River Plate vs. Boca soccer match on the cab radio and chatted amongst ourselves. It was beginning to get a little overcast that Sunday afternoon. As we neared Calle Belgrano, one of the seminarians caught sight of a crowd about five blocks in the distance.
“What is that?” he asked.
It looked like a swarm of ants slowly making its way up the street. It was quite the sight, since downtown Buenos Aires is usually dead on Sunday afternoons. (Anyone who is anyone either stays home with friends or goes out to the finca in the countryside to have an asado and play soccer.) Curiosity got the better of me, and I suggested that we go investigate this mass of humanity.
It was one of the most bizarre spectacles I had ever seen. First, there came people dressed as Argentine cartoon characters as the vanguard of the crowd. They were accompanied by street vendors who were taking advantage of the captive mass of people walking in the streets. I assumed it must be some sort of parade, perhaps a celebration of a winning local soccer club or a patriotic feast.
But when the crowd got closer, we realized who they were: Peruvians. Yes, even in the Third World, people immigrate in order to find work — and people from all over South America come to Buenos Aires to try to squeeze out a better life (often without success). But these indigenous Peruvians still maintained their sense of community, especially their religious ties. This was a procession of one of the many statues of Our Lord of the Miracles (Nuestro Señor de los Milagros), a miraculous crucifix that is revered in many parts of South America.
From the postmodern spectacle of cartoon characters and fire eaters, we were quickly overcome by the mass of silent people coming our way. It took us back a few centuries, and we stood on the trunk of a tree to get a better look. Most were families, subdued and somber, while a few vested in ceremonial velvet garments immediately surrounded the image. A group of women belted out a cheesy modern hymn with as much feeling as such a hymn could muster. And a brass band accompanied the statue of the bloodied Christ, playing in the wailing tone that has been perfected in the Hispanic mind throughout the centuries.
It was all so odd and yet so familiar. It was the sum of all ages and sensibilities colliding: From modern symbols of decadent capitalism to indigenous men dressed in Baroque velvet robes, the range of all Christian history was recapitulated in that procession. I thought of all of the other processions I had been in: the posadas in Mexico; the Rogations Days in seminary, chanting the Litany of the Saints in the fields; the Stations of the Cross made on the streets of Buenos Aires by torchlight on Good Friday night.
Spanish Catholicism is full of this imagery — this potent mix of the divine and the human that can confuse, move, and uplift you. Living in a historically Protestant country, it can be very difficult to imagine how religion can penetrate the very sinews of one’s consciousness. But it still happens in many parts of Latin America even to this day. It is not a religion of the heart; modern man is too cerebral even for that. It is the religion of the gut. It is a faith in the streets. It is something that I woefully miss living here in the United States.
Suddenly, the procession stopped in front of a police station. An honor guard came out, and those holding the image turned the corpus toward the uniformed police. One of the police gave the order, and the armed guard saluted the Peruvian image of the Crucified Christ. We seminarians were impressed and profoundly touched by the sight of secular authority bowing to divine power. The procession continued and we parted from it, eager to tell our colleagues back at the seminary what we had seen.
Photo Credit: Cristóbal Suzuki Thielemann