The celebrations of Semana Santa in León are bright and powerful, with fireworks crackling, processions of hundreds, and long masses presided over by the bishop and fleets of priests and altar boys in full regalia.
The energy of the Catholics in attendance defied both the incredible heat of the dry season and the temptation to join half the country on the beach!
On Thursday afternoon I went to the “solemn mass” at the cathedral with my Catholic friend Claudia. Since I was raised agnostic, everything that takes place in church is, well, Latin to me! Claudia was an excellent guide, explaining rituals and prepping me for photo opportunities.
The solemn mass was, mercifully, short (unlike the three hour-long Saturday evening mass which culminates in Christ’s resurrection.) Yet it was full of ceremonial detail: musky incense wafted through the massive marble expanse, the words of the priest echoing with each swing of the censer; a small choir of young women and a handful of young men harmonized over the songs of the flock; women knelt, heads bent in prayer, on the steps around the edges of the altar.
(I’ve included some recordings: click on the links to listen.)
Near the end of the mass a dozen men of the community sat waiting in two pews at the front of the cathedral, their bare feet visible beneath brown pant legs. When the bishop stepped down from the high altar, the crowd drew in to watch as he washed their feet with water from a glass pitcher.
Claudia explained, “It’s an act of humility, and it reminds us of what Jesus did before the Last Supper, washing the feet of his disciples.”
After the mass the bishop led the congregation to seven other altars, starting with the rarely-open chapel adjacent to the cathedral.
Claudia and I and a couple friends joined the procession as it wound through the narrow streets in the dusk. Though another friend later scolded me, “You’re supposed to go to all seven,” after hours of standing during mass we just visited two churches, the somber La Merced and yellow-trimmed St. Francisco.
The bells were silent on holy Friday, the streets mostly empty. In late morning another procession flowed through the city, with larger-than-life icons held aloft on the shoulders of the congregation. The bearers dripped with sweat in the midday sun, though they continued singing and praying with the loudspeaker mounted on a pick-up in the middle of the procession.
Maria was borne by several dozen men and women, a bouquet of lilies at her feet.
A massive statue of Christ robed in red needed an entourage to proceed it through the streets—men with long wooden poles lifted the electric lines for it to pass under.
The bells found their voices again Saturday night after the mass to mark Christ’s resurrection, the whole city booming with fireworks and ringing with sound.