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PERU-DEVOTIONS Oct-25-2007 (1,040 words) With PERU-PROCESSION. With photos. xxxi

Peru's popular religious devotions take on special meaning this year

By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service

ICA, Peru (CNS) -- October is a month of outpouring of religious devotion in Peru, as tens of thousands of people throng the streets of this city and more than 100,000 converge on Lima for feasts centering on images of the crucified Christ.

A magnitude 8 earthquake that struck Peru Aug. 15 gave the celebrations extra meaning this year. Both the Lord of Luren, which centers on a statue brought to Peru from Europe in the 16th century, and the Lord of the Miracles, Peru's largest religious devotion, are associated with protection from earthquakes.

The feasts are preceded by novenas and other preparations, but the central element is always a traffic-snarling procession in which tens of thousands of pilgrims, some barefoot or on their knees, accompany the images through city streets, praying and singing.

Some people, including some church officials, dismiss the huge celebrations as bordering on image worship, but anthropologist Hortensia Munoz of the Jesuit-run Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Lima said they underestimate the depth of devotion behind the rituals.

"They don't understand this theology, which speaks of people's way of living in the world, of their relationship with human and nonhuman forces, of their hopes, their fears, their sadness," Munoz told Catholic News Service.

Some historians believe that many of Peru's rural popular devotions arose shortly after an uprising by indigenous farmers against Spanish colonial rule in 1780.

"The church realized that it had been focusing on spreading its doctrine in towns ... and had neglected the margins," Munoz said.

The popular devotions were a way to bring uneducated rural farmers back into the church, and the processions became both a form of religious expression and a means of evangelization.

"One of the oldest and most resistant Christian institutions is the pilgrimage," Munoz said.

Nearly every city and town in Peru has a patron -- often Christ or Mary -- and an annual feast day. Some involve pilgrimages to a place where tradition holds there was a miraculous appearance. Others center on images, most of which date back to colonial times.

The Lord of Luren is a statue of the crucified Christ -- with Mary and St. John at his feet -- shipped from Europe to a Franciscan convent in Lima in the 1500s. Because a church in southern Peru needed a statue, the image was shipped south on muleback.

Tradition holds that one morning the mule driver awoke to find one of the animals missing. When he caught up with it, the beast refused to budge. A local priest opened the mule's packs, discovered the statue and decided that a church should be built on that spot.

After the image emerged unscathed from an earthquake that damaged the church, it became associated with protection from the temblors that constantly rock the Peruvian coast. The August quake toppled the church tower, sending it crashing through the roof of the nave, but again the statue was untouched.

Church officials do not yet know if the sanctuary can be restored. Meanwhile, the novena for this year's feast of the Lord of Luren Oct. 22 was held in a huge tent on the parish grounds, while Mass was celebrated in the plaza outside the church.

Four days earlier, the main feast of the Lord of the Miracles was celebrated in Lima with a procession that drew more than 100,000 worshippers. For a week beforehand, rumors had circulated in Lima's streets, buses and schoolyards that an earthquake would coincide with the feast, but the day passed uneventfully.

According to Munoz, the seriousness with which people took the rumors is another indication of the depth of the roots of a devotion that also symbolizes the resistance of popular religious expression to official church control.

Tradition holds that an African slave brought to Peru painted an image of the crucified Christ on the wall of a building near the center of Lima in the 17th century. An earthquake leveled the city in 1655 and another struck two decades later, but the wall miraculously remained standing. As it began to draw a following, the archbishop and the viceroy tried to have it removed, but the image could not be obliterated.

The Lord of the Miracles has become the second-largest Latin American religious devotion -- after Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico -- and processions are held worldwide in cities with Peruvian immigrants. Besides being a religious celebration, it is a bond of Peruvian identity, Munoz said.

At feasts like those of the Lord of Luren and the Lord of the Miracles, many people make promises to Jesus in exchange for blessings, but that does not mean they see God only as a miracle worker with whom to bargain.

The images "symbolize protection, but above all they symbolize hope," she said. "It is a very profound thing."

Father Adalberto Davila, pastor of Luren Parish in Ica, said people's relationship with the Lord of Luren is complex.

"I wouldn't say the image is everything to them, but it means a great deal to them to approach it, touch it, gaze on it," he said. "It is their sign of faith, their sign of unity, the sign that they are believers. It is very strong. Many people suffer, and they seek refuge contemplating the image of the crucified Christ."

During the overnight procession of the Lord of Luren in Ica, many pilgrims clutched candles and spoke aloud as the image passed by, illuminated, adorned with white gladioluses and branches of rosemary.

"It's not that they are talking to the image," Father Davila said, "but the image is helping them enter into conversation with God."

Paradoxically, while feasts like the Lord of Luren or the Lord of the Miracles draw tens of thousands of faithful Catholics, the number of people who are active in their parishes is relatively low.

"As church, we must take advantage of these devotions, when so many people gather, to educate them in the faith," Father Davila said. "We need to help them understand that faith is not just the expression of a devotion. Faith means being committed to life with Christ."


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