If you are lucky enough to be in Cusco in June you are left in no doubt that Catholism is a big deal. The Plaza de Armas (central square) is the only one in South America to have two cathedrals almost adjacent to each other. Ignore the fact that the Dominicans who were here first built The Cathedral and the Jesuits wanted to build a more ornate one and the Pope had to adjudicate between the two as which one could the most elaborate. By the time word came back from Papa in Rome, the Jesuits had almost finished theirs so it didn’t matter than Papa said The Cathedral had to be the more ornate. Back on track, most of the month of June is dedicated to Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) which occurs some 60 days after the Resurrection.
Corpus Christi is celebrated in Cusco by way of the 15 saints who, let’s say, look after the welfare of Cusco and its inhabitants. Each of these saints lives in their own place of residence (i.e a different church) but get together in the Cathedral every year the day before Corpus Christi to get reacquainted with the body of Christ. How do they get to the Cathedral you may well asked. Well they are carried on the shoulders of the devout through the city streets. They leave their churches amid the tones of church bells, conch shells and even have rose petals or confetti showered on them. A band follows them down the street filling the air with joyous noises alerting those mortals around them adoring of their presence. Leading them through the streets are those loyal devotees who have given their time and likely money in organizing for them to travel to the Cathedral for the week. It’s the poor porters that one has to have the greatest sympathy for. The Saints are not little and the pedestals on which they stand are rather large and ornate, perhaps even solid silver in the case of a few of the Virgin Saints. These poor porters heave and struggle under the weight especially as they go down the church steps. One can only hope they get full atonement of their sins for their efforts. Since San Pedro (Saint Peter) is one of the 15, perhaps he gives all the porters a key to the pearly gates for their hardships.
In all seriousness though, it really is quite something to see. I knew when San Blas was going to be leaving his church so I made sure I was there to witness it. There was a Holy Communion in the church (which I attended too if you must know and it was really quite lovely) before his departure and the porters received a special blessing before their journey. I followed his procession down narrow steep streets. One thing that really stuck in my mind was, here are some 20 men struggling with this heavy saint on their shoulders and the boys who go in front carrying a great table on which to rest the saint, stopped as one of them tried to answer his mobile phone. Some of the words expressed didn’t seem too saintly.
After having watched San Blas’ journey, I headed to the Plaza de Armas only to be treated with Santa de los Remedios. I headed further up the road towards an other plaza with a church or two and through the 50,000 people who were there, so were other saints. (San Sebastián, Santa Barbara and her sister Santa Ana). Plaza Francisco had come alive with hundreds of people who where all there celebrating eating the traditional food including cuy. And for those of you who don’t know what cuy is – guinea pig.
Further up the road to Plaza San Pedro, more saints leaving the churches where they had been resting on their journey to the Cathedral. Santa Catarina appeared totally regal whilst San Pedro looked replesdant as he overlooked the city. The costumes of some of their devotees weren’t half bad either.
The next day is Corpus Christi. An outdoor mass was held on the steps outside the Cathedral with the 15 saints overseeing proceedings. Santa Belen was in her rightful place keeping an eye over the Archbishop. She is so pretty and if I had to have a favourite it would be her. Following the mass, the Corpus Christi is driven around the Plaza in an ornate silver challis allowing all. to get acquainted with the body of Christ. When this is returned to the Cathedral the 15 Saints are then carried around the Plaza by their faithful for all to receive blessings from them. San Jeromino, San Christobel (they like him as he likes to dance and have a good time) and Santiago (of the Camino fame) were all crowd favourites. And what a crowd there was.
I was able to get many of these images as I had reserved a first floor balcony in one of the cafes over looking the square for the grand sum of 40 Sole ($13) so I could see the parade with an uninterrupted view. I actually ended up sharing this balcony with a family one of whom was 91 and didn’t look a day over 70 (thanks be to the blessing of God), another old woman from Cusco who had never had a balcony view before, a couple of other women members of the family and another member of the family came to join us who was none other than a priest. And even better, Val arrived from Spanish school so we had a running comentary through the parade.
Back to the parade. Once the saints had done a circuit of the Plaza, they returned to the cathedral where they reside for 7 days. Over the week they hold important meetings discussing the issues that will present themselves with Cusco in the next year. Reportedly the men saints are more pessimistic full of doom and gloom compared with the female saints who take an optimistic view on life. The important matters only happen in hushed tones at night supposedly not to awaken their human attendants whilst during the day, the saints are all rigid as they listen to the prayers of the local visitors. Oh to be fly on the wall. After 7 days they return to their homes for another year. I shan’t be there to see next year’s event but I might just hang around the Cathedral next week to see them leaving for home.