Penance in a nutshell

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Dr. Isidro Moreno Navarro, Professor of the University of Seville, known for his studies on Easter, says that “religion, as understood by the orthodox Roman Catholic Church, is only one dimension of this holiday; a dimension that forgets other dimensions, such as the theme of urban identity, and the identity of neighborhoods through organized confreres”. These confreres, both in Spain and in the Americas, were born autonomously. They did not have the approval of the church at the time of their founding. However, they ultimately received it, as they were central to keeping the flame of religion burning in the hearts of the people.

The confreres were, in themselves, associations of believers attached to a biblical character, image or moment, which they celebrated ceremoniously. In Seville, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the first penitential confraternities were created, which roamed the city commemorating the Passion of Christ under the concept of penitent celebrations. Among other things, they made special emphasis on ‘salvation through penance’, the feeling of deep over-reaching regret for the treatment of Jesus in life. The venerated icon these brotherhoods focused on was death, a central expression being self-imposed flogging, not the most dogmatic expression of faith (this was something that worried the church at first, and these celebrations were abolished for a while).

The Franciscans embraced these self-mutilating practices, and rehashed them around the time the Spanish Inquisition began settling in. By the mid-sixteenth century, penitential Via Crucis were recorded in Seville, like those of the Lent of 1521, in which participants walked the “997.13 meters that Christ walked to Calvary”.

Fifteen years later, the Franciscans arrived in Quito, and the sense of penance – first included as a concept during mass, and later, a central figure for the burgeoning American confraternities – spearheaded the indoctrination of the indigenous community.

The confreres were very influential during Holy Week, and organized the religious festivity of penitent masks, costumes and communion that gathered the entire city every Good Friday. These processions disappeared with the Liberal revolution and a public honoring of the people’s religiosity lasted over fifty years to return to Quito, when Galo Plaza Lasso lifted the ban.

In 1949, a very small penitential procession took to the streets; but a new ban was imposed until 1961, when the Franciscans organized a procession in devotion to the image of ‘Jesus del Gran Poder’. The Franciscan congregation, by the way, had no real images of devotion (as Marianita of Jesus was for the Jesuits or the Virgin of the Rosary was for the Dominicans). It was a success from the outset. Father John Castro writes that “from the very first Friday of Lent of that year the temple was filled”. For 53 years, the procession continues to organize without fail.

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