Avenue Tacna. October. Lima, Peru.
The sharp, spiced smell of incense intermingles with the aroma of freshly baked Turrón de Doña Pepa, a traditional Peruvian sweet cake. The music of the processional marching band merges with the vocalized prayers of tens of thousands… and purple is everywhere.
It is the Purple Month (el mes morado) in Peru, in which all throughout October the Peruvian faithful come to pray and participate in the procession of Our Lord of the Miracles (Nuestro Señor de los Milagros), the most celebrated devotion in the country. Our Lord of the Miracles is a festival so culturally significant in the Peruvian society that it is celebrated almost everywhere where a Peruvian population exists. Taking place in both Lima and in some other 260 cities in various countries, it is considered one of the largest religious processions in the world.
The devotion centers around a painting of a dark-skinned Christ which today is located in the Church of El Santuario de Las Nazarenas de Lima. Depicting the Crucifixion of Christ and accompanied by the figures of the Holy Trinity along with The Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostle John, the image is traditionally thought to have been painted by an Angolan slave around the year 1651. After surviving several earthquakes, multiple attempts to erase the image, and having had several miracles attributed to it, this image of the Lord earned the title Our Lord of the Miracles. Deeply revered and holding a special place within the heart of every Peruvian, people flock to the streets in the hundreds of thousands during October to bring their cares, worries, and intentions to the Lord of the Miracles.
The principal part of the devotion consists of a procession in which a replica of the painting is carried upon a giant two-ton litter. Carried by several teams from the association of the Brotherhood of Our Lord of the Miracles (Hermandad de Nuestro Señor de Los Milagros), the image is processed all throughout the city during the weeks of October. Reaching a pinnacle that consists of a twenty-four hour non-stop walk, it is one of the country’s most beautiful expressions of popular piety.
The Catechism of The Catholic Church states that “In addition to the liturgy, Christian life is nourished by various forms of popular piety” and that “the Church fosters the forms of popular piety that express an evangelical instinct and a human wisdom and that enrich Christian life” ((Catechism of the Catholic Church #1679)). Furthermore, Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium mentions the “the evangelizing power of popular piety” ((Evangelii Gaudium #122)). Declaring that “each people is the creator of their own culture and the protagonist of their own history” and that “being human means being at the same time son and father of the culture to which one belongs”, the pope commends and praises the cultural effect popular piety can have on a society (ibid). Asserting that one should “not stifle or presume to control this missionary power”, the Pope emphasizes the apostolic nature of popular piety ((Evangelii Gaudium #124)).
Moreover, he states that it has a double effect of not only evangelizing the culture in which it is practiced; but additionally, of renewing and deepening the existing Faith as well. Citing the Aparecida Document, the pope says that “it is ‘a legitimate way of living the faith, a way of feeling part of the Church and a manner of being missionaries’…it brings with itself the grace of being a missionary…[and] ‘is in itself an evangelizing gesture’” (ibid).
Throughout my last three years in Latin America I have had the privilege of taking part in several processions of Our Lord of the Miracles and as a North American it has always been a thought-provoking and intriguing experience. As a person who was born and raised in the United States, a culture which is neither inherently or predominantly Catholic nor prone to such public religious displays, my initial reaction to the procession of Our Lord of the Miracles encompassed a wide range of reactions: from confusion and awe, to misgiving and appreciation. However throughout the course of my participations in the processions I slowly came to see that it is something which should not only be protected and treasured, but also something which has several profound and widespread implications.
I have always found it significant that the very act of processing throughout the city is an act which has deep social and cultural implications. Not only is it a visible manifestation of the desire for Christ, Our Lord of the Miracles, to “enter” and “pervade” the culture, society, and city; but it is also a manifestation which contradicts the supposed contradiction between the Catholic Faith and life. By having Christ “walk” through the streets and “visit” various locations the devotion of Our Lord of the Miracles and other such expressions of popular piety demonstrate the desire for the Faith to permeate and fill the life of people and the society. They provide “a place of encounter with Jesus Christ,” and are a manner of keeping “alive the relationship between the faith and the cultures of the peoples” ((Homily of Pope Francis on the occasion of the Day of Confraternities and Popular Piety, 5 May 2013)). They are moments of personal conversion and further cohesion between faith and life both personally and socially, for through them “the faith enter[s] human hearts and become[s] part of the common patrimony of sentiments and customs, shaping the life and emotions of the community” ((Letter of Benedict XVI to Seminarians, 18 October 2010)).
Because of their evangelizing, apostolic, and conversional effects, these expressions are manners of enacting and attaining real social change. For as the Catechism explains “to obtain social changes that will really serve…it is necessary…to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the human person and to the permanent need for his inner conversion [which]…imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions ((Catechism of the Catholic Church #1888)). Hence, Our Lord of the Miracles and similar devotions function as valuable and beautiful expressions of not only the Faith, the culture, and the life of a society; but furthermore, they serve a vital role in cultivating a society which is more coherent to the truths of the faith. This in turn cultivates a society which is more reconciled, more personalizing, and more just.
Consequently, because of these reasons, I have come to see and value the deep and impacting effect which Our Lord of the Miracles and other such expression of popular piety have in both the lives of individuals and in society. Indeed, through the course of my experiences and seeing the fruits of the devotion I have come to believe that Our Lord of the Miracles is something special, deeply valuable, and edifying for the Peruvian and Universal Church.
¡Que viva El Señor de los Milagros!
© 2015 – David Strycula para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC