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Journey to Andalusia, known as the Land of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Devotion without borders

 Devozione senza confini   DCM-011
03 December 2022

In the south of Spain, faith continues to shine, even in times of intense secularization, and it does so above all through the activities of brotherhoods, sanctuaries and through manifestations of religiosity founded by everyday people. The influence of confraternities and pilgrimages are fundamental in spreading and rooting love for Mary in this land, as Álvaro Román, director of the Chair of Mariology at the Faculty of St Isidore in Seville, explains. “Its entire geography is bound up with Marian veneration. In addition to the great devotions that have been shared for centuries, such as the Virgen del Carmen or that of the Rosary, there are others; for example, the Divina Pastora, which was founded in Seville in 1703 and subsequently spread throughout Spain, Italy and the Spanish-American area; the Virgen de la Cabeza in Andújar, El Rocío in Huelva, and the Esperanza Macarena in Seville. Unlike other places in the Catholic world, here devotion ensures that the faith continues to be strong, alive and promotes many social and evangelising projects.”

It is not a mere thought. “It is an expression of Mary’s mediation. The faithful not only believe that the Virgin accompanies them, they experience it. The ex-votos bear witness to this”, he explains.

It is very significant, for the impact that the Holy Week processions have, is the Esperanza Macarena. “Its devotion dates back to the 15th century, when it was established in the College of St Basil of Seville,” explains the priest. “From that moment on the profound relationship of the devotion of the Esperanza with the neighborhood of the Macarena began; to the point that, as the centuries passed, the Virgin became known by the name of the neighborhood, as if She were one of its inhabitants. In the second half of the 19th century, with Romanticism, and at the beginning of the 20th, there is a devotional explosion that unites her inextricably with the city. Then, after the Civil War, with the building of the basilica and all that the popular and then the canonical coronation in 1964 entailed, devotion was consolidated and spread to other towns. Every popular expression is linked to her, not only in the neighborhood or in Seville, but also throughout Andalusia amongst the bullfighters, the copla [poetic form for popular songs], the saetas [traditional religious songs]; she represents our culture”, he concludes.

The current eldest brother, José Antonio Fernández, recounts that “each generation of Macarenos has dedicated the best of its talents and skills to spreading devotion to the Blessed Virgin of the Esperanza Macarena; currently, there are more than 16,500 brothers and hundreds of thousands of devotees of the Virgin on five continents. This situation permits us to continue being a working class neighborhood confraternity, but with a universal projection. Moreover, thousands of people come to the basilica to meet the Virgen de la Esperanza, which makes the temple a centre of universal Marian pilgrimage”. The life of the confraternity contemplates a liturgical activity that, in addition to the cults - the most important being the dawn procession on Good Friday. This includes the celebration of three daily masses in the basilica; an integral training plan in presence and in e-learning for all the brothers; and a social action that includes 25 welfare programs, dealings with around 3,800 files annually, and has allocated more than 2.75 million euros to charity in the last six years. As Fernández points out, “the Macarena brotherhood has an intense life at the centre of which is the Virgen de la Esperanza and the devotion it inspires in hundreds of thousands of people”.

In addition to devotions related to the Passion of Christ, the veneration of Mary through titles of Glory is very important in Andalusia. Universally known is the Virgen del Rocío, in Almonte, Huelva. Its origins date back to the end of the 13th century, when King Alfonso x the Wise, in the midst of the Christian reconquest, ordered a hermitage to be built and an image of the Virgin to be placed there, which initially took the name of the place: Santa María de las Rocinas. Santiago Padilla, the president of the mother confraternity, explains that today El Rocío has established itself as a major international devotion. “The Virgen del Rocío is the channel through which many people encounter Christ, live their faith and work for their brothers and sisters in their parishes and communities of origin. It is a great popular manifestation of devotion to the Virgen and the Divine Pastorcillo del Rocío”.

The important historical milestones recalled by Padilla are: the establishment of a permanent cult through the foundation of a chaplaincy at the end of the 15th century; the canonical coronation in 1919 and the visit of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1993. There are already more than one hundred and twenty branch confraternities and in 2000 a confraternity of the Rocío was founded in Brussels, in the heart of Europe. Its romería [pilgrimage] constitutes one of the most important expressions of popular religiosity in the entire Christian world, and at Pentecost it gathers more than a million people around the Blanca Paloma, another title under which the Virgen del Rocío is invoked. There are many stories of intercession, such as that experienced by the Huelva-born pedagogue Manuel Siurot Rodríguez (1872-1940). “Siurot, whose cause for beatification has recently been reopened in the diocese of Huelva, entrusted to the Virgin the recovery from a serious illness of his only daughter, Antonia, and She miraculously saved her life”, Padilla recounts.

The Virgen de la Cabeza of Andújar (Jaén) also deserves special attention. Tradition has it that this small wooden sculpture was discovered in 1227 by a shepherd in the Sierra Morena. Thanks to his testimony, a hermitage was erected to guard the medieval image, which the inhabitants of Jaén have visited over the centuries. “Grandparents and grandchildren, from generation to generation, have walked up to the highest point of the Sierra Morena to meet Mary, venerate her and ask for her intercession in front of her Son”, says Lola Ocaña, media manager of the diocese. “During the course of the year, two great festivities of the Virgen de la Cabeza are celebrated: the one that commemorates her meeting with the shepherd Juan de Rivas, called ‘the night of the Apparition’, and her romería, considered the oldest in Spain, and which Cervantes mentions in his work The Vicissitudes of Persile and Sigismonda. On the last weekend in April, thousands of pilgrims, romeros, gather and go to the basilica to venerate the Blessed Virgin. While there one has an experience that touches the heart: that of the calzadas, people who walk the last steep paved stretches on their knees, barefoot or with a baby in their arms, in thanksgiving or as a supplication”, she adds. The original image was hidden during the Spanish Civil War, and was never found again, so a new one was made at the end of the conflict. The sanctuary, guarded by the Trinitarians, is a place of pilgrimage, guard and custody of María Santísima de la Cabeza, Golden Rose of the Holy See since 2009. That was the last year that she left the sanctuary in Sierra Morena, as a grace by pontifical concession, before this was repeated in 2022.

These are three ways of venerating the Virgin. Three examples of the fact that, from a sociological and cultural point of view and in terms of spirituality, Andalusia cannot be understood without devotion to Mary and even today continues to be faithful to the model of the Mother in Faith.

A Journalist of the diocese of Malaga, writer and poet