Thursday, March 18, 2010

Walking barefoot for Jesus

I really love Italy during the Settimana Santa. Throughout the country, people celebrate Easter with sacred rites and rituals that evoke the mystery of ancient beliefs in a highly modern setting. Each procession works pure magic, like ’il pellegrinaggio ai Sepolcri’ in Francavilla Fontana.

- You get blood blisters the size of bird’s eggs. Your feet turn black, and you are unable to walk anywhere for days afterwards, but it is nothing compared to the satisfaction of having completed the ‘pappamusci’, a born and bred Francavillese, who participated in the annual purification ritual once many years ago, vividly recalls.

Like many of his peers, my friend has walked barefoot through town as one of the hooded pilgrims, known locally as ‘pappamusci’. The pilgrimage begins Maundy Thursday afternoon and continues non-stop for 24 hours, as an exhibition of true religious stamina.‘Pappamusci’are dressed in laced white robes with a string around the waist, cream-coloured hats and capes and aprons with embroidery saying ‘D├ęcor’ and ‘Carmeli’. They walk in couples from one church to the next with stricktly measured, synchronised steps, a rosary in one hand and a rod in the other, but it is the terrifying and concealing headgear that attracts most attention.

The pilgrims should remain anonymous, and therefore their faces are covered by pointed hoods with small holes for the eyes. They resemble Ku Klux Klan members as featured in American movies, yet there is no pent-up violence hidden behind their attire. The pilgrimage aims for purification and perfection, and all men from Francavilla should participate in the procession at least once in their lives.

The name ‘pappamusci’ allegedly derives from Greek, meaning the black priest or the slow and quiet priest. Several religious orders stage similar events, but this particular tradition has probably come to Francavilla Fontana with the Spanish Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since then the pilgrimage has been a recurring event for Easter.

Over 24 hours the pilgrims go from church to church, and before entering they tap their rod in the ground and greet other pilgrims. Inside the church they continue up to the altar, kneel and pray, before continuing the journey. Each movement has been thoroughly choreographed and handed down from farther to son, without ever being formally registrered in liturgy.

My friend laughingly maintains that his one-time pilgrimage will have earned him a lifetime of forgiveness and absolution for all his sins, but his wife is not convinced. She thinks it is about time, he took another walk without shoes on the stony, cold pavements.

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