I just returned from walking in my eighth morning procession of the Mãe Soberana Festa Grande. This afternoon, I’ll go out and do it again.
I’ve written in more detail about the festival of Mãe Soberana (with a bunch of photos, too) in this post, so if you are not already aware of what it entails, you might enjoy going back to read that one. Today I just want to mull.
The first year I watched this procession, I approached it like an American. That is, I stood on the sidewalk and expected the parade to go past me.
That is not how it works here. The procession of Mãe Soberana includes everyone. It sweeps past you and the people on the sidewalks step off to join in, and with every passing meter it swells larger and larger until eventually, it seems to include the entire town.
I was swept in that first year, and found myself smiling at the sheer improbability of an atheist walking in a profoundly Catholic procession. But it was great fun, and gave me a sense of belonging to my community — something that meant a lot in those early days when I was still so new here.
Since then, I have walked in every procession, and loved every one of them. Usually I try to stay in the back, respectful of those who are true believers and want to be closer to the heart of it. But this morning I ended up right next to the andor, the bier on which the precious icon of Mãe Soberana rides. I had never been able to study the gorgeous embroidery on her mantle so closely, or examine the ancient wood of both the icon and the bier. Nor had I ever seen the clear signs of the intense physical effort made by the homens do andor, the men who carry Mãe Soberana on their shoulders. They were all soaked in sweat, slugging down water on each of their two breaks before arriving at the endpoint of the morning procession. After each break, when they bent to retake the weight of the andor, the strain of it was readily apparent. There are eight homens do andor, sharing the 300-kilo weight of the patron saint of Loulé. (For US readers, that’s about 660 pounds.)
Around me were people of every stripe and color. Many of them had come straight from church, or were dressed in their Sunday finest in order to attend today’s outdoor Mass. But many others were, shall we say, casual. There were plenty of tourists in shorts and sandals, taking photos right and left. On one side of me was a shaven-headed man in black shorts and a black tshirt, wearing his wallet on a large chain and sporting tattoos on every visible inch of skin except his face, including one that was a skull and crossbones. The most visible one, right in the center of his neck, said FAMILIA. He walked almost shoulder to shoulder with one of the homens do andor and showed nothing but respect. On my other side was another man in shorts and a logo-encrusted tshirt from some event, plus worn running shoes with no socks, and greasy hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. When he opened his mouth and roared out “Viva Mãe Soberana!” his voice was so rich and clear that people all over immediately responded. He was the most prolific leader of call-and-response in that part of the procession.
Books have been written on the many things that organized religion has done wrong, and the unparalleled suffering it has caused and continues to cause. But when I walk next to Mãe Soberana, it’s easy to see what religion does right. This is not an exclusive event. It’s not an attempt to strengthen community by pointing at others and saying, “They are different and we are better/more blessed/more right.” It is an event of profound religious significance to some, and to many others it is an open invitation. When Mãe Soberana sweeps past you with its vast numbers of people in all modes of dress, the brass band playing, the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts walking with their banners, the marionettes marching in unison, and the homens do andor bearing their precious, priceless burden, this is what it says:
Come join us. Celebrate with us. Be part of our community. It doesn’t matter what you believe.
So I do. And when someone shouts out, “Viva Mãe Soberana!” I raise my voice with the others and shout back, “Viva!”