Random Reflections on the Church in Spain

I’ve just returned from my quasi-annual trip to Spain, and I thought I would bundle together some random observations and comments from this and previous trips.  I draw no deep conclusions, but I think that seeing the daily life of the Church in another country is useful for understanding the Church in the US better.

1)  The Church in Spain is on the rocks, with mass attendance reaching catastrophically low levels.   Superficially, mass attendance looks good, until you stop to think that 90+ percent of the population at least nominally identifies itself as Catholic.

2)  Paradoxically, Spain remains a heavily Catholic country.  The day after I left, Sevilla was preparing for the feast of Corpus Christi.  This is a major holiday and would be marked with a series of processions and other events.  I never really understood how much Catholicism retained a grip on the cultural identity of the country until I was with some colleagues and we ran into a group of American Gideons who had come to campus to pass out bibles.  My colleague Guillermo was puzzled and I had to explain who the Gideons were.  His response was memorable and said without a trace of irony or sarcasm:  “The Catholic Church is the one true Church and I don’t believe Her, so why should I believe them?”

3)  Music at the parish level is terrible, or more precisely, non-existent.   With the exception of one small parish Church in Catalonia, I have never heard any congregational singing.  Most of the parish churches I have visited have invested in sound systems that the priest controls with a remote.  He turns it on for the entrance, perhaps for communion, and again for the recessional.   All the older churches have beautiful organs, but except at a Cathedral I have never heard one played.

4)  There is no contact with the celebrant.  At the beginning of mass he comes out of the sacristy directly on to the altar, and at the end of mass he proceeds directly back into the sacristy.   The only close contact I ever had with the celebrant was again in Catalonia, where he processed to the back of Church and shook hands with his parishoners.  Also, in Sevilla last Sunday, one of the priests hearing confessions during mass stopped us on the way out to make an announcement about the Feast of Corpus Christi.

5)  Lay lectors and eucharistic ministers are widely used:  even in parishes with multiple priests lay people take over these duties. On the other hand, I do not recall seeing altar servers, except perhaps once or twice in Madrid.

6)  Homilies on average are longer than they are in the US.  Unfortunately, my Spanish is not good enough for me to comment on their quality.

7)  And finally, I noticed that the Eucharistic prayer says of the cup that it is offered “por todos los hombres”—“for all men.”  I guess the Spanish have not yet been forced to revise their missal.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/ Sofia Loves Wisdom

    I really appreciate your comments and insight, David. Thank you for sharing.

  • cris

    And finally, I noticed that the Eucharistic prayer says of the cup that it is offered “por todos los hombres”—”for all men.”

    In Italy as well

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Yes, though this is quite controversial. The pope has ordered the Italian conference of bishops to change it, but they are dragging their feet. Similarly, Germany finally made the change after a great deal of resistance by the local bishops, and Austria is still refusing.

  • Sean O

    “The Catholic Church is the one true Church and I don’t believe in it. Why would I believe in (another)?”. Great quote. It reveals a depth of belief even in unbelief. This is why the Catholic Church is always singled out for attack and ridicule. In the end there is something unique and substantial there that is not present in other Protestant denominations.

  • http://breadhere.wordpress.com Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Hi David, just catching up and seeing this post. It has been a few years since I have been to Spain, a country that I have visited four times. So my experience is not as up to date as yours, but I do share many of your observations.

    Allow me to add to that, I had an almost identical experience of the church in Lima and Cusco, Peru and in LaPaz Bolivia. By this I mean, the sound systems, the lack of music, and the cleric coming and going from the sacristy. In all three cities, communion was given on the tongue only, and in Cusco, at an altar rail where I kneeled.

    I had two crazy experiences, although not totally bad, at the Cathedral in Cusco. One day I must write about them.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Interesting about communion on the tongue. In Spain my sense is that the majority receive it in the hand, but a much larger minority than in the states receives it on the tongue. I never had to kneel.

  • C. Fernandez

    Hola. Soy española, de la región gallega (nordovest de la peninsula) y he apreciado sus observaciones, que son todas ciertas ( aunque aquí son frecuentes los monaguillos).

    Pero creo que mezcla cosas de muy diversa importancia. Tambien la valoración de las cosas que resalta podria ser varia, negativa o… no tan negativa.

    Muchísimos espanoles se definen “creyentes no practicantes”, y en ese caso podria estar su amigo Guillermo. Es una paradoja tremenda porque ¿qué es una creencia sin un conjunto de prácticas que la define? Y, sin embargo, ahora se ven parejas que conviven (sin que nada obste para el matrimonio) que bautizan a los hijos, o los llevan al catecismo (tambien se ve lo contrario, se casan “por la Iglesia” y adiós) Y, no obstante toda una vida apartado de la Iglesia, casi nadie opta por un entierro civil. Hay muchisimos ejemplos de esta paradoja.

    ¿ Qué quiere decir esto? ¿Que somos hipócritas? ¿Que la Iglesia (como poder del mundo) impone un respeto tan profundo, que es difícil de violar? Yo estoy de acuerdo con Ud. y con Sean, es (sobre todo) un rasgo cultural, una “manera de ver” la existencia, que nos define y es valiosísima.

    Los otros comentarios, son desgraciadamente ciertos. Las misas son cada vez más tristes y frustrantes.

    Un fenomeno que yo tambien observo es un “renacer” de la superstición. Los ritos folklóricos , interesantes quizas sociológicamente, pero vacios de trascendencia, esos parece que se incrementan.

    Sobre el “todos los hombres”, la gramática española nos dice que el plural masculino auna los dos generos.

    Espero que puedan entenderme. Yo no manejo un inglés lo suficientemente bueno para expresarme por escrito, les pido excusas.

    [ A rough translation:

    Hello, I am Spanish from Galicia (the northwest of the peninsula) and I appreciated your observations, which are all true (although here altar boys are common).

    But I believe that you mix things of very different importance. Also, the value of the things that are stressed could be varied negative or not so negative.

    Many Spaniards define themselves as “believing but not practicing” and this could be the case for your friend Guillermo. It is a tremendous paradox because what does it mean to believe without that practices that define it? Nevertheless there are cohabiting couples (with nothing to prevent marriage) who baptise their children or send them to catechism [classes] (also one sees the opposite: people are married in the church and then say “good bye!”). And despite a life apart from the Church almost no one opts for a civil burial. There are many examples of this paradox.

    What does this say about us? That we are hypocrites? That the Church (as a power of the world) requires so much respect that it is difficult to break away? I am in agreement with you and Sean it is (above all) a cultural trait, a “way of seeing” life that defines us and is invaluable.

    The other commentators are unfortunately correct. Masses are increasingly sad and frustrating.

    One phenomenon that I have also observed is the rebirth of superstition. The folk rituals, interesting as sociological examples but empty of real significance, seem to be increasing.

    With regards to “todos los hombres”: Spanish grammar tells us that the masculine plural refers to both genders.

    I hope that you can understand me. I do not manage English well enough to express myself in writing—please excuse me.]

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you for these observations from Galicia that confirm so much of what I have seen, especially in the south. I want to spend more time in Catalonia and the Pais Vasco to see how the Church is there: my sense is that it is very different.

  • C. Fernandez

    Thanks for the translation!