From the archives: Benidorm’s big bang virgin

From the archives: Benidorm’s big bang virgin April 15, 2020

GIVEN that it’s now become nigh on impossible to post reports unconnected with COVID-19, I have decided to use my enforced quarantine (now in its fifth week) to dig deep into the Freethinker archives, and periodically publish items I think might engage readers who are doubtlessly sick to the back teeth of Coronavirus stories. This item is from the December 2010 print edition.

On the morning of November 13, 2010 – 12 days after I settled in Spain – I heard a series of ear-shattering explosions. I rushed onto my 31 floor balcony and saw clouds of smoke pouring from several levels of a tower block in the La Cala area, close to the popular Spanish resort of Benidorm, and immediately thought the worst.

Image courtesy Saint Francis of Assisi Parish Church, Benidorm

Then the penny dropped. That Saturday was the start of a fiesta honouring the Virgen del Sufragio, a statue that was rescued  from an English ship that arrived in Benidorm – then a small fishing village –  in 1740. When the locals saw that the ship had only one man on board, they assumed the rest of the crew had died of the plague and they set fire to the vessel. The sole English sailor was barbecued and the ship was reduced to ashes, but the Mary and child statue remained untouched by the flames.

“It’s a miracle,” everyone naturally cried, and from that day on replicas of the virgin are paraded each November through the streets of the resort. For five days there is deafening music, fireworks, marching bands, a hell of a lot of drinking –  and a “hunt the virgin” contest, which really tickles me as Benidorm is the last place on the planet you’re ever likely to find a real, live virgin.

I asked a few Spanish friends whether there was a particularly Catholic dimension to all this noise and frolicking, and they simply laughed. “Oh”, said one “maybe once, but now nobody in Spain gives a shit about religion. We just love our festivals and fireworks.”

Not surprising then that a particularly glum Pope Benedict XVI left Spain after an eight-hour visit a week or so before the Benidorm festivities, whimpering his displeasure over the fact that Spain is less Catholic now than at any time in its past. His visit had cost the taxpayers €400,000 at a time when the country was in desperate financial straits. Thousands took to the streets to protest his presence.

Ratzinger said:

Spain saw in the 1930s the birth of a strong and aggressive anti-clericalism and the clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong.

His failure to elaborate on his anti-clericalism remark prompted one commentator to observe:

That lack of any broader vision or context seems to characterise many of his readings on history.

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Image by Wenge/Pixabay

Ratzinger’s obscurantism was, without doubt, deliberate, for, had he elaborated, he would have cast an unwelcome light on several very unsavoury aspects of the Church’s relationship with Spain in the years preceding the 1930s – notably the Inquisition, its encouragement of the persecution of Jews, and its opposition to all forms of political liberalism.

This interference left Spain foundering in a fog of social and economic backwardness while the rest of Europe surged ahead. And this is what led eventually to outbreaks
of violence. From 1822 to 1936, at least 235 members of the clergy were assassinated and around 500 churches and religious centres were burned. In addition, in the three years of the Civil War, almost 7,000 priests, monks and nuns suffered the same fate.

One could only assume from his words that Ratzinger was hankering after the dark days of dictator General Franco, once described by Churchill as “a gallant Christian gentleman”. HG Wells corrected him:

A murderous Christian gentleman.

In the early years of the Franco regime, the Catholic Church and state had a close and mutually beneficial association. The loyalty of the Roman Catholic Church to the Francoist state lent legitimacy to the dictatorship, which in turn restored and enhanced the church’s traditional privileges – privileges lost when the final government of the republican era—the Popular Front – collapsed.

The Republican government, which came to power in Spain in 1931, was based on secular principles. In the first years some laws were passed secularising education, prohibiting religious education in the schools, and expelling the Jesuits from the country.

Image via Wiki CC

On Pentecost 1932, Pope Pius XI protested against these measures and demanded restitution. He asked the Catholics of Spain to fight with all legal means against these “injustices”. On June 3, 1933 he issued the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis, in which he lamented the expropriation of all Church buildings, episcopal residences, parish houses, seminaries and monasteries.

By law, they were now property of the Spanish State, to which the Church had to pay rent and taxes in order to continue use these properties.

“Thus the Catholic Church is compelled to pay taxes on what was violently taken from her”, he howled. Religious vestments, liturgical instruments, statues, pictures, vases, gems and similar objects necessary for worship were expropriated as well.

In contrast to the anti-clericalism of the Popular Front, the Franco regime established policies that were highly favourable to the Church, which was restored to its previous status as the official religion of Spain. In addition to receiving government subsidies, the church regained control of the education system, and laws were made to conform to Catholic dogma.

During the Franco years, Roman Catholicism was the only religion to have legal status; other worship services could not be advertised, and only the Roman Catholic Church could own property or publish books. The government not only paid priests’ salaries and subsidised the church, but it also assisted in the reconstruction
of church buildings damaged by the war. Laws were passed abolishing divorce and banning the sale of contraceptives. Catholic religious instruction was mandatory, even in public schools.

Although it is true that the Church fell out of love with Franco in the latter days of his rule, and played a cooperative and supportive role in the emergence of plural democracy in Spain, it was outraged when a new, democratic Spain immediately began a vigorous programme of wide-ranging reforms – from the legalisation of abortion to gay marriage – which basically sent a signal to the Vatican that it needed to back off and stop interfering in the lives of the Spanish people.

The Vatican’s subsequent attempts to regain some its influence have come to nought. Today in Spain the Catholic Church is truly a spent force, and with this in mind each November – with earplugs firmly in place – I happily join friends in raising a glass to the Virgen del Sufragio.

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