Easter in Sicily – Enna’s Good Friday

Looking down at her crossed hands, a soberly dressed elder sitting in a corner under a red cross of the SS. Salvatore fraternity recites the litanies of a small morning Via Crucis led by Padre Rugolo. Inside the church, the wooden Christ has already been lowered into the urn and the doors have been shut. It will exit the church at five o’clock, resting on the shoulders of some 70 members of the fraternity. ‘The church will open after the Via Crucis.’ She mutters in response to a questioning tourist. ‘How long will it take?’. ‘Oh, it’s a short one!’.

An hour later, Padre Rugolo has not yet reached the last station of the Via Crucis before entering the Church, followed by a murmuring, impatient crowd. He himself is nervous: the wireless microphone doesn’t seem to work as it should and his voice in the speakers comes and goes. The ‘rettore’ and two brothers from the SS. Salvatore fraternity have been following him from the beginning of the Via Crucis, carrying a crucifix towards which the adoring crowd kneels in reverence at regular intervals. Monsignor Petralia, long-standing parson of Enna, is easily identifiable in the crowd not only for his more than 90 years of age but also for his impeccable attire and graceful manners as he greets the many who have lined up to kiss his hand. Later in the day, we were told an anecdote about one of his last services: when he called forth the virgins among the attendees and nobody moved, he simply shrugged his shoulders and beckoned the first rows to the altar – ‘however you are’, he allegedly added, in the local dialect.

It’s a triumphantly bright spring day in Enna, the highest provincial capital in Italy, sitting at over 900 metres above sea level. A chilly breeze, intermittent like Padre Rugolo’s voice in the speakers, brings the smell of a mimosa scabrella tree towering over the church’s courtyard wall and the Via Crucis. Padre Rugolo reads out from a small breviary. “Remember that you die once and forever for the first time”. “May death become a reason to make choices which transcend us and our immediate interest”. He even invokes the Holy Spirit “to enlighten those who pollute and destroy the environment”. As usual, I like the philosophical background to some of these statements as much as I tend to dislike the creed. An atheist and convinced anti-clerical, when I turned 18 I obliged the Roman Catholic church to revoke my baptism. I am not, as one may infer, a habitué at catholic functions and rituals, but Enna’s Easter week is renowned throughout Sicily for its popularity, pathos and magnificence. Putting aside my notebook and my suspicion for things Christian, I make for the sacristy, setting up the camera to film the hours leading to the exit of the palanquin.

There is much ado as some 250 members of the SS Salvatore fraternity, the oldest of the existing sixteen, are dressing up. Founded in 1261 to help the poorest among its members, for the last four centuries the SS Salvatore fraternity has been the one designated to carry the wooden Christ in procession and into the Duomo, where it will be sat next by a wooden ‘Addolorata’, the anguished Mary. These two statues carried on palanquins gather most of the attention during the Good Friday fraternity parades. Wearing a white habit, a light yellow chasuble with the fraternity’s red cross patteè, a white hood with holes for the eyes and a simple wooden crown, the brothers gather around for the roll call. One by one, the bearer’s names are called and they move forward to collect the short ropes they will use to lift the palanquin. At each end of the two rows of bearers, eight ‘anellieri’ will be in charge of steering the palanquin through the narrow roads and up the steep steps of the Duomo.

Having collected their ropes, bearers and anellieri exit the sacristy and gather around the urn with the wooden Christ, stopping to kiss it and make the sign of the cross. Some of them stand or kneel beside it for a moment of prayer. The nave of the church quickly fills up and there is less and less room to move about. Young and old, dark skinned and blue eyed, fraternity members line up by the palanquin under the yellow and red colours of the fraternity, contrasting beautifully with the white stucchi adorning the nave’s walls. I find myself hard-pressed against the wall as four brothers of the Sacro Cuore di Gesù enter the church and move to the sides of the urn. A member of the SS Salvatore fraternity, carrying a sheet of paper with a list of names on it performs a series of checks by circling several times around the palanquin. He smiles and pats on many of the brothers’ shoulders, dispelling some of the palpable tension hovering in the church as the hour approaches. The sound of a march nears: I infer that the band has almost reached the entrance of the church, preparing to follow the wooden Christ for the rest of the day. The brothers grow quieter. ‘Don’t forget the rope!’ ‘Shhhh’.

It’s time. The door is opened. The ‘rettore’ calls for attention and gives the last instructions to the carriers with a remarkably calm voice. Clinging to the ropes in their gloved hands, the carriers kneel for a last pater noster. Padre Rugolo’s voice erupts from the speakers: “since he carries the burden of your sorrows every day, today you will carry the weight of his dead body! Procedamus, in nomine Christi!”. Having uttered these words, he walks down the nave and positions himself at the head of the palanquin. With an air of solemnity, he adjusts his finely embroidered chasuble, then lifts his gaze, fixing his light blue eyes on me. He tries to smile, contracting his face into what looks more like a mocking grin. The bell strikes five o’clock. Finally the front group drops the first wooden structure which makes up the palanquin, and subsequently lifts it out of the church. The light shining through the door opening is now filtered by a dense bank of light grey clouds and the wind has completely died out. The golden urn heads out into the courtyard followed by a small crowd of photographers and, with a prodigiously precise turn, disappears into the narrow via Salvatore.

By the time the wind picks up again we find ourselves at the entrance of the XIV century Duomo. Flocks of brothers from the different fraternities carrying all sorts of religious paraphernalia exit from the windy road stretching down towards the Addolorata church. Floral crosses pierce through the incense smoke as the different fraternities disappear into the Duomo: the red-chasubled SS. Passione, the pointy-hooded SS. Crocifisso di Pergusa, the green mantled Maria SS. di Valverde. Finally, the urn of the wooden christ enters the Church’s square, with its five dozens porters undulating rhythmically to the bands motive. Having maneuvered to align the palanquin with the Duomo’s main entrance, the ‘anellieri’ direct the Salvatore toward the steep stairs surrounded by a crowd interspersed with hooded men. Women are still banned from being part of them. As the Christ’s urn is carried into the Duomo with a smooth, seemingly effortless maneuver, we turn against the ebb tide of the procession, trying to make our way to find a favourable position to watch the statue of the anguished Mary. The crowd gets increasingly litigious for a spot in the first rows as the Addolorata finds its way into the Duomo to be positioned next to the dead Christ.

It is almost dusk. Looking up, the Duomo’s façade cuts into a sky where a timid shade of light red glares through multiple layers of grey clouds. Padre Rugolo’s silhouette stands out against the warm light coming from inside the church. The dead Christ and the Addolorata resume their perambulations accompanied by the majestic Passion Hennensis choir’s chants.

 

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