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Footsteps of the faithful

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By Birdie Jaworski

Holy Week begins Sunday with an event chronicled in all four Gospels — Palm Sunday, a remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when people lining the road pressed their best cloaks, pressed branches of small trees into the dry earth before him in a gesture of admiration and respect.

Today, Catholics hold stark green blessed palm fronds, or boughs of native trees, during Palm Sunday Mass as they participate in the Lord’s Passion, a recital of Jesus’ last steps before death and resurrection.

This year, Holy Week begins after a forward-thinking declaration from the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI, through his steadfast Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti — the Vatican’s specialist on sin and penance — has brought the seven deadly sins up to date by adding seven new ones for the age of globalisation.

The list, published this week in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, came as the Pope deplored today’s “decreasing sense of sin” and warns the faithful that causing environmental devastation or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos will book a sure trip to hell.

Las Vegas has seen many Holy Week observations in its centuries of history. A hundred years ago, school children filed onto the Plaza the day following the blessing of palms, books left to gather spring wind dust, for several full days of prayer and fasting. They rotated past a carved wooden state of Christ kept in the churchyard, his feet dark from the oils of supplicants’ hands and lips, each child kneeling, offering secret prayer and intention as they intoned Latin chants.

For many decades, Las Vegans weren’t allowed to conduct business, chop wood, even start a car from Wednesday through Easter. Old grandmothers cautioned the tempted with warnings that chopping wood might “harm Jesus,” as he roamed town in invisible robes. Musicians kept guitars carefully stored, away from wandering hands that might invoke Jesus’ wrath with a few unthinking chords.

Wailing prayerful chants, and the thin echo of reed pipes called men of Las Vegas to Mount Calvary on Ash Wednesday. They stole into a simple adobe morada, a secret church of the Los Hermanos Pentitentes, the penitent brothers, where they knelt on hardened dirt floor and prayed the Stations of the Cross.

The brothers sang hymns of praise and passion, sang loud and heavy, their voices echoing from the pion-laced hill across the wind-whipped plains.

Los Hermanos Penitentes consisted of men throughout Northern New Mexico including Las Vegas who, to atone for their sins, practiced severe penance.

In each morada, the community participated in bloody ceremonies meant to emulate the sufferings of Christ. One by one, the brothers bowed before a Sangrador who — with a jagged piece of glass — gouged crisscrosses on their backs. The penitents would keep their wounds open and raw until Easter, often by rubbing rock salt in them.

The brothers assembled each Good Friday, with one lucky man chosen to be the Cristo. Against the dull crack of horse whips, they proceeded to Mount Calvary. The Cristo dragged a heavy wooden cross behind him, his shoulders aching from the weight. At the top of the hill, the Cristo was lashed so tightly to the anchored cross that his skin turned black and puffy.

Rome didn’t sanction the brotherhood for years, until the late 1940s, by which time membership had dramatically fallen. It still exists today, in small secret pockets of faithful members who continue to relive the Passion of Christ in as fully physical way as possible. The old adobe moradas, once so mysterious and steeped in spirituality, toppled inward.

Life and Catholic practices have clearly changed in Las Vegas, in northern New Mexico, even in environmentally-aware Rome. But the influence of the Penitentes, of every group that desires to relive the sufferings of Christ, still breathes every Holy Week.

While the faithful attend modern services full of song and uplifting praise, there are those who still quite literally carry the cross.