BRISBANE archdiocese’s Fr Hyacinth Udah being (jokingly) handcuffed by Pedro Abad’s local policia; the expression on the face of Rafael Roman, my host for Days in the Diocese, as he had his first taste of Vegemite; and a glimpse into a still-in use-mortuary in an 800-year-old church – these are some of the unforgettable images carried from my first full day on my arrival in Spain for World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.
The previous evening, Thursday, August 11, Queensland dioceses’ 40-strong Spanish Days World Youth Day group walked, more than slightly jet-lagged, into a rousing Andalucian welcome in the village of Pedro Abad, held in the ornate chapel of a convent founded by St Rafaela Maria.
We had arrived by a bus which met us at Madrid airport and took us about four hours south and through the narrow streets of the immaculate little 13th Century village to our destination.
After a welcome from the mayor, pilgrims were presented with a colourful red-and-gold scarf upon which was the slogan “Diocesis de Cordoba”, this ancient and once Europe’s most influential city being the diocese to which the parish of Pedro Abad belongs.
Up the front of the chapel to accept the welcome on behalf of the group, were the spiritual leader of the Spanish Days pilgrimage Bishop Joseph Oudeman, Auxiliary for Brisbane, and the group’s co-ordinator Anita Hendrie.
The welcome was the start of a close personal encounter with a passionate faith that persists despite countless setbacks – an example witnessed the following day when we learnt how the Spanish Civil War had once gutted the Holy Christ of the Homeless Hermitage now fully restored to its original magnificence.
On that first night though, I’m sure the other weary pilgrims shared my relief as we were greeted by our hosts who were to take us into their homes for the Days in the Diocese experience which is such a central part of WYD celebrations.
Me and three other pilgrims from Brisbane archdiocese – Matthew Jarvis, Tom Nash and Pat Brearley – were warmly greeted by our hosts Rafael Roman and his wife Purificacion Arenas as though we were long lost family members.
We were led with our baggage to a small van and driven to the outskirts of the village and then along a narrow lane fronted by continuous walls and fences, broken by gated entrances leading to many small and fastidiously tended farms, olives being the predominant crop.
As he drove, Rafael indicated home, a white rendered farmhouse on a hill which we soon reached by a road which wound round and up behind it. A short distance from it was a substantial chapel which we learnt was a hermitage devoted to Santiago the Minor, patron saint of Pedro Abad.
That evening over pizzas and cerevazo (beer) and good Tempranillo wine produced not far away, we met other family members including the couple’s 15-year-old son Fernando (a very important figure as he has some English) and various brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.
Next morning, on a day quickly warming towards its predicted 42-degree maximum, we met up with the pilgrims all gathering from their respective billets including the convent where we had gathered the previous night.
Our gathering spot was before the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption).
The first and central section of this church we would later learn had been blessed on November 25 in the year 03 – 1303 that is.
But first we had to visit the extraordinary church on the hill which went by the imposing appellation La ermita del Santisimo Cristo de los Descamparados or The Holy Christ of the Homeless hermitage.
With the good services of the parish priest Fr Don Ricardo, Anita Hendrie outlined some of the extraordinary history of the ornate and fascinating church.
It’s difficult to summarise the extraordinary history of this church and the miraculous image from which it draws its name.
In the early 13th Century, during the time of King Fernando III, the statue was located in a hospital which mainly treated soldiers injured in the wars with the Moors.
Owner of the image of the crucified Christ was an abbot, Pedro de Meneses.
At one point the bishop of Cordoba decided to have the statue moved to this city. Soon after, the statue was reported to have miraculously reappeared at the hospital at which point the king gave the order it must stay there.
Now that the war with the Moors had by this time finished, the king also ordered that the hospital be turned into hermitage.
Eventually the growing town drew its name from the monk.
Of the statue itself all that now remains is a charred arm in a glass case, reminder of the church’s sacking during the Spanish Civil War.
Remarkably lifelike statues could be seen throughout the church including that of Mary Magdalene with real human hair and convincing tears running down her face. There was also the recreated crucified Christ image from which the church draws its name.
In our later visit to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption we would see these same statues carried through the streets of Pedro Abad, playing a central part in the town´s annual Passion Play.
However, before we left the hermitage church there was more to see.
We were able to look through iron-barred gates into the cemetery filled with mausoleums for the town´s faithful.
As I went to leave, Rafael pulled me aside and opened a door to reveal a mortuary slab. “No photos,” he said quickly.
As the day unfolded we enjoyed a traditional Andalucian four-course lunch and visited the town´s new art gallery and the separate Museum of Contemporary Art. We pilgrims felt honoured to learn we were the first visitors in both locations.
Just across the road from the latter location was the police station which was where the forces of the law caught up with Fr Hyacinth and at his request handcuffed him for a mock arrest.
Above this was the mayor´s new office and he emerged to come down into the street and once again issue a formal greeting to all Days in the Diocese pilgrims.
Bishop Oudeman presided at a 10pm Mass that night at the hermitage church.
And the stories continued to unfold on the Saturday as the group toured Cordoba and the World Heritage site where stands the extraordinary Mezquita-Catedral – The cathedral of the diocese and former Great Mosque of Córdoba.
The momentum was building to the north in Madrid as the city prepared for its week of World Youth Day celebrations and the million-and-a-half pilgrims who were already heading that way.