Sunday, July 5, 2009

So, there's separation of church and state in Chile?

This evening in Arica's central plaza the Chilean Armed Forces celebrated a Catholic Mass in front of the Catedral de San Marcos as a religious ritual for the soldiers to spiritually prepare for taking their annual oath of honor. Here is Arica this oath and the religious ritual are partically poignant because of the Battle of Arica fought on June 7, 1880, between forces of Chile and Peru. This battle coupled with the Battle of Iquique staged on May 21, 1879, were critical in securing Chile's northern border and providing Chile vast areas of mineral and ocean resources. The Chilean Navy and subsequently the Armed Forces attributed the success of the of Battle of Iquique to the protection provided by the Virgen del Carmen, even though there were many deaths including that of the naval commander Arturo Prat, Chile's most honored hero. With his inspirational death hundreds of young Chileans joined the war effort.

As I witnessed this Mass I was struck by the ritualistic and less spiritual aspects of the whole liturgy, partcicularly the almost total lack of participation of the hundreds of young military present. While the behavior was most respectful and solemn, the personal interest of the soldiers and cadets was very distant from the liturgical music, scriptures, and homily of Bishop Hector Vargas of Arica. Yet at the conclusion of the Mass they belted out the Hymn of the Armed Forces-- their voices probably could be heard throughout Arica!

The military and Catholic Church become very united through the intensity of the devotion to the Virgen del Carmen. Where do Protestants, other religious, and non-believers fit into this integration of Catholic devotion and military tradition? Or is the Virgen del Carmen simply a kind of mascot or talisman? Certainly she is a kind of supra-nationalist figure providing a "mistica" for Chilean national identity. In Spanish "mistica" signifies more than mystique-- more like a mystical realism connected to martyrdom such as Arturo Prat signifies. This has a transformative effect that means more than a national hero. Given the Catholic context of Chilean history Arturo Prat becomes a national civil saint-- particularly since Chile did not even generate official church saints until the 2000s with Alberto Hurtado and Teresa de las Andes.

I was quite tempted to disturb a couple of the soldiers and ask: so are there any Protestants here? how do they prepare to take their oath? Is the Catholic culture so strong that no one dare question this tradition of the Virgen del Carmen as protector?

(The Catedral de San Marcos has a very interesting history. It was designed in 1876 by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame and the building was actually engineered of steel and tin and shipped to Arica, which at the time was part of Peru.)

1 comment:

  1. I need to add that all Chileans are required to fulfill a one year military obligation. The oath or "Juramento a la Bandera" will be taken on July 10th. It is done in honor of the deaths of the entire Chilean regimen in the Battle of Concepción during the Guerra del Pacífico. The newspaper La Estrella de Arica reported today that 600 youth were present at the Mass.