Relations Between Los Hermanos Penitentes and the Catholic Church

by , 2005

Penitente brotherhoods have existed in rural areas of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico for over 400 years. During this time, their relationship to the Catholic Church has varied considerably. This relationship can be divided into three main eras: 1598-1833, 1833-1947, and 1947-today. The earliest period began with Don Juan de Oñate's arrival in New Mexico and his men's first Holy Week ceremonies, what can be considered the beginning of the Penitente history. The same factors that led to the organization of Penitente brotherhoods--extreme isolation and lack of clergy--allowed the Penitentes to practice unmolested by the Church. However, as contact between rural New Mexico and the outside world increased, the Church began to condemn the Brotherhood. The first official statement on the Penitentes, made by the Bishop of Durango in 1833 strongly condemned them. This condemnation continued until 1947 when the Church finally embraced the Penitentes. In this last period, the Penitentes have enjoyed a lack of persecution by the Church, but remain very secretive and are losing membership numbers due to other reasons.

In order to document the Penitentes' relation to the Church, it is necessary to briefly explain what the group's origins and beliefs. For the purposes of this paper, I will define the term Penitente as anyone who is a member of the Confradia de Nuestro Padre Jesus, or The Brotherhood of our Father Jesus. The Brotherhood has, throughout its history, lacked a clear central organization. Although constitutions and rules have been published in the group's name, brotherhoods in individual villages generally function as separate units. Although the Penitentes are best known for their painful recreations of Christ's sufferings, their original focus was far more mundane. In the far northern territories of New Spain, settlers had little contact with Catholic clergy and therefore needed someone to perform basic religious ceremonies such as marriage, funerals, and communion. The brotherhoods emerged as groups of particularly devout lay Catholics willing to perform these services in the absence of priests. Their intent was not to overtake the power of ordained clergy, but merely to substitute in their absence. Their annual Holy Week festivities began to include self-flagellation and mock crucifixions to simulate the pains that Jesus bore. In recent times, the last century and a half or so, as their territory became more populated and, therefore, had more access to ordained clergy, the Penitentes were no longer needed to perform their original functions. Yet, they have remained together and continue to recreate the sufferings of Christ. This self-punishment is what the group is most known for today, although it was not their primary function when they first organized.

The link between self-inflicted suffering and the Penitentes has caused some historians to look back to the flagellants of Middle Age Europe as a source of the Penitente faith even though there is almost no real link between the two. Although the flagellants probably provided the inspiration for the Penitentes' own Holy Week ceremonies, they did not perform any of the other functions that were so crucial in early Penitente life. A more accurate starting place would be in 1598, when "it is recorded that Don Juan de Oñate and his men performed public penance during Holy Week." As these original settlers began to spread and settle in rural communities, brotherhoods began to form, taking official control of the Holy Week celebrations. In this early period, all of the Penitente territory fell within the Bishopric of Durango, which meant that their bishop resided almost a thousand miles away. Consequently, the Church hierarchy had almost no interaction with their affairs. There were only a handful of Franciscans in the entire region, and their individual judgment on the Penitente practices varied considerably. Whether or not they approved of the Penitente practices, however, they were too few in number to force any sort of change. And, the more powerful church hierarchy was completely unaware that the Penitentes even existed. A good example of how freely the Penitentes functioned outside of the control of the Church in their first two hundred years is the surprise that Bishop Zubíria expressed after first observing the Penitente practices on a trip he took to Santa Cruz de la Cañada in 1833. Until this journey, he--the bishop overseeing all of the territory the Penitentes lived on--did not even know that they existed.

Zubíria's journey and 'discovery' of the Penitentes would lead to over a century of official condemnation by the Church. Zubría wrote a letter on July 21, 1883 in which he said, "We strictly command, laying it on the conscience of our present and future pastors of this villa, that the must never in the future permit such reunions of Penitentes under any pretext whatsoever... The Brotherhood... we annul and which must remain forever abolished." Although his words clearly outlawed the Penitente faith, they went largely unheeded. Community priests, either because they were unwilling or unable to do so, did virtually nothing to stop the gathering of Penitentes. After his initial reaction, Zubría himself seems to have forgotten about the Penitentes; he wrote nothing further on the subject. Like it had in the preceding two centuries, the isolation of the rural territory protected the Penitentes from the Church. Consequently, the Penitente ceremonies remained very public and unchanged.

This freedom was lost, however, soon after the creation of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1838. John B. Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, resided much closer to Penitente territory and was far more able to enforce Catholic law. Lamy, who was born in France, had more contempt for than understanding of the Mexicans he presided over and quickly excommunicated five of the nine Spanish-speaking clergymen who served in New Mexico at the time of his arrival. He saw the Penitentes' Holy Week rituals as barbaric, but unlike Zubría, realized that simply outlawing the Brotherhoods would not result in their disappearance. Lamy's sphere of influence was strong within the city of Santa Fe, but it became much weaker out in the rural areas the Penitentes inhabited. Furthermore, the Brotherhood as a collective group had a large membership base and more political power than Lamy could easily oppose. So, instead of requiring the complete dismemberment of the local Brotherhoods, Lamy published a set of rules for the Penitentes to follow on October 27, 1856. The first rule was that, "No individual can be admitted to this brotherhood who does not profess the religion of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church." Through this rule (and the ninth rule that stated all Penitentes must obey and respect the bishop), Lamy intended to ensure that the Penitentes remained members of his diocese and under his power, rather than becoming complete enemies. Although he conceded recognition as members of the Church to the Penitentes, Lamy still strongly disapproved of their practices and, therefore, required them to be performed out of public sight. He stressed secrecy throughout the rules, saying in the third rule, "All brothers must keep secret all matters that may be transacted at the meetings to be had." In 1857, Lamy published a second set of rules, again stressing the required secrecy of the group: "The Penance must be done as hidden as possible, without giving scandal to the rest of the faithful according to the spirit of the Church." This attempt at forcing secrecy was Lamy's attempt to push the Penitentes out of sight, knowing that he could not actually destroy them. Throughout the rest of Lamy's time as Archbishop of Santa Fe, his approach to the Penitentes was successful in its mission. The Penitentes almost completely ceased their public displays of penance and adopted a strict sense of secrecy. An official constitution was drafted by the Brotherhood in 1860 which included the rule that Penitentes "must guard the secrets and not tell anyone, not ever their parents nor their brothers, nor any other person...anything that he sees in the Brotherhood." Although Lamy had not gotten rid of the Penitentes as he would have liked, he did a very good job of taking them out of public sight. Anyone visiting his bishopric after 1860 would probably not even know that they existed.

This relatively accepting view of Penitente practices by the Church would disappear when John Salpointe succeeded Lamy as the Archbishop of Santa Fe in 1885. Like Lamy, the French-born Salpointe had contempt for the Mexicans he presided over. Unlike Lamy, however, Salpointe was not content to patiently wait for the Penitentes to die out on their own, now that their original function no longer needed to be served. Either because he had more power than Lamy had, or because he was even more adamantly opposed to their practices, Salpointe refused to allow any Penitente activity to go on within his diocese. On March 31, 1889, he published a Circular that specifically forbid any form of self-flagellation and ordered the dissolution of all Penitente groups. Although his condemnation was more severe than Lamy's, it had about the same effect. Because of both refusal on the part of some local priests to condemn the Penitentes and the Penitentes' refusal to give up their centuries-old practice, the Brotherhoods continued to flourish in secrecy. To the outside world, including the now important Anglo Protestant community, it looked as though Salpointe had been fairly successful in ending the barbaric Penitente practices. But, although they may have appeared to be gone, the Penitentes were thriving in secrecy, outside the Church, as they would continue to do until the middle of the twentieth century.

It was not until 1947 that the Penitentes would again be considered members of the Catholic Church. Edwin Byrne, the Archbishop of Santa Fe at the time, published a press release that concluded with the statement, "if the Brethren proceed with moderation and privately and under our supervision, meanwhile giving a good example to all us Catholics and citizens, they have our blessing and protection." This statement gave legitimacy back to the Penitentes that they had not experienced since before Zubría's condemnation in 1833. Although Lamy allowed Penitente practices to be performed in secret, he still did not approve of them or recognize them as anything related to the Church. Byrne allowed the members of the Brotherhood, for the first time since before they were discovered by church authorities, to be both legitimate Catholics and legitimate Penitentes at the same time. However, like official rulings of the past, Byrnes' statement had little real immediate effect on the Penitentes. They continue to maintain strict secrecy about everything dealing with their faith. Although their official relationship to the Church changed, the hidden nature of the Penitentes remains the same now as it has since the 1850's.

As a concluding note, it is interesting that the Penitentes are now nearing extinction due to a lack of membership among the younger generations. As the last big generation of Penitentes nears death, so does the Brotherhood as a whole. It was not the condemnation of Zubría, Lamy, or Salpointe that destroyed the Penitentes. Instead, they are disappearing because their original role as a substitute for clergy no longer needs to be filled. Of course, it is impossible to say how different actions in the past would affect today's world, but I speculate that if it had not been for the strong condemnation by foreign bishops that united the Penitentes together so strongly against the outside world, the Brotherhood would have faded long ago, just as they are fading now.