Catholicism and Community

Peru Table of Contents

Like many Latin American nations, Peru's predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, which after 460 years has remained a powerful influence in both state affairs and daily activities. Church activities and personnel are, of course, centered in Lima, symbolically located on the east side of the Plaza de Armas to one side of the National Palace and the Municipality of Lima, which occupy the north and west quarters, respectively, of the central square from which all points in Peru are measured. The ceremonial functions of the state are integrated into the rites of the church, beginning with the inauguration of the president with high mass in the cathedral, Holy Week events, and the observances of major Peruvian saints' days and festivals, such as that of Santa Rosa de Lima (Saint Rose of Lima) and others. The institutional role of the church was established with conquest and the viceroyalty, but since independence it has slowly declined through losing its exclusive control over the domains of education, maintenance of vital statistics, marriages, and the organization of daily life around church rites. Nevertheless, the ceremonial aspects of the Catholic religion, moral dictates, and values are profoundly embedded in Peruvian culture; parish priests and bishops play active roles in local affairs where they are present.

The policies of the church historically have been considered as very conservative, and the various parishes and bishoprics were great landlords, either managing their properties directly or renting them to other elites. Church districts with such properties were eagerly sought by ambitious clergy, many of whom even gained dubious reputations as hacendados. Throughout the highlands, the priesthood actively carried the colonial legacy in its dealings with the Quechua and Aymara peoples until the decade of the 1950s, when many foreign priests, notably the Maryknolls in Puno, began introducing substantial changes in these traditional patterns. Part of this development resulted in the emergence of a strongly populist and social activist theme among many clergy, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose 1973 book, A Theology of Liberation, was perhaps to have greater political impact outside of Peru than in it. The changes, however, were considerable, and many priests and nuns worked to assist the poor in ways that marked a turnabout in both style and concept of duty from a short generation before. Although the Peruvian priesthood has been thus invigorated, the church remains unable to fill a large percentage of its parishes on a regular basis, in part because of the demand for clergy in Lima and the other coastal cities.

Roman Catholicism, as the official state religion, has played a major role in Peruvian culture and society since conquest, with every village, town, and city having its official church or cathedral, patron saint, and special religious days, which are celebrated annually. These kinds of activities are focal events for reaffirming social identity and play key roles in the life of all types and sizes of community. Participation in these events is spurred by both religious devotion and desire to serve in community functions for prestige and perhaps political purposes. The most notable of these activities are the patronal festivals that each settlement annually celebrates. Costs for these affairs vary greatly, depending on the size of the town or community. In the case of large cities like Ica or Cusco, expenses are impressive. To underwrite the costs, localities have each developed their own methods of "taxation," although none would call it that. The most common method is to obtain "volunteers," who agree to serve as festival sponsors, called mayordomos, who can enlist their family members to aid in the work of organizing and paying for community-wide celebrations. In small places, the mayordomo and his or her family may handle the costs within the group, even going into debt to do things properly. In large towns and cities, the festivals are often sponsored by the municipal government as well as the church, with mayordomos serving in only limited capacities. In many towns, there is a religious brotherhood (hermandad) or other organization that also takes part in this fashion. Peru's largest religious celebration, the Señor de los Milagros, which takes place in Lima during the month of October each year, is largely funded by the brotherhood of the Señor de los Milagros.

In communities that maintain strong native cultural traditions, Roman Catholicism is intricately mixed with facets of Incaic beliefs and practices. The native populations hold firm animistic notions about the spirits and forces found in natural settings, such as the great snowpeaks where the apus (lords of sacred places) dwell. Many places are seen as inherently dangerous, emanating airs or essences that can cause illness, and are approached with care. The Incas and other Andean peoples revered the inti (sun) and pacha mama (earth mother), as well as other gods and the principal ancestral heads of lineages. The Spaniards, in converting the people to Catholicism, followed a deliberate strategy of syncretism that was used throughout the Americas. This process sought to substitute Christian saints for local deities, often using existing temple sites as the location of churches. Many of the biblical lessons and stories were conveyed through dramatic reenactments of those events at fiestas that permitted people to memorize the tales and participate in the telling. Thousands of Andean fiestas are based on such foundations.

The annual celebrations of village patron saints' days often coincide with important harvest periods and are clearly reinterpretations of preconquest harvest observances disguised as Catholic feast days. In the south highlands, among such pastoral peoples as those of Q'eros, Cusco preserves many ancestral practices and lifeways. Elaborate rites to promote the fertility of their llama and alpaca herds are still undertaken. In other communities, religious rites that evoke natural and spiritual forces require sacrifices of animals, such as llamas or guinea pigs, the spillage of chicha or alcohol on sacred ground, or the burying of coca and other ritual items to please the apus or the pacha mama. In numerous highland areas, the Spanish introduced the Mediterranean custom of blood sports, such as bullfighting, bullbaiting, and games of horsemanship in which riders riding at full gallop attempt to wring the necks of fowl or condors. José María Arguedas recounts these practices in his famous 1941 novel, Yawar Fiesta.

Andean religious practices conform to the sociocultural divisions of Peruvian society, with the Hispanicized coastal cities following general Roman Catholic practices, and the Andean towns and villages reflecting the syncretisms of conquest culture, which endure as strong elements in modern belief and worldview. The importance of these events is considerable because they evoke outpourings of devotion and emotional expressions of belief, while giving opportunity for spiritual renewal. They also function to tie the population together in their common belief and allegiance to the immortal figure of the saint or apu, and thus constitute important bonding mechanisms for families and neighborhoods. From the major celebrations--such as those of two specifically Peruvian saints, Santa Rosa of Lima and San Martín of Porres (Saint Martin of Porres)--to the dozens of important regional figures, such as the Virgin de la Puerta (Virgin of the Door) in La Libertad Department and the revered saints and crosses in village chapels, these feast days have a singular role in social life. Indeed, not only do settlements have religious allegiances, but so, too, do public institutions. For example, the armed forces celebrate the day of their patroness, the Virgen de las Mercedes (Virgin of the Mercedes--Our Lady of Ransom), with pomp and high-level participation around the country.

Since about 1970, Protestantism has been winning converts in Peru at a relatively rapid rate among the urban poor and certain Indian populations. Yet, Peruvians, like those in other Andean countries, have not been as receptive to Protestant entreaties to convert as have people in Central America. According to one study, only about 4.5 percent of Peruvians can be counted as Protestants, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) forming about a quarter of the number and the rest belonging to various other groups. To many, the appeal of Protestantism comes in reaction to the kinds of ceremonial obligations that have accompanied Roman Catholic practice and the failure of the traditional church to address adequately the pressing issues that were problems among the poor.

Most intensive Protestant missionary attention has been directed toward the tribal peoples of the Amazon Basin, where the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), Wycliffe Bible Translators, and similar evangelical groups have long worked. In particular, the SIL has occupied a peculiar position in Peru through its long-running contracts with the Ministry of Education to educate the numerous tribes, such as the Shipibo, and assist the government in developing linguistically correct texts for several groups. Nevertheless, nationalistic public reaction to the SIL's activities has provoked many attempts to force the organization out of Peru. Because the force behind the evangelical movements emanates largely from the United States and because Roman Catholicism is the official state religion, there have been occasional hints of loyalist hostility with respect to zealous proselytizing.

Catholic cults have also bloomed throughout Lima's squatter settlements. The role of religion and the fact that the people themselves generate institutions of worship with relatively little external guidance is yet another expression of the migrants' striving for a sense of community in the difficult circumstances of Lima's squatter settlements.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress