Austerity puts strain on Easter revelry in Spain
Austerity puts strain on Easter revelry in Spain BY RAPHAEL MINDER, New York Times
ALBAIDA DEL ALJARAFE, Spain -- Dolores Gelo Suarez, a 70-year-old retired cleaner, lives alone in a home filled with religious decorations and relies on a state pension worth "a few hundred" euros a month.
Still, she recently donated 14,000 euros, or almost $18,000, to make a gold-laced tunic that will be worn by a statue of the Virgin Mary and then carried Sunday by members of her religious brotherhood during one of Andalusia's traditional Easter processions.
In Olivares, a neighboring town of 9,500, another brotherhood also was preparing a Virgin statue for its Easter procession, this one adorned with a gold crown. The crown was made after melting down necklaces, rings, ancient coins and other gold objects worth tens of thousands of euros, after they were donated last year by 300 members of the brotherhood.
Such fundraising underlines the clout of the Roman Catholic Church, whose importance in Spain as a charitable institution also has been considerably enhanced by the country's economic crisis and government spending cuts on social services. The newly elected Pope Francis has suggested that the poor will be at the heart of his mission.
The crisis also has put strains on the church, however. Its fiscal privileges have been put under the spotlight, and the splendor of the Easter celebrations is viewed by some as out of sync with the dire economic conditions of the time.
"There is a debate about introducing more austerity in the Easter celebrations, probably fueled both by our economic crisis and the message of our new pope," said Maria Roca, a professor of religious law at the Complutense University in Madrid and a legal adviser to the Spanish church.
In fact, Miguel Luna, secretary of the Olivares brotherhood that collected gold for the Virgin's crown, said his organization found itself in "an uncomfortable situation." On the one hand, it is deeply attached to its long-held traditions -- it celebrated its 300th anniversary last year -- but it also is concerned about appearing ostentatious. Some members of the brotherhood opposed investing in the crown.
Still, the crown should be understood as "a very emotional transfer that people want to make to the Virgin," Luna said. "It's certainly not about trying to exhibit splendor and wealth at a time when the focus is on charity and austerity."
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The resilience of the donation-based financing model of the religious brotherhoods contrasts with the difficulties faced by many town halls, which have been buried in debt since the Spanish property bubble burst in 2008.
"The crisis hurts everybody, but a brotherhood is self-financed, has never depended on subsidies and simply spends what it can collect," said Gerardo Diaz, a member of another brotherhood, who also handles public finances as treasurer of the Olivares town hall.
This Easter, for instance, Diaz's brotherhood is assuming the cost of a tow truck to ensure that badly parked cars will not block the processions. The town normally pays that bill.
In a country with a record jobless rate of 26 percent, the church has aggressively trumpeted its virtues as an employer. Last year it began a recruitment drive for priests, with its television ad campaign arguing that joining the priesthood was a guarantee of "a permanent job."
For the brotherhoods, soaring joblessness has helped persuade more idle house painters, ceramic workers and other craftsmen to lend a hand in the time leading up to Easter celebrations.
"People have far less regular work, so that at least means more spare time to devote to our brotherhood," said Genoveva Rodriguez Sanchez, a seamstress who has made several embroideries for her brotherhood and has been setting aside one day a week to help prepare the Easter festivities.
"I think religious fervor has in any case been rising here every year, but this is also helping to maintain a long tradition of artistry that would otherwise go to waste during this crisis," she added. Among the 3,000 inhabitants of Albaida del Aljarafe, 509 people are registered as unemployed.
Still, while 73 percent of Spaniards call themselves Catholics, the proportion who identify themselves as practicing the religion has declined steadily, down last year to 18 percent, according to Metroscopia, a polling agency. That compared with 31 percent in 1988 and 48 percent in 1976, the year after the dictator Francisco Franco died.
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Meanwhile, the crisis also has brought more attention to the economic advantages of the church, particularly its exemption from most property tax under a 1979 agreement signed between Spain and the Vatican.
The church also benefited from a 1998 legislative act that allowed dioceses to register as their property churches and other buildings that they had long used but not officially owned.
At a time when many Spaniards have taken to the streets to protest the government's recent tax increases, 80 percent of them want the church to contribute to the austerity effort by paying higher property taxes, according to Metroscopia's polling.
In May, the main opposition Socialist Party demanded a property census to identify church assets that could be subject to taxation. The push for stiffer church taxation also was backed by some conservative mayors, who were desperate to replenish municipal coffers.
But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative Popular Party won a parliamentary majority in November 2011, has poured cold water on any attempt to erode the church's fiscal advantages. Instead, Rajoy warned against making the church a scapegoat for Spain's economic downturn. "In the situation in which Spain finds itself, we must remain serious and not search for topics that divide people," Rajoy said in May.
The church also has been defending its finances. Fernando Gimenez Barriocanal, who handles the Spanish church's economic affairs, estimated that his "army of God" provided services to Spain's needy worth 2.35 euros for every euro the church received in state subsidies. "You could not imagine Spanish society without the activity of the church," he said last year.
The brotherhoods, some of which date from the 14th century, have a religious purpose, as associations of Catholic lay people who come together to perform religious acts. In addition, the brotherhoods provide yearlong social services for the destitute and other vulnerable members of society. Still, Easter is the highlight of their calendar, as hooded penitents hold giant candles and walk along richly decorated floats on which the religious statues are placed.
For devout donors like Gelo Suarez, the former cleaner, there is just no room for any financial debate. "Making this kind of sacrifice is not about money, but only about how much faith you have," she said, when asked to explain why she was spending all her savings on embellishing the statue. "I consider the Virgin to be like my mother."
nCatholic Church's fiscal privileges under spotlight, Easter celebrations viewed as out of sync with dire economic conditions.