What do these people have in common? Charlotte Church, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Sting with Pavarotti, and Kiri Te Kanawa? Not much you might say, but they have all recorded César Franck’s captivating setting of Panis Angelicus, part of a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ for non-classicists). Even the most sceptic must surely be inspired by this moving hymn. If you are Catholic you will appreciate the significance of this day, but the celebration of this feast is not restricted to the Catholic church.
The main feature of the celebration is the triumphant procession in which the sacred host (the wafer which has been consecrated during the Mass) is carried out of the church for all to make their public profession of faith. The host is displayed on a ‘monstrance‘ protected from the sun by a canopy (as below).
End of sermon.
This year Covid-19 has succeeded in postponing or proscribing this centuries old celebration, performed worldwide from eastern Orthodox churches to the Church of England to Catholic South America. One country intent on honouring the day was Poland, which was determined it should take place (and masks were worn).
It is down here in the far south-west of France, in the devout Pays Basque, that this celebration is in danger of withering on the vine. In a perfect world the priest would be local, and Basque. The days of large families are no more and there are few, if any, surplus sons destined for the priesthood. Last year it was touch and go as to whether our local village could celebrate it; one priest can contend with so much and no more.
A celebration that started in the 13th century will have been modified over the centuries and the protocol of la Fête-Dieu (or Besta Berri) depends on where it is held. It is still a predominantly male occasion, as this old picture shows, but a concession is made to young girls who scatter flower petals before the monstrance. Even the uniforms vary between villages. The significance of the uniforms and the role of the wearers has blurred over the centuries. There is a hierarchy for entering and leaving our church; normally the mayor accompanies the priest but not in our village where he is a ‘sapper’.
We asked monsieur le maire what the significance was of the leather apron, the axe and the mirrors on the majestic bearskin, or busby. He hesitated but it was generally agreed among them that they represented the sapeurs, or engineers. That doesn’t explain the bearskins or mirrors, although there were bears in the mountains and the mirrors may symbolise the sun. There must be a long forgotten reason for them to stand guard at the altar.
The captain in command of the soldiers, leads them in to the church, accompanied by drum beats and, in our village, an accordion or pipe, and where they line up on two sides the length of the aisle. The baton carrier then leads in the flag bearers who execute a dance as they progress towards the altar. At crucial moments of the Mass the captain barks out orders to present or shoulder arms. Some call them Swiss guards and others Napoleonic soldiers, who reputedly guarded the priest in the days when churches were attacked.
Music and dancing is a crucial part of the celebration. As they parade in front of the fronton, or pelote court, the drum major (makilari) throws his baton into the air hoping he will catch it when it falls.
Watching these jubilant celebrations one is left with unanswered questions about the protocol and the uniform, and so on, but does it really matter? It’s a religious festival to be enjoyed. Christianity came late to the Pays Basque but was embraced with fervour when it did. In Basque mythology the main figure was the female character of Mari. It’s a short step to Mary. The rituals of the ancient Basques did not survive the arrival of Christianity, but you do speculate if there is something of the pagan past in the present.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in centres like Boise and Bakersfield, the Besta Berri tradition is prospering. Where Basques have settled there will always be music and dancing, kept alive by groups like the renowned Chino Basque Club.
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