The Good Friday Procession, St Catherine of Alexandria, Zejtun, Malta

Good Friday Procession, St Catherine of Alexandria, Zejtun, Malta


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Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo
Church: Good Friday Procession
Location: St Catherine of Alexandria, Zejtun, Malta
Date of visit: Friday, 2 April 2010, 12:00am

The building

The tradition of the Good Friday procession is carried on under the auspices of the parish of St Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr. The parish traces its history back to the 1430s, although the present church was built over a period of 28 years around the turn of the 18th century after a design by Lorenzo Gafà, a Maltese baroque architect responsible for dozens of churches, cathedrals and bishop's palaces. The majestic baroque edifice, built in Maltese stone, is graced by an attractive dome, Doric and Ionic pilasters, and massive cornices all round. A clock informs us of the time, whilst a second clock shows a false hour to confuse the devil about the times of the mass.

The church

If the parishioners are anything like the other church congregations we observed at worship in Malta, they are zealous and totally committed to the Roman Catholic faith. The church website appears to indicate an emphasis on traditional church activities such as liturgy, catechesis, etc., with limited involvement in social service and the environment.

The neighborhood

Zejtun is a quiet town in a beautiful site on top of a hill in the south of Malta, with the Maltese capital city of Valletta to the north and the fishing village of Marsaxlokk to the south. With a population 12,000, it is set amidst a fertile landscape that produces a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. The town takes its name from the Sicilian Arabic word for olive, referring to the olive trees that grow in abundance in the area. Narrow streets, many houses with religious icons in niches in their walls, a palace from the days of the Grand Masters, and the remains of a Roman villa still being excavated, as well as St Catherine's Church itself and the smaller and much older church of St Gregory, make Zejtun a must-visit Maltese tourist attraction.

The cast

About 800 people of all ages led the procession. None were named, but I did observe the parish priest, the Revd Eric Overend, running around making sure everything was proceeding smoothly.

What was the name of the service?

Good Friday Procession.

How full was the building?

Thousands of people lined the streets of the town, some sitting but most standing for the duration of the procession. Tour operators in mini-buses arriving from all over the island dropped their passengers a little way out of the centre of town. Seats were provided for us at a strategic spot near to the church. Around the vicinity of the church, the crowd spilled from the pavements onto the road.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A personal welcome seemed inappropriate – we all were there to appreciate the drama of Good Friday portrayed in live pageant. Maltese people, like island folk all over the world, may hesitate to speak to visitors until they themselves begin a conversation, but they are nevertheless very welcoming. We had interesting conversations with a number of people, sharing ideas about Easter, the cost of the forthcoming visit of the Pope, and the proposed introduction of bendy (articulated or accordion) buses on the Maltese roads.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was one of the slatted wooden chairs provided by the local band club to the tour operator, not very comfortable. But everybody spent time on their feet as the pageant passed by.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit) under a cloudless sky. The atmosphere was expectant – we could feel the sense of reverent waiting for the visual telling of the story. I expect that most people would have been to mass earlier in the day.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

There were no spoken words at any point in the drama. A number of church officials dressed in purple and white led the procession, which included brass bands, each playing sombre funeral marches.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None were necessary – the whole event was more of a visual spectacle than a service and required no verbal involvement.

What musical instruments were played?

The two Zejtun bands, each with about 100 members, played the whole range of brass and wind instruments. Roman soldiers with snare drums and bugle fanfares added to the occasion.

Did anything distract you?

There was a constant strange noise like the hum of an electrical shortage; we later discovered that this was the playing of snare drums outside the church entrance. It seemed out of place and unnecessary, although it probably had a reasonable explanation. Also, there was a moment involving three elderly nuns and where they should sit that I found mildly distracting – see below.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was solemn and intense. We watched with quiet reverence. The procession embodied a recounting of the Easter story placed in the wider context of both Old and New Testaments. The story-telling commenced at the doors of the church and proceeded through the streets of Zejtun, returning much later to the church. Twelve life-size statues placed on large wooden plinths were each carried by eight white-robed men assisted by four other men who helped to steady the structure on its journey. The whole moved with a swinging motion as the bearers kept in step. The statues included representations of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the scourging of Christ, Christ carrying the cross, Christ on the cross with the women watching, the dead Christ leaning on the breast of Mary with Joseph and Nicodemus alongside, and the resurrected Christ. These were interspersed with children and adults who portrayed figures such as the high priest, Pontius Pilate, Roman soldiers, and passers-by at the cross. John the Baptist's head was carried on a dish. Pots of oil, bunches of grapes, a live sheep, and a stuffed cockerel added to the drama. The procession made frequent stops that allowed people to reflect on the scenes and to listen to the bands.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Given that it was a telling of the biblical story surrounding the events of Good Friday, it could rightfully be argued that the whole two and one-half hours was a sermon. It seemed not a moment too long! The 800 preachers, aged from very young children to bearded old men, gave it their all and deserve the highest praise (which I am sure they did not seek) for their serious portrayal of characters. The use of costumes and scenic props added to the majesty of it all.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was strangely down to earth, probably because it involved so many lay people, yet it was truly uplifting to a higher plane. The procession was presented as a whole and would not have been complete without every scene.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The tendency to what seemed to me to be superstitious dependence was sad to observe. I do, however, recognise that such activities bring inspiration, challenge and comfort to many, not only in participating as an actor but also through observation and identification with the story and its tellers.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The electricity went off island-wide – but not by design. That's another story, though. There was no time to hang around.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Ftira (large bread rings), figolla (almond-filled shortcake biscuits in various shapes and sizes), and various fizzy drinks and juices were available at a number of stalls along the route of the procession.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

1 – As colourful and passionate as it all was, this is nevertheless not my brand of encounter with the divine.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Well, I'm not a Christian, but if I were, I think I might have been overwhelmed by the rich pageantry. That said, it was a delight to be present – and it did get to me!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The three elderly nuns on the street corner who (although I did not understand what they were saying) seemed to be arguing over which of them should not sit in the one available chair.

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