“Don’t worry, I’ll lower the soufflé for you,” Francisco Javier de Ramiro promised his predecessor at the head of the church of San Xosé and sanctuary of Santa Marta de Ribarteme, Sergio Gómez, when the bishop of Tui-Vigo entrusted him with the relief in this parish of As Neves (south of Pontevedra). Don Sergio’s departure had been abrupt in the midst of a long controversy between the Church and the neighbors about a tradition of several centuries: the procession of living people, offered, inside coffins, which lately traveled on the fine border of the show, the trade, devotion and superstition. The Santa Marta procession, declared of “tourist interest in Galicia”, stopped being held due to the pandemic and this year, when the big day (July 29) arrived, the current priest remained firm in his decision to veto the coffins.
In 2013, a National Geographic reporter had been put in a coffin as another penitent; he had started a coffin rental business (or “cadaleitos”, in Galician); and the feeling of the religious was that the party had been trivialized in excess. Just a month ago, in Santa Marta there was a pilgrimage and procession, although without boxes. And this Monday, August 29, the confrontation, or the soufflé, swelled to bursting again: a girl’s baptism was scheduled in the temple, but it did not take place because the priest objected to the godmother. She was a woman who “lives with a man”, with whom she raises a child, “without being married”, according to the priest “neither by the Church nor by civil matters”.
De Ramiro alleges that when the family requested the baptism he gave them a series of documents, such as the one referring to data protection and a paper that includes “the requirements demanded by the Church” to participate in this liturgy. “In the previous catechesis”, last weekend, the priest relates, “they introduced me to a girl who cannot be a godmother”. Then “the mother asked me for the baptismal papers and tore them up in front of me”, he continues, “they must have believed that she was going to put me on my knees, but then [en la crianza de la niña] there was not going to be a Christian life”, he reproaches. “They baptize us as babies, when we don’t know what to do,” defends De Ramiro, “but they are baptized in the faith of the Church, and if the parents are not married, nothing can be done because the parents are what they are.” “But for godparents there are other tougher requirements,” says the parish priest, such as “leading a consistent life” with the faith in which they are baptized.
The priest, who insists that he did not refuse “to baptize the baby”, admits that the clash has taken place with a family “totally involved” in the parish war of the Santa Marta cadaleitos. “Looking for problems for the sake of looking for them is a stupid position,” he maintains, “I think they want to make my life impossible, but I’m not here to fight with anyone, but to enforce the rules of the Church.” The child’s parents defended themselves by assuring that in another parish the woman who was rejected in Ribarteme had already been a godmother. To which the priest replied that either “the priest did not notice” it or “he is a passerby”.
In this controversy, as in the one last month, Francisco Javier de Ramiro claims to have received congratulations from his bishop, Luis Quinteiro, and the support of other representatives of the diocese and even the archdiocese of Compostela, the dome of the Galician Church. He also complained that the ecclesiastical authorities had not made this endorsement public (“we parish priests are alone in the face of danger”) while the internationally famous sanctuary for coffins grabs headlines and TV shows. “They call me the Belén Esteban de As Neves”, comments this priest from Vigo, responsible for several parishes: “My family suffers, but I am not going to leave”.
This Tuesday, after the conversation with EL PAÍS, the bishopric of Tui-Vigo has come out in defense of the priest. “The pastor must act with the necessary fortitude to reject a sponsor who could cause scandal among the faithful,” the diocese said in a statement. “The fact that certain public and immoral behaviors are widespread among the faithful does not mean that they can be admitted as godparents.”
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According to what a spokeswoman for the residents of Ribarteme, who were dissatisfied with the cleric’s veto of the boxes for the deceased, told La Voz de Galicia, the baby’s parents had already contracted the banquet and the flowers and had to urgently look for another temple in which celebrate baptism. In no other church, according to this neighbor, did they object to the godmother’s family life.
“Essence” or “carnival”
Santa Marta (sister of Lázaro, brought back to life by Jesus according to the New Testament) is the most popular festivity in Ribarteme, despite the fact that the patron saint is San José. In fact, at the origin of the neighborhood war was also that the penultimate priest wanted to return, without success, to San José to a privileged position in the main altar, which implied moving Santa Marta to a side. The tension was triggered in the two previous celebrations, those of 2020 and 2021, and the confrontation was not only between the priest and a group of parishioners, but also splashed in other directions: to an association of patrons and a parish council. The surroundings of the sanctuary woke up on one occasion strewn with graffiti, several flags disappeared, and some neighbors prepared banners, demonstrated and claimed objects of worship that had been transferred from the diocese. One day of celebration the Civil Guard had to appear; the priest ended up closing the church and was replaced by the current parish priest, who still took several months to be officially appointed by the bishop.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a pandemic, the coffins that reporters from all over the world came to portray before covid disappeared. In an interview with Faro de Vigo, the previous priest warned that, under his ministry, he had managed to eradicate the commercial activity (rental and porters of mortuary boxes) that made Santa Marta “a carnival.” The Bishopric, for its part, warned that “folklore” had gained ground over royal devotion. But until the return of the pilgrimage, in 2022, the residents believed that the procession would continue as before, “faithful to its essence”, crowned by a row of open coffins and heated undead under the sun. “I requested the diocese that any promise [como el ofrecimiento de asistir a la procesión en un ataúd si el penitente superaba una grave enfermedad] it could be changed and there are people who understood it very well”, emphasizes De Ramiro. To the dissatisfied, however, the current priest warns them that as long as he continues to lead, the cadaleitos “are not going to come back.”