Peru is a deeply Catholic country, the product of Spanish colonisation in in 1531. In fact, the Catholic faith is written into the nation's constitution. Just about everyone in Peru is Catholic and the celebration of its faith and rituals is a key component of the nation's cultural identity.
Peru has five saints: St Rose of Lima, the most important of all (St Rose is also the Patron Saint of all of South America), St Martin de Porres, St John Macias, St Francis Solanus and Toribius of Mongrovejo. Each year on each saint's feast day, lavish parades are held through the streets of Lima (and in other places) and are watched by hundreds of thousands of Peruvians.
Our tour through the city took us to churches, bascillicas, and cathedrals built in honour of the Peruvian saints, as well as to monasteries where they studied and lived, and, for St Rose of Lima, even to the house where she grew up and lived her life as a lay Carmelite Sister. Each holy site we visited was full of the most extraordinaty art, some of it more than 400 years old, and breathtaking statues, relics and religious artifacts. The statues that adorned the walls of the churches were like nothing I had even seen, even in Italy. We saw the relic skull of both St Rose and St Martin de Porres, visited catacombs where more than 25,000 people were buried centuries ago and whose bones, piled up in their hundreds and thousands, remain on permanent display. This catacomb is the final resting place of St Rose of Lima and we stopped there for a time to pray together (and alone). I found that experience deeply moving and intensely spiritual.
Our expert guide gave us an overview of Peru's tumultuous history. We saw its landmark buildings and, not for the first time, marvelled at the wonder that is the the Lima's road network (there are no trains in the capital). We ate lunch at a big city shopping centre (I think Burger King was the most popular eating venue) and some of the students even had their photo taken with the riot police that always seems to be on the streets of the capital wandering around baton and shield in hand. That's just Lima, I guess.
I have put a few pics up here of the some of the sites I just mentioned. For a few of them, photography was not allowed so you will have to make do with your imagination. I have had to do that for years.
The day was a different experience from the mission work we had undertaken in previous days but incredibly worthwhile nonetheless. It was a lesson in religious history and Peruvian culture all in one, which of course is not surprising seeing that the two are so inextricably woven together. This is such a country of contrasts, contradictions and intangibles. There is extreme wealth and abject poverty; there are splendid, breathtakingly beautiful buildings with places of worship full of the most exquisite art, outside of which the desperately poor beg for spare coins or sell religious trinkets for next to nothing; it is a fiercely patriotic and independent nation whose culture and identity, including its religious identity, owes much to its colonial past.
I don't know how else to describe it. It is what it is, I guess...