A unique, UNESCO-protected religious procession on the island of Hvar takes place each Easter, as it has done for more than 500 years. TCN meets one of the former Cross bearers, who leads the 22-kilometre procession through the night on Maundy Thursday.
More famous for its beaches, sunshine and celebrity draw, the focus on Croatia’s premier island of Hvar at Easter is firmly on six religious processions taking place through the night of Maundy Thursday, and carrying on a tradition of more than 500 years.
At 22:00, six Cross bearers from the communities of Jelsa, Pitve, Vrisnik, Svirce, Vrbanj and Vrboska will lead a procession through the night on a circular route through the other participating villages and towns – 22 kilometres in all – before returning to their home community and running the final steps with the cross, before returning it to the awaiting priest.
The procession has taken place every year for more than 500 years, despite the difficulties of war, Communism and other difficulties – and was even held in a refugee camp in El Shatt in the Sinai Desert during the Second World War – and the carrying of the cross is a huge honour.
TCN went to meet Paulo Buncuga on January 27, 2016, the Cross bearer for Jelsa in 2007, and author of some photographs of the procession which formed an excellent exhibition of the Za Krizen (Behind the Cross) Easter Procession.
1.It is a great honour to carry the cross. You did it in 2007. When did you apply, and what was the procedure?
Well, for us local people, it is really a great honour. It is such an honour to some people, even though they are doctors, lawyers, managers, etc. If they have to choose which one diploma to put on the wall (to show to people) they put the one where you see how they run as the Cross bearer, across Jelsa’s square.
Before I say how I applied to carry the Cross, you should understand the context at the end of the 1980s when it all happened. Back then, we didn’t have a list of Cross bearers. For decades, somehow, each year someone would come to the vicar to put his name for next year and that’s is how it mostly worked. In the 1970s and 1980s we really had a crisis of Cross bearers, and sometimes we didn’t have anyone to carry the Cross which was very painful, stressful and a bit shameful for our little town. So for example in 1979, Father Božidar Medvid took the Cross at the “last second”, and in 1983, the young group of candidates for that year’s Confirmation took the Cross, because nobody else wanted to.
Not knowing what more to do, Father Božidar organised in, I think the mid-1980s, a large prayer gathering, for the people of Jelsa, and people were praying in church like 24/7 for 7 days. Perhaps it was a question of faith, but believe it or not, something changed after that and Jelsa found several Cross bearers for several years in advance, and that was a huge relief for everyone. But at the end of 1980s, I remember, we the kids, a lot of kids, were in a Catechism Hall with Don Božidar, and somehow we were talking about that problem. In answer to his question “Who dares to carry the Cross!?” some kid – I don’t remember who was the first, said “Put me down”, and other kid jumped and said “Put me down too”. “And me..”, “And me..”… we were jumping one by one, without asking or consulting anyone, not even with our parents… And I realised how I signed to take the Cross, exactly 20 years after my father. After that day, more and more people from the brotherhood were coming to sign “his” year for carrying the Cross, and that’s what we have today. A list for the next 25-30 years.
And today’s procedure is not so complicated. You don’t have to be born in Jelsa, as most people think, but at least your family roots have to be from here. One strong condition is that you must be a member of the Brotherhood (bratim) of “Blessed Sacrament” (Presvetog Oltarskog Sakramenta), and as a brother-teenager (14+) you can sign yourself freely and without compulsion, but at the age of 18 you must confirm your free will to carry the Cross.
Sometimes, from time to time, I hear nonsense stories, such as how some parents inscribe their new born babies on the list, which is totally untrue. I am a witness to the truth, and I know what and how it happened.
2.Tell us about your preparations for such an important and challenging event.
Well, for the Cross bearer, preparations should be mostly in a spiritual sense, he is in church every day, he prays a lot, thinks and rethinks about a lot of situations. But in the last decade or two, there has been more and more work to do around the Cross and Procession, so he has to be a PR person, manager, publisher – but most of all he has to manage all the friends and relatives around him, so that nobody feels rejected or forgotten. This event is, in terms of organisation, much bigger and more demanding than planning a wedding. Every Cross bearer will tell you that in the end, how his wedding was nothing compared to this.
The Cross bearer elects a full company of “feralista” (acolytes with oil lamps in the Procession), people who will surround him, protect, assist. And there you are, you already have over 100 people who have they own role in the Procession. Most people can’t see that but the trained eye of the Brotherhood and the people of Jelsa notice every detail invisible to guests and others.
For me, in the future, there should be some group or even a company to handle all these jobs, so that the Cross bearer can concentrate on the spiritual world and praying, as it used to be.
3. What was the most difficult part of the experience?
Most nightmares and difficulties are about the Cross. Will I be able to carry it? Will it be raining or windy? Will I be able to run and not fall? Closer to the event you usually do not sleep at night, you rethink all that faith you have… but it’s all good in the end.
Other people think about the weight of the Cross, but I can tell you it is not as heavy as it looks. It is more about struggling all night with the Cross. How? First of all it is sliding through your hands, and after only 10-15 minutes your palms are sweating and that is a “winning combination” for the lacquer which is coated with the cross. I don’t have sweaty hands so it wasn’t so slippery for me, but I had another problem. You have the strength, everyone has, but from time to time your hands get numb. You see with your own eyes your hands firmly carrying the Cross but you don’t have a feeling like having some weight on you at all. You are not tired, nothing like that, you are full of strength, but you have the feeling that the Cross is flying in front of you and you are just following it along with the others. Of course, there was my difficult part, I don’t know if it is the same for others, but you have the fear (or lack of faith like St. Peter) that it will slip out of your hands because you don’t feel as though you are carrying it. It is heavy but still feels like a feather, so as a precaution in those moments, I would give it to my “Cross associate” to carry it for a bit, just enough to get the feeling in my hands back.
I was fortunate that there was no rain or wind, but if any of this happens, then the problems start. The rain drips down the Cross, the veil is soaked by rain drops and then you truly understand what weight means, and every little breeze on the veil turns into a big sail with which you have to fight and it really requires a huge effort.
The Cross is a fight/struggle for life… so you just have to embrace it and you’ll be glad in the end.
4. Describe the moment when you came back to Jelsa and ran with the cross those final few metres?
In short, you have no idea that you are running. During the night you think about how you could possibly run in that robe, and that the moment is approaching, where you’re going to lay your hands on the Cross while you run. But all previous Cross bearers tell you the same thing. “Do not think about it, do not have any fear, and it will come by itself.”
And every Cross bearer has something in common. When you ask them how they ran, no one knows, no one remembers that “race”, because you’re in such a trance, at the end of your strength, and the last sprint with the Cross … They know they are running, but you’ll never be able to describe or get the story how it happened except that’s all happened in a split second, and they “woke up” in church.
5. Carrying the cross is only one part of the cross bearer’s responsibility – can you give a summary of everything involved?
Well for starters, throughout the next year, the Cross bearer is required every third Sunday of the month to lead the procession around the church, and he also participates in all other processions through the town, and his closer companions assume similar duties. He also attends the meetings of Parish Council, and actively participates in the life of the parish and around it.
6.How important is the Za Krizen procession to the Jelsa community?
It is very important to us, because as most people have an Advent / Christmas gathering, we have this “Big Week”. The whole family comes from distant corners of the country and other countries to the home, everyone is deeply rooted in the Procession with his/her spirit and heart, so it is important because we know we will see our beloved ones again.
To avoid any confusion, as some think, we are not celebrating the death of Christ, instead we are paying respect to Christ who died for all of us, and with penitence and gratitude waiting for the largest Catholic holiday, Easter. This Procession is one “big thank you”, for all what He is done for us. “Greater love has no one than this, that to lay down his life for his friends .” (John 15:13).
But you were probably thinking about exploiting tourism opportunities, for the benefit of Jelsa, but I will have to disappoint you a bit. Local people here want their peace, especially during these holy days, so the multitude of cameras and reporters running from all Croatian media within 24 hours in this little spot, just annoy them. Well, you will see on Thursday night. Photo reporters jumping in front of the Cross bearer, flashing him and his companions (making them blind in the dark etc.), not respecting our protocol and security… It just makes people refuse the media and the foreigners who came here for one “cool” night hiking, without praying or even at least respecting our customs.