Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is a Confraternity (or Cofradia in Spanish)?

Cofrades (Members) Statue- Caceres, Spain

As in all Spanish villages, religious devotion and daily worship in the Catholic parish church were at the center of daily life. During the sixteenth century, cofradias or religious charitable organizations were begun to give greater opportunity and meaning to their religious devotion. Each cofradia had its own unique mission as shown by its patron saint. Men and women of the rural village of Garganta la Olla had a positive religious, social and economic impact on society through membership in cofradias. Likewise, the religiosity of the members and their desire for a personal reward in the afterlife were reflected in cofradia activities.

The Role and Definition of Cofradias
            Christopher Black has studied cofradias. Although his research focused mainly on how they functioned and benefitted life in Italy, Black gave a good definition of a cofradia. He described them as: 
“groups of people who came together in conformity with certain rules to promote their religious life in common, who did not take the vows of an order and generally lived in the  secular world. Cofradias were generally organizations of the laity that united for penitential ceremonies and/or charitable works such as gathering for   prayer or communion, maintaining an altar, or aiding the poor. As members of a cofradia the  Ursalines [or members] resided with their families, not in a convent    and performed good works in the community. They also met regularly to participate in confession and to share the Eucharist [or sacrament].”[1]

Flynn explains that “Cofradias were one of the few institutions created by the populace to meet their own needs.”[2]  Each Cofradia organization had a set of rules or by-laws to follow which every member promised to live by.  Even though the Catholic Church worked in harmony with the cofradia, these rules were not religious vows, instead were merely rules set up to govern the confraternal organization. [3]

Religious Purpose- Saint Name

            Each of these cofradias had a religious purpose which reiterated the fact that religion was a significant part of every-day life in Garganta la Olla. The main cofradias of the town were those of Our Lady of the Rosary, The Blessed Sacrament and Saint Anne.   Our Lady of the Rosary refers to the Virgin Mary who is the greatest of the Catholic Church saints. This cofradia is believed to be one of the most popular and universally practiced. Its members are given specific responsibility to frequently recite the rosary, along with charitable acts to the needy, thus showing devotion to Mary and her son.[4] Pope Pius V granted permission for this cofradia to be organized in 1569. [5] Benefits of membership include physical protection, cofradia participation for life and continuing after death and opportunities for indulgences or forgiveness of sins.[6] Membership in this cofradia is open to all people no matter their race, gender or social status. The feast day is the first Sunday in October.[7]

Beliefs in the Afterlife
            Friar Tomas Trujillo summed up the importance of charitable works by saying, “he who gives charity, extinguishes hunger and covers nakedness, extinguishes his own faults and covers his own sins.”[8] The members of these cofradias felt so devoted to the responsibility to help the poor, that they often left provisions for certain charities in their wills, such as bedding, clothing or monetary gifts.[9]
            One of the major reasons for the organization of cofradias was the concern Christian population had for their journey in the afterlife. Pedro de Verag├╝e gave this insight into how strongly the Spaniards felt about the connection of charitable acts with a person’s eternal reward.

“Hope and faith you will lose
when before God
you stand, wait and see

with great generosity
offer acts of charity
that you will be pure

The greatness of charity
is that it fulfills all needs
and he who receives it not shall pass Heaven by.”[10]

[1] Allyson M. Poska and Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, “Redefining Expectations: Women and the Church in Early Modern Spain.” in Susan E. Dinan and Debra Meyers, ed. Women and Religion in Old and New Worlds. (New York: Routledge, 2001)  
[2] Maureen Flynn, Sacred Charity: Cofradias and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400-1700. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), 10.
[3] Christopher Black and Pamela Grovestock.  Early Modern Cofradias in Europe and the Americas. (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006),  1.
[4] Michael Freze. Patron Saints. Huntington, (Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992), 209-210.
[5] Allyson M. Poska, Regulating the people: the Catholic Reformation in seventeenth- century Spain. (Boston: Brill, 1998), 72.                                                                                                                             
[6] Dominican Fathers: The Rosary Center, Portland, Oregon, Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary. (Dominican Fathers: The Rosary Center, Portland, Oregon, 1986-2009). [Accessed 8 July 2009].
[7] Alban Butler. Lives of the Saints. (Cincinatti, Benzinger Bros. 1894, reprint Forgotton Books, 2007),  43.
[8] Flynn. Sacred Charity, 45.
[9] Flynn, Sacred Charity, 50-51.
[10] Flynn, Sacred Charity, 46 with English translation,  156.


  1. I appreciated reading the facts without nuances of judgement/criticism etc.
    In fact it was rather wonderful to realize the humanity in people who could actually live values of love for God expressed through love of the poor.
    Very uplifting!
    Many thanks.

    In fact it was rather nice to realize that humanity cound92

    1. Thanks. I am glad it was uplifting. There are always and ever will be many good people on the earth. Too bad we don't hear their stories more.