ANTIGUA, Guatemala — The ritual begins very early on Good Friday, when darkness still covers this colonial town and chill air from the surrounding hills sweeps through the still, cobblestoned streets.
At 3 a.m., a man clothed in the regalia of a Roman centurion emerges from one of the city's more than two dozen churches, a town crier proclaiming to an audience that has been assembling throughout the night the crimes for which Jesus of Nazareth will be crucified.
After the sun has risen over a looming volcano to the east, the main procession begins a slow march through town. Thousands of hooded marchers, called cucuruchos, swing incense and carry heavy wooden platforms with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and other holy icons.
The hoods, some bright purple, others mourning black, recall medieval times and the powerful influence that Spanish Catholicism continues to exert in the countries of Latin America.
In Guatemala, re-enactment of the drama of Holy Week captures the medieval spirit in a ritual that is colorful as well as symbolic of the church's present afflictions throughout much of Central America.
A recent expression of the church's crucial role comes from President Reagan's suggestion Thursday that the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua act as mediator in proposed peace talks between the Managua government and the Administration-supported rebels, called contras.
This would place the church in the awkward position of appearing to support a Reagan Administration initiative that would weaken Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
Yet ever since the revolution that swept away the repressive Somoza dynasty in 1979, the church in Nicaragua, led by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, has fought the totalitarian tendencies in the new government in a struggle to remain independent.
In the process, the church has become the cornerstone of the internal opposition movement. Consequently, the Sunday message from Nicaraguan pulpits is often likely to have political overtones.
Thus, occasions such as Holy Week provide the church with an important opportunity to reinforce its moral--and increasingly political--authority over the largely Roman Catholic populace.
Church's Martyr Image
In El Salvador, the image of the church as martyr was reinforced by the assassination in March, 1980, of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whose powerful sermons against abuse of government authority earned him the hatred of the military and right-wing civilians.
The archbishop, slain by a lone gunman as he celebrated Mass, had been radicalized by El Salvador's growing political divisions and the government's use of to terror and repression to eliminate its opponents.
His successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, has also been the target of numerous death threats, but he has balanced outspoken criticism of the government with equally forceful denunciations of guerrilla violence. This has bolstered the church's image as a nonpartisan agent of peace and allowed Rivera y Damas to function as a mediator in peace talks last year between the government and the guerrilla movement.
Few Tangible Results
So far, two rounds of Salvadoran peace talks have produced few tangible results. Without the presence of the church, however, the chances for a peaceful resolution would appear even more remote than they might seem today.
In spite of some inroads by Protestant, evangelical sects, the persuasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church on all aspects of everyday life remains profound in Latin America. The region practically shuts down for Holy Week. Even the rhythms of war are affected.
Guerrillas in El Salvador, many of them ministered to by Roman Catholic priests who live in their camps, generally take time off during Holy Week to visit their families in the cities or to spend a few days at the beach without their weapons. The war is put on hold for a few days and no one seems to mind.
Pomp and Pageantry
Here in Guatemala, particularly in the old colonial capital of Antigua, the pomp and pageantry of Roman Catholicism during Holy Week seems to reach a pinnacle. The processions, venerations and rituals here are said to be rivaled only by those in Spain.
Twice in a period of about 200 years--in 1773 and again in 1976--Antigua was nearly destroyed by earthquakes, but its proud residents have refused to surrender the town to nature's forces. Because it lacks modern industry, the city retains much of its early colonial charm and character.
Holy Week processions here, according to Msgr. Efrain Hernandez, are a legacy of the colonial era when they were held in the presence of families that traced their origins to the Spanish founders. Hernandez is a spokesman for Archbishop Obando y Bravo at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City, the capital.