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What is a confraternity?

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By Wirestock Images | Shutterstock

Daniel Esparza - published on 09/09/23

Confraternities have a long history within Catholicism, dating back to the Early Middle Ages, as pious laymen formed associations in Constantinople and Alexandria.

A Catholic confraternity, also known as a brotherhood, a confraria (in Portuguese) or a cofradía (in Spanish), is a voluntary association of lay Catholics who come together for religious and charitable purposeswithin the framework of the Roman Catholic Church. These confraternities have a long history within Catholicism, dating back to the Early Middle Ages. Indeed, similar kinds of pious associations of laymen existed already in Early Christianity, at least in Constantinople and Alexandria.

Preserved Carolingian manuscripts show that, in France, in the 8th and 9th centuries, confraternities and guilds worked alongside each other in the construction of churches, chapels, and hermitages.

But the first confraternity in the modern and proper sense of the word is said to have been founded at Paris by Bishop Odo (also known as Eudes de Sully) in the late 12th century.

Still active

These associations continue to play a significant role in the spiritual and social life of many Catholic communities worldwide.

In Andalucía, a region in southern Spain known for its rich Catholic traditions, confraternities hold a prominent place in the local culture. One of the most famous examples is the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions that take place in main cities like Seville, Malaga, Marbella, and Granada – but also in smaller towns all over the region. During this solemn week leading up to Easter Sunday, numerous confraternities organize processions that involve the carrying of religious images through the streets, accompanied by members dressed in distinctive robes and hoods.

Antonio Banderas, the famed Spanish actor born in Málaga, is a member of one of these cofradías, and actively participates in these processions year after year.

PROCESIONES ESPAÑA
Penitents of the Judas’ Kiss Brotherhood in their procession through Seville, during Holy Week.

5 Key fruits

These confraternities, often organized around a specific church, chapel, parish, or devotion, serve several important purposes:

Spiritual Devotion: Confraternities provide a platform for Catholics to deepen their spiritual lives through acts of piety, prayer, and participation in religious rituals. Members often gather for regular meetings, recitation of the Rosary, and participation in Mass and other liturgical celebrations, processions included.

Charitable Work: Many confraternities are actively involved in charitable activities, such as aiding the needy, visiting the sick, and organizing fundraising events for charitable causes. They see their work as an extension of their faith and an expression of Christian charity.

Cultural Preservation: Confraternities play a vital role in preserving and passing down religious and cultural traditions. They maintain and care for religious artifacts, including statues and icons, some of which are considered valuable cultural treasures.

Community Building: These associations foster a sense of community and belonging among their members. They often organize social events, religious festivals, and educational activities that strengthen the bonds among participants.

Witness and Evangelization: Through their public displays of faith, such as processions and religious ceremonies, confraternities serve as a visible witness to their Catholic faith. This can be a form of evangelization, as it allows non-believers to witness the living faith of the local Catholic community.

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