“ San Cayetano we walk with faith, and ask for your protection.”
The general prayer to the saint across Argentina.
Every year, weeks ahead of 7th August, faithful churchgoers brave the damp winter chill to begin joining the queue to venerate one of the most popular saints in Argentine culture: San Cayetano (Saint Cajetan in English). Pilgrims flock to the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Liniers in their millions to show their dedication to the saint affectionately known as ‘San Ca’ – the patron of labour – and ask for three things in particular: Bread, work and peace. But not necessarily in that order.
The Pilgrimage to Liniers
Unlike other pilgrimages, particularly to the patron saint, La Virgen de Luján, which involves trekking some 60km from Buenos Aires to Luján city; the greatest physical challenge for ‘San Ca’ pilgrims in Liniers is sustaining a strong back, as the lines to get into the Sanctuary
can last anything from between six to eight hours.
The blessing services are short masses in which a priest addresses pilgrims, and most of the services include music provided by a marching band, and a passing procession with a priest leading the march holding a statue of the Saint. When the processions pass the visitors, it is traditional to throw colourful confetti as a mark of joy, coating the inner and outer parts of the church in a haze multi-coloured rice paper.
The church opens from midnight on 7th August and your wait depends on the reason for your visit, as there are two queues, each denoting a slightly different experience. One queue allows people to fast track slightly, receive the ‘San Ca’ blessing, pray for a bit, and move out. The other queue, considerably slower, allows followers to enter the church and pass by the illuminated saint and have a more personal moment in which they can reach out and make their own private prayer or pray for someone close to them. Inside the church around 60 priests are in charge of hearing confessions, conducting blessing services and blessing religious objects.
The number of San Ca devotees that visit the large parish church varies, although it tends to increase yearly, and church sources last year predicted that approximately fifty thousand worshippers who belong to the church attended. The number increases more than ten-fold for the celebrations, however, with between 600,000 and a million visitors coming to pay homage to the saint.
Outside, the event completely takes over the neighbourhood, and the scene is festive and filled with people. Some have camped for weeks just for this moment, having come from near and far to experience the saint’s day and make their plea to San Ca. Some go as a gesture of gratefulness. Public services are provided, and volunteers in Liniers stay in the area to provide blankets, bread and mate cocido for those who stay the night, but many die-hard devotees are well-equipped with tents, chairs, food and bags filled with yerba mate to keep them going throughout the wait. During the day, street vendors try to make the most of the crowds, by selling ‘San Ca’ wreaths, jewellery and general religious gear.
The most famous and emblematic piece of memorabilia that people tend to purchase are wheat stalks in various colours and sizes, with a picture of San Ca himself attached to it, also containing the Cayetano prayer printed on the back. The wheat stalk represents the providing of bread and is a staple gift to give to someone who isn’t having the best luck in the world of work, or to just give to somebody as a good-will gesture. The rule behind the wheat stalk is that you are generally supposed to hang it behind the front-door of your house, and it has to be given to you by another. If any kind of San Cayetano gift or blessing has been given to you as a gift from another, the power of San Ca’s presence in your life is said to be greater.
The legacy of San Cayetano
San Cayetano was born in 1480 in Vicenzia, close to Venice in Italy. He was born into a wealthy family, going on to study at university and eventually working alongside Pope Julio II in Rome. He became a priest at the age of 33 and gave away his riches to the poor and dedicated the rest of his life to helping the lower classes, and those in need of work, dying on 7th August 1547. Over a century later, in 1671, he was declared a saint and has been celebrated and worshipped ever since across the globe.
His legacy is worshipped across the world, and devotion in Argentina has existed for years, but generally tends to heighten when the country is going through a period of economic crisis,
notably in 2001 during the corralito.
In Argentina the largest celebrations take place in Liniers, however there are San Cayetano churches across other parts of Buenos Aires – and the country.
The celebrations across Argentina are not restricted to just 7th August – on the seventh day of every month, those faithful to the saint make a trip down to church (if not every week) to mark their appreciation, or pray for another friend or family member who is in need of work. San Cayetano is worshipped all year around, and makes a huge impact on people’s lives. Aside from the parishes themselves, there are also San Ca schools, passing along the message of humility from the man himself, who after he died, was declared a saint.