Many saints are linked to specific animals. For some, this is because they had animals as pets or companions: St. Gertrude had her cat and St. Roche had his dog. Others were protectors of animals, like St Brigid, who gave shelter to a wild boar. Other saints are connected to animals because of the way they died.
This is often said of St. Fermin of Amiens, patron of Pamplona, Spain, which is famed for its “running of the bulls.” However, it wasn’t Fermin who was killed by a bull, even though he was a martyr. Instead, it was St. Sernin (Saturnin) of Toulouse, France, who was martyred by being tied to a wild bull in 257 A.D. and dragged to death. Today, St. Sernin’s remains rest in a 14th century church called Notre Dame du Taur (Our Lady of the Bull) in Toulouse. It is said that either Saturnin or his disciple, St. Honestus, baptized Fermin.
However, the dates of their deaths and that of Fermin’s birth don’t seem to coincide. It is most likely that Fermin was baptized in the well now dedicated to St. Saturnin, Pocico de San Cernin, near what is now the Church of San Cernin.
Fermin was born in Pamplona in the third century (most sources say it was in 272), to a Roman senatorial family. His entire family converted to Christianity when he was very small – perhaps by Honestus who died near the time of Fermin’s birth in 272. Fermin eventually became the first bishop of Amiens, France. He was martyred there — by beheading — in 303 A.D.
Fermin’s feast day is Sept. 25, except in Pamplona, where it is celebrated on July 7. The reason is largely due to weather. As far back as the 12th century, when Fermin’s relics were transferred from France to Pamplona, there rose an annual festival in Pamplona every year, complete with a fair and market, on Sept. 25. But the weather is not always predictably nice in September. So the market and fair gradually moved to summer — and events honoring the saint moved as well.
It was not until several centuries later that the “running of the bulls” (the encierro ) developed in Pamlpona. And it was such a localized event that most of the world didn’t even know about it until 1926. That was when Ernest Hemingway published “The Sun Also Rises,” the setting of which is during this Pamplona festival, locally known as Sanfermines.
How the bull fights — and the running of bulls through the markets and streets — started is open to debate. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” speculates that all bull fights may have had their origin in the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome — where men fought wild animals. The encyclopedia also notes that, since ancient Spain “was infested by wild bulls,” everything we now know there may have started from the necessity of keeping people safe — much as wild boars are hunted today in some areas of the world. (Feral pigs are still hunted for this reason in Hawaii.)
Today’s festival in Pamplona lasts from July 7 to July 14, with the encierro taking place daily. The runs begin at 8 a.m. Prior to each run, participants chant a prayer to a small statue of St. Fermin that is placed in a niche on a public wall at Cuesta de Santo Domingo. The prayer asks for the saint’s guidance and blessing, and is supposed to be repeated three times.
It should be noted that this part of the event is a secular tradition and not a church event. St. Fermin himself is honored before the encierro starts, on July 6, with evening Vespers prayer service at the Church of San Lorenzo. This is where an image of the saint — which dates to the 15th century — is kept within the interior Chapel of San Fermin. The vesper prayers are attended by the city council.
The next day, there is also a morning procession — after the first run of the bulls — when the saint’s image is carried through the streets of the old part of Pamplona. The run of the bulls, and the bull fights afterwards, have nothing to do with these church celebrations. Most of the festival consists of markets, concerts, fireworks, dances and parades.
Many people object both to the running of bulls, and especially to the bull fights during which many bulls are killed. According to the Humane Society International, many countries — including the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada — have banned bull fights. Bullfighting remains legal in Spain, but various cities, and the Spanish region of Catalonia, have independently banned the practice.
The Catholic Church itself has opposed bull fights. On Nov. 1, 1567, Pope Pius V issued a papal document that forbade clergy from attending bull fights.
Entitled “An injunction forbidding bullfights and other similar sports with wild animalism,” the papal document even went so far as to forbid Christian burial to anyone who was killed while taking part in a bullfight. Later popes moderated the penalties, but the ban itself was never lifted.
The running of the bulls is also dangerous for human participants, with at least a dozen deaths since Hemingway’s book was published. Last year alone, at least 10 people were gored by bulls. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention bullfights, it does note that endangering one’s personal safety violates respect for human life. “Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air” (n. 2290).
And if you wondered if there is a patron saint of bulls, you might want to know that St. Perpetua is the patron saint of cows. She and St. Felicity were martyred in 203 A.D. in Carthage, after being mauled by wild cows.
Sources: saltandlighttv.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; bullrunpamlpona.com; turismo.navarra.es; Sanfermin.com; library.law.yale.edu; sharkonline.org; the Humane Society International; and Francetravelplanner.com.