The Festival de San Fermin is celebrated with particular fervor in Pamplona, Spain. Though the name of the Saint whose feast it is may not be well-known, the spectacle of the running of the bulls is famous, drawing spectators and participants from all over the world.

St. Fermin (Firminus in Latin) was the son of a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona. He was converted to Catholicism by St. Honestus and baptized by St. Saturninus. He was ordained a priest in Toulouse and returned to Pamplona as its first bishop. He was later martyred by beheading in A.D. 303, in Amiens. He is the patron of both Amiens, France, and Navarre, Spain.

Why is he associated with an event like the running of the bulls? Perhaps due to the peculiar martyrdom of St. Saturninus, his baptizer, who was martyred by being tied to a bull by his feet and dragged to his death in A.D. 257. Over time, some incorrectly attributed this martyrdom to San Fermin.

One of the hallmarks of Catholic culture over the centuries is the establishment of great festivals honoring our Lord, our Lady, and the Saints. These celebrations would gather people from across whole regions in a protracted display of religious fervor, joy, family and faith. It is a perfectly Catholic endeavor to enjoy the good things that God has given us, and to anticipate in these festivals a little foretaste of Heaven.

However, like most of these festivals, over time the religious origin and end of these events gets forgotten or shoved aside as an excuse to indulge in an ever-increasing amount of public gluttony, drunkenness, or rowdy behavior. Commercialized Christmas. Mardi Gras and Carnival. And first among a similar trend in other regional festivals stands the Festival de San Fermin. In the end, they seem a strange way to mark Catholic feast days.

The running of the bulls has been romanticized by many writers; in the English speaking world, most notably Ernest Hemingway. In my younger days I seriously considered running with the bulls myself, yet thankfully never convinced Sharon of the necessity of it.

So, how does it work?

From Wikipedia:

The event begins with runners singing three times “A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición” (“We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”), a prayer to a statue of Saint Fermin, patron of the festival and the city, to ask his protection. The singing finishes shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermín!” (Long live San Fermin, in Spanish and Basque).

The bulls are released, the participants run through the narrow course of cobblestone streets to the town’s bullring. The streets are treacherous at any time, and especially when they are wet. Eventually, runners and bulls make it to the ring, and afterwards the bullfights begin. This is repeated every day of the festival, which runs nine days.

That’s it. It is exhilarating for spectators and runners alike.

Sometimes, though, not everything goes smoothly. From a story in the UK Telegraph today:

Man gored to death by bull in Pamplona run

His lung was pierced by one of the animal’s horns as he took part in the annual run. Nine others were injured in a dangerous race that saw one bull break away from the pack and charge sprinters.

The man, whose nationality and age have not yet been released, was gored in the neck and lung as he ran the half mile course through the cobbled streets of the northern Spanish town.

“He is dead. He had been hit by a horn that punctured a lung,” a spokesman for organisers of the annual San Fermin festival confirmed.

Television footage showed that the bull, a brown beast named Cappucino, broke away from the pack of five others and six steers which carried on running the course without him. Once separated the bull became disorientated and aggressive and began charging at the crowds of runners.

One man was flipped into the air and then lay curled on the ground as the bull repeatedly charged him. Others attempted to leap over the wooden barrier to escape his horns.

At least three other people were being treated for injuries inflicted by the bull’s horns and another six suffered minor injuries, said a spokesman at the Virgen del Camino hospital in Pamplona.

Of course, news like this puts the question of whether it is morally justifiable to put one’s life at risk for essentially no good reason. It certainly is an odd way of honoring the Saint.