A combination of indigenous culture and Catholic traditions over many centuries has resulted in the annual colourful and lively festival of the Virgin of La Tirana in Chile.

In northern Chile, in the middle of the Atacama desert, lies the village of La Tirana, home to approximately fifty families. Every year for one week in July the population swells to tens of thousands, as people arrive to celebrate one of the most important religious festivals in the Andes region.

July 16 is the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the week-long La Tirana festival is a mix of devotional practices and thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dancing as a form of prayer plays a central role, as is evident in the hundreds of community groups who assemble here. Dressed in colourful costumes they dance, sing and perform music around the clock. As Columban missionary Father Derry Healy explains,

They celebrate life, and the statue is just an image for what is behind all of this.

In the past festivities at La Tirana were frowned upon by high-ranking members of the Catholic Church. Today a more tolerant attitude prevails.

Master of Ceremonies for the festival Father Franklin Lousa is keenly interested in popular religion and believes it has great relevance for people. He describes it as an aspect of religion which reflects the believer's personal encounter with the Divine,

It’s a way of relating to God using human and cultural expressions.

In times gone by there was a clear separation between the Catholic Church and local culture. That all changed following Vatican II when the Church realised that engaging with the people, their traditions and culture was the way forward says Father Healy,

The dialogue with culture is the only way that we can evangelise.

'Radharc In South America : The Spiritual Conquest’ was broadcast on 30 September 1992. The narrator is John Murray.