Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Mexican funeral on St. Rita's day

I can't remember much about St. Rita, except that she suffered from a bad marriage and bad sons and managed to redeem both and then became a nun after her husband was killed. Also, something about white bees.

But when I realized it's St. Rita's day today, I had a thrill of nostalgia, because of my very vivid memory of where I was on this day last year. I was part of a large group from St. Peter Chanel on a pilgrimage in Mexico. I can't convey to you how thrilling that trip was for me as a very new Catholic-- seeing the very old Catholic shrines that were built at such cost by generations past, seeing the open expressions of piety of so many Mexicans in the present, standing in the places where amazing miracles had occurred, and feeling intimately connected to a heritage I'd had no part in before... so forget it, I'll just tell you the story.

It was Tuesday, May 22, 2007, and we were visiting a small and surprisingly mosque-like church not far from Mexico City. The neighborhood was very poor and crime-ridden even by Mexican standards, but the church was a little oasis of calm, neat and well-kept, with paintings inside of the Virgin Mary's appearance to Juan Bernardino in 1531. It was the site of the fifth apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

There was a Mass scheduled to start soon, and a number of locals had gathered, but we pilgrims far outnumbered them and filled the pews. Our own chaplain, Fr. Fernando, a native Columbian who'd come with us from St. Peter Chanel, disappeared to speak to the Mexican priest about concelebrating the Mass. (That was one of the astonishing things to me about touring in Mexico-- bring your own priest and as long as he has a letter from his bishop declaring his good standing they'll let him say Mass practically anywhere, even in ancient and incredibly valuable churches that'd be roped off and hermetically sealed if they were located in America. I'm told you can do the same in Rome, maybe not in the Sistine Chapel, but in lots of other chapels. Truly a catholic Church.)

I was in the front row because that's where the holy people sit. Mass began, we all stood up, and in came Fr. Fernando and the Mexican priest, who processed up the aisle while we sang a hymn. They reached the altar and bowed to kiss it, and about then I became aware of a large crowd of people coming in late. They walked right up to the front and that was when I saw that they were... eight pallbearers carrying a coffin!

What the HECK? thought I. Are we crashing someone's FUNERAL? I looked at Fr. Fernando; he was waiting with folded hands as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The pallbearers set the coffin down in the aisle right next to me; that's what I get for sitting in front! I felt awful about being dressed in blue jeans until I noticed that they were too.

It was an ordinary Mass, with the readings for that day, and then the Mexican priest stepped forward to deliver what sounded like a funeral homily in Spanish. When he sat down, Fr. Fernando rose and addressed a few words himself to the mourners. Then he told us in English that the other priest had spoken of Juan Bernardino and of being close to Mary in sickness and in death. Fr. Fernando went on calmly to deliver a short homily of his own about St. Rita, since it was her day, and that was where I learned the few facts I remember about her. I was glad the mourners probably knew no more English than I knew Spanish; seemed a bit odd to be hearing a normal homily with the body right there!

We went on to the liturgy of the Eucharist, kneeling on the hard tile floor. Afterwards the Mexican priest came down to sprinkle the coffin with holy water, and the mourners walked slowly around it, gazing through its glass window, at least one woman sobbing loudly. The pallbearers carried the coffin away. Once the locals were safely gone I was able to look at a little sign they'd set up and discovered that the deceased was a man in his seventies who had died only yesterday.

I joined the other pilgrims under a tree outside and when Fr. Fernando arrived we snowed him under with questions. With laughter in his voice he related the tale. He and the Mexican priest had been in the sacristy, vesting for Mass, when they were interrupted by a man who hurriedly asked, "Can you do a funeral Mass, Padre? We're bringing the body up right now." It was less than ten minutes before Mass was to start, but the Mexican priest adjusted his homily and the whole thing came off with remarkably little fuss (or expense, I'll bet.) "That is very Mexican!" laughed Fr. Fernando, "Everything is casual and last minute!"

So, happy St. Rita's day, wherever you are!

Pictures: The outside of the church, the inside of the church before the Mass started, and a copy of the painting over the church's altar.


AlephGamma said...

"I was in the front row because that's where the holy people sit."

Classic!!! :)

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

classic line indeed.