Each Sunday, I preside at the 10:00 am Mass in English for the small community of English-speaking Catholics here in Cuenca. The last couple of Sundays, I have also done the same for the local Spanish-speaking parish community on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings (9:00 and 11:00 am), because the pastor has been ill.
The Iglesia de San Francisco, where we gather is located in the historic center of Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage City and with good reason. The extensive town center preserves many traditional colonial homes and along its cobbled streets and plazas are not a few colonial-era churches, that of San Francisco among them. Our San Francisco is just two blocks from the monumental Cathedral with its blue-tiled triple domes, so it gets less attention that its big sister at the very center of the city. But within our smaller church home, there is plenty worth taking in, particularly the extraordinary reredos behind the main altar. It is a splendid backdrop to the liturgy with its gold-leaf niches, each filled with a saint honored in the Franciscan tradition. At the center, just above the tabernacle is a niche occupied by the Virgin Mary with wings, a version of Mary popular particularly in Quito. This church and the neighboring Iglesia de Santo Domingo, were dedicated through the centuries to caring for the indigenous poor of the region, whereas the Cathedral took pastoral care of the much wealthier aristocratic families, I am told. Beneath San Francisco, the tombs of many of those poor have been found; likewise, beneath the old Cathedral (now a museum), the crypts of the powerful and wealthy of Cuenca are located.
It is lovely to preside at the liturgy in the Iglesia de San Francisco not only because I do so within a beautiful and historic building, but also because of what I see when I look out from the sanctuary, across the nave, and towards the front portal. There is always a lot going on back there! Perhaps if you have listened to any of my homilies from here in the last few weeks, you can hear in the deep background the sounds of constant commotion. Whatever is happening with me and my helpers up front, in the back there is a constant flow of humanity either passing by or passing in or passing back out. When I look out, this is just some of what I see:
+Bent over elderly women dressed, of course, in their typical pleated skirts, shawls and straw hats, pushing wheel-barrows full of cherries up the cobbled street in front of the church, stopping before the entry, turning slightly, making the sign of the cross, then carrying on. Old men do the same. Sometimes whole families going from here to there, stop, sign themselves, then continue along their way.
+A gaggle of giggling teen-age girls, glued together as teen-ager girls in Latin America seem to be much of the time, wander in from the street and through the portal and into the church itself. They are detained for a moment by the usher so that their hands can be sprayed with alcohol, which only brings out even more giggles as share the spray with one another, hands wiping hands; they then break loose from one another and each finds a spot in this pew or that, signing themselves, bowing their heads, praying quietly, then after just a few moments, up gets one, and sofollow all the rest, and they regather into their natural state of gaggle-hood, and out the wide doors they go into the city for fun.
+A very small indigenous lady with her equally small husband, perhaps in their 90's the both of them, also wander in through the doors, a rough stick used as a cane holding her up on one side and he doing so on the other. They don't hang in the back like the teenagers do, but come straight up the main aisle, interruption of whatever I might be doing up front of no concern, find their place in the very first pew, drop their bags and begin the essential work of praying. In this case, I am leading the liturgy in English, a language they have no knowledge of, but that too is of no concern. They are here. I am here. God is here. We pray, language be damned. When I arrive at the consecration and lift up the host and the cup, she lifts her hands above her head and breaks out into a ecstatic oración quite out loud and filling the church with its sing-song rhythms. I wait for her to finish before going on with my own scripted prayers from the missal, but she continues unabated in her eucharistic ecstasy so I wait a bit more, out of respect, but when I realize this might not end any time soon, I continue, the microphone helping me to override her, even as I know her prayer is the real deal, overridden or not.
+A young man with a son, wander in, sit, listen, wander out; the little boy knowing well already how to genuflect and properly cross himself, following the example of his papá. Prayer passed from generation to generation, still.
And so it goes...one after another...humanity coming in from the street, staying and praying, going back out into the streets...living.
Throughout the formal liturgy of the Church here, there is a much less formal "liturgy of the people" taking place at the same time. This is what you find in a Latin American church, but seldom experience, at least at such a high-octane level, in the churches of North America or Western Europe. It is lovely because the one flows into the other and vice-versa. They form each other. They are one prayer both inhaled and exhaled. They breathe life and grace into one another. It is almost like those great arched porticos and wide doors at the street-end of this church are a set of lungs into which the oxygen of faith, hope, and love pass from outside in, filling the formal and scripted with the odor of humanity lived on the level of the street. Likewise, the incensed air of ancient rites, enduring sacraments, and a gold-adorned place meant to evoke the glory of God fills that flesh and blood come in from the street with reassurance that they are not alone, that their daily work is meaningful, that their life sufferings are shared in, and that their simplest of joys here below are a taste of heaven to come.
These Latin-American churches are watering holes of the holy into which humble and needy humanity come to drink for a moment or two. In here, God seems near. Jesus touches. The Spirit rests upon the young and old who pause within its cool walls. From in here, these strengthened ones go back out into the streets of the city, walk its cobblestones, sell their cherries, meet old friends, sit on a bench and beg for a quarter from a stranger; from in here and once out there, they bring peace, grace, and the confidence that it all means something back into the city whence they came.
When I look out towards the open doors of this church, this is what I see: the temple curtain securing the divine from the human has been torn wide and hangs open at these church doors so that God and Humanity may rest together for awhile, and feel one another's body for a few moments, and breathe in one another's breath now and then.