My Holy Week in Cuenca, I
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
If "retirement" for a aging Catholic priest means never having to work your way through another series of Holy Week liturgies, particularly the "Triduum" of Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, followed by the Easter morning run of Masses, then Holy Week in Cuenca, 2022, surely wasn't quite the model of "retirement" for me.
Over the past four-plus months, I have been adopted as a sort of surrogate pastor for the small but enthusiastic community of English-speaking Catholics who have retired in Cuenca. For most of these past months, that has meant presiding over and preaching just one Sunday Mass each week...and a mid-week scripture study of the Gospel of Luke. Pretty light duty as far as pastoring goes. That situation would change come Holy Week and its overture, Palm Sunday. As most know, Sunday the Palm Sunday liturgy involves gathering the faithful outside the church doors for the blessing of the palms and then processing into the church singing Hosannas along the way; it is an ancient ritual that symbolizes Jesus' jubilant entrance into the City of Jerusalem shortly before the spiritual tables turned on him and he is led to condemnation and a brutal death. Unlike our usual practice in the United States, in Latin America the parish churches don't provide free palms to those gathered; instead, here there are vendors on every street corner and in front of every church selling beautifully woven and adorned palms, which we are expected to purchase beforehand. They sell for just a few dimes, so its no financial burden and it helps out many poorer families feed their families for a few days.
Besides our usual English-speaking parishioners, a fairly large number of Ecuadorians, including the colorfully dressed cholas who have held on to their indigenous dress and traditions, joined us for the blessing and the procession into church that followed. The mix felt good; this church and its rituals belongs to all of us...no national, cultural or linguistic divisions matter here. The lively palm procession quickly goes from glad to sad: only moments after everyone found their seats in the church's long nave, the proclamation of the Passion story from Luke's Gospel began. For me, reading this lengthy but powerful narrative of Jesus' final days and hours among us, especially in light of the world's present wars and injustices, was particularly poignant. Year after year, this story leaves us almost speechless, so the homilies that follow must of necessity be brief and to the point. (Click here for mine: Passion). After the final blessing of the liturgy, another Ecuadorian twist to things: as soon as I began to walk out of the sanctuary, I was rushed by many Ecuadorians with their palms raised high begging for blessings. I was handed a bucket of holy water and an aspergelum (the large wand used to scatter the water as broadly as possible) and began sprinkling them going back and forth across the sanctuary step; if I didn't get one wet enough, it was even more excitedly waved in front of me for an extra dose of blessedness. Even as I was finishing up that popular devotion, Padre Jorge, the pastor, was patiently waiting with his congregation, ready to begin the next Palm Procession in Spanish.
The next few days were mostly dedicated to pondering what directions to take with the homilies of the Triduum and Easter, no easy task since I do that "work" wholly in my head and usually only have one per week to work through. Having three or four bearing down on me at once is really hard. I take preaching seriously and try to engage my imagination and story-telling skills to come up with something that is not just "delivered" like a pizza to the doors of my parishioners, but something that is painted within their imaginations from the inside out. I'd spend time on one, take a break, then work on another. That regime would get interrupted on Holy Thursday morning with the solemn celebration in the beautiful Cathedral at the heart of Cuenca, where hundreds of people gathered with the archbishop and just about every priest in the region for what is called the "Chrism Mass." The oils that will be used in the sacraments of the Church throughout the coming year are blessed and the gathered priests also recommit themselves to the promises of their vocation first made at their ordinations years before. I joined the priests of the Archdiocese of Cuenca and though a stranger to most, was greeted warmly by many. I and "my pastor", Padre Jorge, were invited to lunch afterwards at the nearby rectory of one of the city's priests, Padre Esteban. Once the archbishop also arrived, (to my surprise!), we were called to the table by Padre Esteban's mother, who then proudly served us a great bowl of fanesca, a traditional Ecuadorian fish chowder served only in Holy Week, and particularly for almuerzo on Holy Thursday. The recipes vary widely from place to place, but what is common is that there must be at least twelve distinct beans to represent the Twelve Apostles. The Cuencan version we were served was rich and thick and redolent with complex flavors new to me. Around the table, the conversation among the clergy was animated and full of jokes and stories told at the expense of one another and I understood almost none of it; it all just rolled by me too fast, with too much local accent, and with no shared history for context. So there I was, seated next to the archbishop, totally out of it, so I made the best of it by just eating my fanesca and smiling. Once I got home, I needed a bit of a siesta to let the fanesca and my mind settle before our own Holy Thursday liturgy to begin in just a few hours.
I also needed some time to review what I was going to preach at that liturgy. The celebration of the Lord's Last Supper calls for a homily that bridges both the "This is my body, this is my blood" of Mark, Luke, and Matthew, but also the Washing of the Disciples' Feet of John's gospel. (This was what I came up with: Thursday). I had three dear ladies present their feet for the washing; it has always been one of the most poignant liturgical gestures in my life as a pastor and so it was this night, too. It is a tender, humbling, and generous act that I have not done nearly enough along the way of my own life so it both pricks my conscience for the lack of attention to others in my life and calls me to do better in matters of practical love.
The Triduum liturgies once begun on Thursday night roll one into another. It is one liturgy really covering three days and nights...so there was no final blessing...usually just a procession of the Blessed Sacrament to a separate altar where it is reserved until Friday night's Communion. Because of the complications of having the Ecuadorian community following our service with their own, we forwent the procession, and just walked out into the night. But on this night, the streets of Cuenca were already full of the locals engaging in the pious tradition of the Visit to Seven Churches. Following the Holy Thursday service, the Cuencanos scurry from one church to another to visit at least seven of them before midnight. They are intense about this old Latin tradition and it was touching to see that intensity in their faces as moms and dads dragged their little ones, and old ladies and old men followed, and teenagers lolly-gagged their way through the streets from this church to that one.
Good Friday is the grimmest of days in the Christian calendar and especially so in Hispanic cultures. The Triduum liturgy picks up mid-afternoon, usually at 3:00 pm to mark the hour of Jesus' death, and is solemn in its simplicity. We followed the Ecuadorian community's service, which was just finishing as we were gathering for ours. Once again, the Passion of Jesus is proclaimed, this time from John's Gospel, and after the briefest of homilies, the Cross of Jesus is venerated. The Ecuadorians broke from the usual "outline" of the service by saving the veneration of the cross to the end of the service when, a purple cloth is pulled at three times slowly unveiling a very large crucifix in the Spanish style, a very realistic bruised and bleeding Jesus hung upon the cross's beams until it is fully exposed. The people then come forward and bow before it, sometimes kneeling and touching it, sometimes even kissing it. An anomaly for us: a lady stands next to the cross with a basket to accept monetary donations. I found that odd and didn't like the practice, but this is their culture and their church so God bless them.
We ourselves followed the more "liturgically correct" practice of using a wood cross with no body of Jesus on it for the veneration and we did it following the proclamation of the Passion from John, the homily, (this was mine for the night: homily), and a solemn series of intercessions, rather than at the end of the service in the Ecuadorian manner. We had had a simple wooden cross made for us by a local craftsman, so I carried that cross down the center aisle, stopping three times to chant: "Behold the Wood of the Cross on which hung the savior of the world!" I then stood the cross in front of the sanctuary, reverenced it myself, ant then held it for any and all who wished to come forward to bow, kneel, touch, kiss. These gestures of deep reverence before the cross, especially after having just heard the story of Jesus' Passion proclaimed anew, have always been very touching to me through the years and so they were on this Cuencan afternoon. As I stood there supporting the cross, one of the Ecuadorian ladies who assists in the church joined me, carrying with her the donation basket I had seen earlier. Again, not our style, (I don't think any of our English-speakers dropped a coin in, but a few of the Ecuadorians did). At first, I was a bit annoyed by what I considered the "bad symbol" of that basket: "Even here at this most solemn moment of prayer and devotion a donation basket!" But after a few moments of thought, it dawned on me that for them it is not just another way to bring funds into the church, but another way to give of themselves in any way they can, to be generous before the one who was supremely generous to them, even if only by offering a dime or two from their pockets. Later that night, a procession would pass through the streets of the center of Cuenca marking the fourteen stations of the traditional Catholic Via Crucis. I wanted to watch, but as we finished up in church, I felt I needed time home to just prepare for the mother of all liturgies, the Easter Vigil, the following night, and especially for that homily, the one that is expected to break open the most mysterious mysteries of the Christian faith: the breaking open of a cold, dark, flesh-eating tomb by a murdered messiah.
Part Two of My Holy Week in Cuenca to follow in a separate post...