My Long Cuencan Weekend
Truth be told, the greater share of my time here in Cuenca has been spent in relationship to the North American segment of the city. There are somewhere around 8,000 "expats" living here in a city of maybe 600,000 (its hard to get any exact figures on either so those numbers are mostly guesswork). Of the expats, less than twenty are "active members" of our little English-speaking Catholic Community. Small though they may be, they are a fine group and it is a pleasure to help them out. Needless to say, my social life as well as "church work" so far have centered mostly in this small group. I end up speaking a lot more English here than Spanish...so far.
On Wednesday of last week, that situation took a bit of a turn. Padre Jorge, the pastor of the Iglesia de San Francisco, the church in Cuenca that welcomes our English-speaking community every Sunday morning, texted me to let me know that he wasn't feeling well and wondered if I could cover the next morning's 9:00 am Mass at the church. I assured him that I would be more than happy to do so and that next morning happily walked up into the "historic center" of the city and on to the church, which dates back as far as 1582 (though the present construction was completed in 1789). As always, I was greeted warmly by the cheery crew of sacristans who got me vested and set up for the morning Mass. Though I stumbled in a few places when I encountered the occasional troublesome word in Spanish, I made it through both the liturgy and the homily with reasonable success. What felt particularly pleasing to me was the reality of being for this hour or so firmly ensconced not in the English-speaking, North American Cuenca that has mostly been my cultural habitat since arriving, but in that of the local Latin, Ecuadoran, and particularly Cuencano world I had been missing. As always, the locals were very patient, kind, and appreciative; this is one of the things that impresses me here when I have the opportunity to experience it. I like that though most of the folks seated in the pews are dressed similarly to us, there are yet quite a few of the elderly ladies still in their traditional garb, including their colorful pleated skirts and the straw fedoras that adorn their heads. Their dedication to intense prayer when in church is touching and inspiring; I know that I have never prayed with the kind of passion they regularly show. Lovely.
Following Mass, one of the little ladies who runs much of what goes on behind the scenes in the church made it clear that she expected me to stick around and enjoy some sandwiches and herbal tea she had brought in for us all. The parish organist and cantor, Carlos, joined me and we had a pleasant chat as I asked him about his work and training, (he has the voice of an angel, by the way!). His parents are musicians so it runs in the family, he told me, but he also received training in the local conservatory. He currently sings here at San Francisco as well as a nearby convent of sisters. He is just 27 years old, yet has pretty much dedicated his life to serving the church by sharing his astounding talent in the liturgy. Carlos shared with me the detail that beneath the church the remains of indigenous faithful from previous centuries have been discovered, this a reminder that in those former centuries the Franciscan priests of the Iglesia de San Francisco ministered primarily to the poorer Incan inhabitants of the city while the wealthy were buried beneath the Old Cathedral.
Shortly thereafter, the parish secretary, Diana, arrived and asked if I would be willing to take some of the weekend Masses as well. I said sure and together we negotiated a schedule: I'd do the Saturday 6:00 pm Mass including six baptisms, and the Sunday morning liturgies at 9:00, our own in English at 10:00, and the 11:00 am, again in Spanish. That's a lot for an old guy, but I dove in anyway even knowing Sunday afternoon would be require an extended nap of recovery.
The Saturday evening Mass turned out to be completely dedicated to the baptisms of those little ones; the only people in attendance were their families and godparents. I had a chance to introduce myself to them as they arrived with their darling kiddos, all dressed in white from head to toe. The way of doing the baptisms had to be negotiated a bit with the sacristans, but we figured it out; it certainly wasn't my way of doing things, but it is their church so I was happy to do things their way...I'm the guest here. I goofed up a few things, like forgetting to anoint some of the kids with chrism following the actual baptism...and something I didn't know until I was asked several times over to do it: putting on their little heads the kids' white hats (for the boys) and floral crowns (for the girls). Once I figured that out, all was well...though I had to go back and anoint several of the kids a bit later once I realized I had left out that rather essential piece of the baptismal ritual. Anyway, by the time it was all over, and photos taken, we had all become great friends...even the little ones who I made howl as I poured very cold water (not my fault!) over their little heads, had forgiven me and seemed happy to greet me and, among the older ones, even offer me a cheery, "Gracias!"
The following morning, Sunday, was a long run as I waded through the three liturgies one right after another. Before finishing up the Spanish ones, the gathered folks gave me a little applause for having done it all in reasonable Spanish. For the English Mass, I preached on Jesus' making it clear just who he is in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth...a rather complicated homily...so for the Spanish Masses I offered up something much simpler, a few words about the meaning of the name Theophilus, to whom Luke directs his gospel story in its opening verses. Holding two distinct homilies in my head at the same time is a mental workout and added to the happy exhaustion that comes at the end of a full "workday". Happily, when I finished up at noon, a few of the North Americans were still enjoying breakfast at the restaurant next door to the church and so invited me over to join them. I ordered up some scrambled eggs and guacamole on toast...along with a local beer ("Club"...not bad, actually!). By the time I was down to my last few bites, I knew I was quickly running out of steam, so paid my bill and started the walk home with a few of my compatriots. After only a block, I realized this walk was going to be a bridge too far for me on this day, so hailed a cab and for two bucks got a ride back to my front door. Once inside my little house here on the Calle de las Retamas, I took off my shoes, laid down on my bed...and crashed, just as I knew I would. Only much later in the afternoon, did I begin to come back to life, again, happy to have done a good job on a busy weekend...and pleased that I had been immersed into the local Cuencano world, if for only a few hours. By Monday, it was time to begin preparing the English-language scripture study for Wednesday afternoon...and exploring some first thoughts for the next weekend's homily...or homilies...if my services in Spanish might again be needed.
These are just some of the things that make it a pleasure and an adventure to be here. I am blessed.