Excerpt from El Catrin, by Kenneth Weene
Father Eduardo opened the heavy wooden door of the church. He stepped inside and inhaled deeply. The priest loved the smell of the old mission; the hint of incense, the sweat of the people. He loved its cool darkness, so unlike the harsh heat of daily life. In the priest’s mind, the church carried the essence of conquistadors and of an unbroken line of faithful priests who had served the impoverished native community for centuries before him. Now, this was his parish.
Eduardo had surprised his superiors when, five years before, he had requested the post. They had pictured their popular student in a big city, with a wealthy congregation, starting a career of growing authority and notice within the Church. Having read about so many impoverished Native communities struggling to hang on to their traditions and to their faith, Eduardo had opted for this – a small, careworn town of Indians who still wove their sandals and hats from Willow and Devil’s Claw, who raised goats and scratched at the earth with the help of mules — campesinos who tried to worship in ways that echoed both the Church and the ancient faith which those first conquistadors had found and had tried to eradicate.
This morning’s mass would mark the beginning of Holy Week. Father Eduardo knew the Church hierarchy would not approve of the way this small tribe would mark the week. He knew that their theology was unique and that he, as parish priest, was expected to guide them in the true faith. But he also knew that God would forgive them any errors, for the fervor of their faith and the energy of their worship rivaled any other place on Earth.
The priest walked to the front of the church and to one side where the cross was hung. There he genuflected and paused to pray. Then, he went to the altar and checked the statues. These, not the cross, were the objects of the community’s veneration: Mary and Joseph, Saint Anne, John the Baptist and his blessed mother. Set among His family, Jesus – a simple figure with hands upraised in benediction. Then the apostles and Mary Magdalene. Lazarus was there and his daughters. Paul and Saint Francis, favorite saint of simple farmers everywhere. All of these were exquisite carvings done by the ancestors of the people whom Eduardo now led in faith. All the carvings were dressed in local garb, clothing painstakingly woven and sewn by women who wore the same colorful embroidered dresses as these, whose husbands and sons wore the same loose-fitting shirts and rough-wool ponchos.
Eduardo checked the figures carefully, making sure they were placed just so, making sure that their clothes were in proper repair. He did this even though he knew that Mariana and her friends had already done the same careful inspection the evening before. It was they who had brought the fine new clothes which the figures wore, clothes the women of the village had made during the past year. Every year it was the same; each year the saints were thus re-sanctified.
All that was except Jesus. He would lovingly be dressed in new raiment when the church was reopened on Easter morning. That was part of the tradition – the marvel of resurrection celebrated by the symbolic new clothes.
Next, Father Eduardo took the great key to the church from its peg next to the altar and put it into his pocket. Usually it hung unused, the heavy church door left unlocked. Today, however, the key would be part of the tradition when the priest and Mariana’s husband, the headman of the village, Tomaso, would be the last to leave the church. Together they would lock the door, and the key would be given to Tomaso, who would use a thick leather thong to tie it around his waist. It would be his responsibility as headman to keep the key safe until sunrise on Easter, when the door would again be opened.