I could have sworn that the church bulletin last week said seven o’clock.  But rather than being 22 minutes early, we were 38 minutes late.  Must have been six.  But I sure thought it said seven.

In any event we went to the cathedral last night, where our saintly old bishop celebrated the 27th anniversary of his episcopal consecration, joined by two dozen or more of his priests in a pontifical high mass.  We arrived during the homily.

The homily ended, we discover this is not only the bishop’s anniversary mass.  It is also the ordination of José Manuel Salio as a deacon.  A great thronelike chair is brought in and placed before the altar.  The bishop stands before it, the ordinandus stands before him, answering the examination:  –Do you promise?  –Yes, I do.  ­­–Will you?  –Yes, I will.­–  The crowd includes many children, who by now, an hour into the ceremony, have become restless and noisy, and we can’t hear the bishop’s questions—only José’s stentorian answers.

To be in the presence of this bishop is to be in the presence of the Holy.  He is short of stature, a bit dark of complexion, and wise of countenance.  He bears the happy name of Hilario.  He would have entered the cathedral walking with his long shepherd’s crook in his left hand, with the right signing the cross as he spoke blessings to his sheep.  Now José Manuel stands face to face with that presence.

The last question.  The bishop seats himself, and this time we hear clearly through the loudspeakers: –Will you be obedient to me, your bishop, and to my successors, so long as you live?–  And José Manuel kneels, places his hands in the bishop’s hands, and says, –I will.

Virgin of virgins, pray for us.  John Baptist, pray for us.  A cantor intones the litany of the saints.  Saint Laurence, pray for us.  Saint Ignatius.  Romans.  We pray to the saints of Jerusalem, then to those of Rome.  Saint Agnes, pray for us.  Saints Perpetua and Felicity.  We are one with these old romans, we are these old romans.  Saint Augustine, pray for us.  Saint Dominic.  Saint Francis.  The area broadens.  Saint John Vianney, pray for us.  Saint Theresa.  We come to our own time.  We are romans, europeans, mexicans, modern, ancient.  Our pope is John Paul, Pius, Leo, Innocent, Gregory, Clement.  Peter.

The organ murmurs as episcopus and ordinandus rise.  The bishop returns to the altar.  The choir begins to sing as members of the ordinanduss family walk to the rear of the nave.  They find there bread and wine.  Through your goodness we have this bread, this wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands.  Acolytes with torches and a crucifix guard, escort them, as they walk the alley and hand over their gifts to the bishop.  Clouds of smoky incense rise, visible prayers, as Hilario walks the circuit of the altar.

Hilario is seventy-five years old.  In accordance with church law he has offered his resignation due to age, and it has been accepted.  His successor, Gerardo, has been named and will take office in a month or two.  Where will Hilario go?  Will he still be here with us?

Sursum corda.  Gratias agamus.  Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus.  Hilario holds his hands high over the altar as the choir finds its way to Hosanna in excelsis.  Hosanna en el cielo.  Hosanna in the highest.  A bell speaks its warning and the people fall to their knees.  Boys bring in torches to guard the altar.

Last fall Hilario celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.  It was the first time I had seen him.  After the mass I joined the line of people waiting to greet him.  When my turn came I found myself in his arms, as his eyes looked deep into me and he said words I could not catch, and as he released me I took his hand and kissed his ring, and made way for the next person.

Cordero de Dios.  Señor, no soy digno.  I am not worthy.  Priests leave the altar bearing the sacred hosts, going to several points in the nave.  People line up.  Our line approaches a priest.  His face is dark, his features heavy.  There appears a weight upon him.  The weight of centuries.  He is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church of Rome, Spain, Mexico.  The Church whose lands have been confiscated, its buildings ruined.  The Church whose priests and nuns were exiled in the nineteenth century, and shot down in cold blood in the twentieth.  The Church which is to blame for the faith of the mexican people, and for their hope of salvation.  The world and the centuries weight this man’s face as he says, –Cuerpo de Cristo.

This Cathedral of the Miraculous Medal rocks with round after round of applause as the mass draws to a close and the people salute their bishop and their new deacon, now ordinatus.  Again I place myself in the bishop’s arms, and then in the deacon’s.  The choir begins to sing the mañanitas.

Mañanitas.  A hauntingly beautiful melody.  Glorious and tragic, happy and sad, rhythmic and austere, peppy and solemn as only mexican music can be.  A song sung for any anniversary, a few words being changed to adapt it for the occasion.

It was may of 2000 and I was living in Chattanooga, where I always went to mass at the hispanic parish.  I had been out of town a few weeks and had not attended a spanish mass.  On the last sunday of may I returned to my beloved parish with its beloved language.  At the end of the mass they had the may crowning, where a little girl places a crown of flowers on a statue of the Virgin.  And as the choir broke into the mañanitas I broke into tears.  And I knew that day that I had crossed a line.  That when a gringo involuntarily weeps upon hearing the mañanitas, he is not entirely a gringo any more.

In the patio.  Bare bulbs hang from overhead wires and loudspeakers throb with traditional mexican music, overridden by applause as the bishop, holding the arm of a monsignor, makes his way to the head table.  A simple, traditional meal is served on Styrofoam plates of several different styles.  And the tired old bishop takes his leave about the time the last tables are served. 

No dance tonight.  This is wednesday.  These people have to work tomorrow.  And I have to write while I am still under the influence of this magic mexican moment.

Home and to bed.  But what’s this by the bed?  A church bulletin—saying the bishop’s mass will be at … seven o’clock.  Well!


© 2004 Joseph Mansfield

2010.03.06: Bishop Hilario, Don Hilario Chávez Joya, passed away, peacefully, in his sleep, on Thursday 04 March. He had retired a few years ago at the mandatory age of 75, having served as a bishop for 27 years and as a priest 24. He was the first bishop of this diocese. On Sunday 07 March he will lie in state at a small downtown chapel, for those who wish to pay their respects. The funeral will be on Monday—at the municipal gymnasium, to accommmodate the crowd. Immediately after, the bishop will be buried in his cathedral.




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