San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico – 19.June.2019
6:35 in the morning. I leave the hotel in the old center of town and head for the Church of Santo Domingo. It is the only one open early in the morning, since almost all of the churches in San Cristóbal are being renovated. Santo Domingo, dating from the mid XVIth century, is also under renovation but they tell me there is a small door on the side that will remain open.
6:41 I arrive. I find the door after a gentleman sweeping the street points me in the right direction. I wait a few minutes. The early morning sky is majestic and soft all at once after a night of intense rain.
6:45 The door opens and I step in. It smells of humidity. The main altar is hidden by a giant scaffolding, so I go left to the Chapel. Rather large with about 30 rows on each side, its walls are stained with water marks, the floor tiles faded. A large crucifix stands behind the altar covered with glass. On the left, a Virgin Mary dressed in bleu. On the right side of the Chapel, an old Crucifix with a pale Jesus looking down at us.
Two Dominican nuns walk in and sit in front of me. A few more people arrive. Among them, an old man, poor, dirty, with a face of immense sadness. He goes to the first row, kneels and prays in silence. More people arrive. An old lady with a silvery braid and a grey jacket sits next to me. We exchange smiles. She smells of vel rosita (a popular Mexican fabric softener).
Suddenly, the noise level goes up. People talking in Tzotzil (the indigenous language of the Tzotzil, a large and varied Maya indigenous community in Chiapas and other regions of Mexico and Guatemala). I see some 100 persons fill all the remaining rows of the chapel. They are all dressed in a long sleeve top with a red and yellow flower pattern embroidered upon dark burgundy, with black trousers or skirts. They must be coming from the Chamula area, in the mountains near San Cristóbal.
One of them carries two very large candles set sideways on a silver tray, and brings them to the altar to be blessed.
The Priest arrives. He enters from a side door I had not noticed. He is tall, a full head of unruly white hair, light eyes, skin tanned by the sun and the high altitude, in his seventies. A total contrast from most of us in the church. He smiles and shakes hands as he walks down the aisle. He starts to sing with a sincere and broken voice, and encourages everyone to sing with him.
“Alegre la mañana que nos habla de ti – alegre la mañana…” Joyous de morning that speaks of you – joyous the morning…
Mass – simple and profound words by the Father on generosity as he comments the scriptures of the day. He speaks with a faint Spanish accent tainted by decades in Mexico, his strong “jota” (letter “j” pronounced “kh”) revealing his origins. He smiles incessantly and I cannot help doing the same.
As the recitation of “Our Father…” starts, the Tzotzil light one by one tall and very thin white candles, including the very young children. Behind me, everything becomes light. The Chapel takes tones of gold erasing off the water marks from the walls and the wounds of time from the statues.
When the time comes to exchange the sign of peace, instead of shaking hands or embracing the neighbor, each Tzotzil bends his or her head so that an older one may touch the head with his hand as a blessing and sign of mutual peace. Even the very young ones do it between them. A little four or five year old girl with lovely braids, cannot stop giggling as she does it, infecting even her mother who at first admonished her to keep still.
When the Father starts to offer the host, the Tzotzil start forming a long double line and as they walk up to the altar, place their candles at the foot of the Crucifix on the right side of the Chapel. The older ones do it for the children.
The mass ends.
The old and poor man I saw at the beginning, approaches the Father as he steps down from the altar. The Father listens to him. While doing so, he straightens the collar of the old man’s jacket, fixes his hair, talks to him, embraces and blesses him. The old man leaves with an enchanted smile on his face.
Others also approach the Priest. To each, the Father dedicates his full attention. He listens, touches, embraces, smiles, blesses.
I stand up and get ready to leave. I saw and felt what it is to be a Priest, to be with the faithful, to give hope through humanity and simple presence. I saw what we read in books about small Churches in small towns. I saw what most think belongs to history and far away novels.
I was very moved by the humanity and simplicity of it all. It was precious, the reason I wanted to share it here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this account.