“We’re going to the first communion this weekend,” Matt said when he came home from school one night.
“Okay, whose first communion?” I asked. Having been to plenty of first communions in the States, including my own, I was interested to see one in Peru.
“I don’t know. The fourth graders, I guess,” he replied. ”I have an invitation somewhere.”
“All of them?” I was confused. Davy is not a Catholic school and while I know Peru is 85-90% Catholic, I didn’t understand why first communion would be associated with the school as opposed to a parish.
“I don’t know, but I’m the principal so we need to go.”
Fair enough. So last Saturday Matt and I put on church attire and headed to Iglesia Belén (Church of the Nativity) in the center of Cajamarca. (Once at church I discovered that if I owned a micro mini skirt and stiletto heels those would have been equally appropriate attire for a first communion although I am not sure how I would have sat down…) We arrived and knew we were in the right place by the host of little angels all around us.
Matt was in hot demand for photos. Mainly with the girls – like in most countries, the boys stay farther away from the principal. But Miss Mistina, a fourth grade teacher, was sought after for photos with boys and girls and, in one case, the family scurried down the street after mass to catch her. We chatted with some parents who spoke excellent English and the mom explained that the children usually make their first communion with their school. She added that 48 children were participating today and that 1 other student already made her first communion in Lima and the remaining 3 fourth graders “were not participating.” It was clear she did not approve of the three non-participants. She also explained that the children dress alike to avoid the “miniature bride” factor and competition. That seems like a great idea and probably an easier sell in a country where uniforms are the norm.
The same mom kindly led us into church and to our assigned seats – places of honor on the side, right up front by the children. Not my usual back-of-church choice, but we were not alone as the teachers were similarly honored. The priest even came down to greet all of us before mass, and I almost had a giggle fit when the priest said “Que Tal” to me, which is an informal “How’s it going” greeting. I managed to stutter back “Buenos Dias” as he continued down the line of teachers. Then I looked up at the dome and had to stifle my giggles again as the cherubs holding up the dome look like they are making “Nanny-Nanny-Boo-Boo” faces. Look and tell me if I am wrong:
While the service lasted two hours, it was very pleasant. Our years of Catholic education certainly helped as Matt and I generally knew what was going on. There was also a handy written program, so I could even say the responses (the shorter ones or I got lost) and sing in Spanish. The Our Father, which should have been easy, was confusing, so I am not exactly sure what was going on for that. All 48 children participated in some fashion by reading petitions, bringing up the gifts etc., which was nice. I had considerable anxiety during communion when everyone was taking the wafer directly in the mouth, a practice long discontinued in the US. So I intently watched the line and was relieved when I saw one woman extend her hands. Then I saw she was noticeably pregnant. Was there some special pregnancy rule? By the time we were headed up to the altar, I had seen two other women, neither who appeared to be pregnant, do the same, so I held out my hands and was awarded my host (and not whacked with a ruler by the nun dispensing communion). Whew. Poor Mistina, who is not Catholic, was being urged by the children to take communion. She explained that she was not Catholic and received stunned, uncomprehending looks. So on Monday she had to explain where her Christian beliefs and their Catholic beliefs intersect and diverge. She said the kids are still a little shocked that she isn’t Catholic.
After church we wandered to the Belén museum and ended our outing with a baby mummy and a skeleton. All in all, a lovely day!