Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Mexican Tradition Runs on Pageantry and Faith -- in Mexico and in Minnesota

The Passion Play in Iztapalapa, Mexico, has a cast of thousands. The 50 or so main parts tend to remain within local families. The "Passion Play" in Minneapolis at St. Stephen's parish had a half dozen main parts. But they commemorated the same event: The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

See Below

IZTAPALAPA, Mexico — It was midafternoon on Good Friday, and Diego Villagrán Villalobos, dressed as Jesus, was struggling in the heat to drag a heavy wooden cross up the hill where he would soon be crucified. The streets and the hillside were lined with people observing his progress, some of whom, as a demonstration of their own faith, followed him barefoot, wearing crowns of thorns or shouldering crosses themselves.

The weeklong play attracts more than two million people annually.

In recent times, the pageant has become a badge of cultural identity for “a people which, in the face of the rapid advance of modernization, battles to preserve its customs and traditions.”

In Aztec times, Iztapalapa was the site of a pyramid and temple where rites of penance and renewal were performed in the spring. Today, though, this working-class community on the outskirts of Mexico City is known for a weeklong Passion Play that has become one of the largest and most fervent in the world, attracting more than two million people annually.

“I’ve been doing this for 56 years, and back when I started, we had an audience of maybe 50 people, all of them from the neighborhood, for what was then a short and simple presentation,” said Anatolio Ávila Domínguez, 70, president of the committee that organizes the play. “Now everything is super changed, but we feel honored to have so many people visit us.”

Unlike many other Passion Plays staged in Latin America during Holy Week, the presentation here dates not to Spanish colonial times, but to 1843, when a deadly cholera epidemic that had devastated the local population came to an end. In gratitude, residents wrote and staged their own account of the Passion of Christ, beginning a tradition that withstood even the anti-clerical zeal of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.

The play has a cast of thousands, including those playing the Roman Praetorian Guard, but many of the 50 or so main parts tend to remain within local families, almost as heirlooms, a tendency that has generated some discontent as more people want to participate. Miguel Guerra, who is 55 and plays the high priest Caiaphas, said that he was the fifth generation of his family to be in the pageant and that he regarded it as his duty to uphold the “values inculcated in us by our parents and grandparents.”

The requirements of those who wish to play Jesus or Mary are especially strict. To assure a proper state of purity, tradition demands that neither be allowed to date, drink, smoke, or go to parties once they get the role. In recent years, two new restrictions have been added: no tattoos or piercings. Candidates must also show that they have sufficient economic means to pay for the resplendent costumes they wear.

Nevertheless, competition for the roles is intense, and those chosen approach their task with great seriousness. When Mr. Villagrán, an 18-year-old high school student, was chosen in January to play Jesus, he immediately embarked on an accelerated fitness program to prepare himself because he felt that “it was God and not the committee that picked me.”

He was already an athlete — he plays American football — which is one of the reasons he was chosen for a role that is so demanding. Whoever plays Jesus must be able to bear a ritual whipping in the square, then carry a cross weighing more than 200 pounds three miles, the remaining Stations of the Cross, and up a steep hill, where he has to endure a brief but real crucifixion in which he is bound to the cross for about 20 minutes.

“I run three and a half miles every day, I go to the gym,” rising at 5 a.m. daily, Mr. Villagrán said in an interview last week. “And spiritually, I’ve prepared myself as I have throughout my life. I go to Mass on Sunday, go to confession with regularity and have gone on retreats. I can see myself on the cross.”

The role of Judas demands a different kind of sacrifice. It is not just that he is the villain and, in the version presented here, ends up hanging himself out of remorse at having betrayed Jesus. There is also the reaction of one’s own neighbors to consider, especially when they get carried away and start pelting Judas with rotten fruit and other objects.

“The people who come to see the presentation shout ‘traitor’ at you,” explained Alfonso Reyes Jímenez, a taxi driver who has played Judas in recent years. “So far, I haven’t been the victim of physical aggression, but you’re always anxious and uneasy because people are really transformed.”

This year, the role went to Jaime Domínguez Cabello, 39, who operates a parking lot with his brothers. In the past, Mr. Domínguez has been an apostle, but he said he did not mind being the bad guy.

“There’s no Jesus without Judas,” he said. “Judas did his betrayal as part of carrying out a mission, and I have my mission, which is to play Judas. I do it out of faith in Him, out of devotion to Him, and to enable this presentation to be preserved.”

As Mr. Domínguez’s comments indicate, Iztapalapa’s Holy Week pageant is first and foremost a religious celebration. But in recent times it has also become a badge of cultural identity for, as an announcer put it on Thursday night just before the staging of the Last Supper at the main square, “a people which, in the face of the rapid advance of modernization, battles to preserve its customs and traditions.”

That does not mean, however, that contemporary influences are absent: for the past 20 years, the pageant has been broadcast by satellite all over the Spanish-speaking world, which has helped increase its popularity. In addition, some cast members now use lapel microphones and giant video screens are employed to show the play to onlookers who cannot get close enough to the action.

The Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward the play has fluctuated over the years. In the past, there were complaints that the script, which draws not only on the Bible but also on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” deviated too much from sacred texts. King Herod, for example, has a harem that performs a sensual belly dance.

But even though it is the local community, largely of indigenous descent, rather than the Church that controls the event, the hierarchy has come to view the pageant as an effective tool for anchoring Mexican Catholics in their religion in the face of a growing Protestant challenge. “Though at one point I contemplated changing religions,” said Javier Villalobos, treasurer of the organizing committee, “this has strengthened my faith.” New York Times

St. Stephen's in Minneapolis, an older inner city parish dating back 100 years or more, has become a parish of processions, too. Twelve months ago, 200 or so English speaking parishioners formally marched out of the church on Clinton Avenue near the Institute of Arts to a new home of their own choosing. Most of them were baptized as infants as Catholics and had been members of St. Stephen's for many years. Many of them grew up in the 1950s or earlier and learned about community organizing during the early years of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. They brought that with them to St. Stephen's and created one of the finest social justice ministries to be found anywhere.

But that wasn't enough for them.

They needed to organize their own church, too, and saw no need for priests and bishops. So when the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis decided that they had gone too far, they were told that they could no longer substitute poetry for bible readings, lay ministers for Gospel readers, women for co-consecrators, or lay people for the leaders of the parish in place of the pastor, they objected.

And so they left. They found a building a few blocks away where assumedly they perform their own contemporary liturgies. Recently, they lost that space and found space in a protestant church where no doubt they feel even more comfortable.

Over the most recent years, like many inner city parishes, St. Stephen's had lost many of its native born American parishioners to the suburbs, to secularism, or to sloth. They weren't coming to Mass any longer. At the same time, thousands of Mexicans and other Hispanics have been coming to Minnesota and the Twin Cities, seeking a new life. Hundreds of them were content to remain as St. Esteban's parishioners (the first martyr) and remain as the core of the parish community after the schismatic protesters left last year.

There remains also a small fragment of the former English speaking community in St. Stephen's that is growing under its new pastor, Father Joseph Williams and his Deacon, Luis Rubi, both fluent in Spanish. Regular Masses are celebrated on Sundays separately, 9:00 for the Hispanic community and 11:00 (starting Easter Sunday) for the English speaking community. But major holidays are celebrated bi-lingually with special liturgical aids provided so that all might know what is being prayed.

I, the classic "church shopper", normally found in different parishes each weekend, left the parish where I had been nominally registered and contributed via checking account deposit, have joined St. Stephen's in the hope that I can be a small part of the rejuvenation of this bi-lingual parish. This is my first Holy Week experience and I would like to report on it.

There is no need to describe the interior improvements to the church building since Father Joseph took over. Just say that it is obviously a Catholic church again. Oh, you want evidence? Well, the tabernacle is back.

Palm Sunday was the first of the bi-lingual celebrations in which I participated. It was not appreciably different from most Catholic parishes except that we did process around the building with our palms.

The Holy Thursday service ended with a procession around the inside of the church with all ending up behind the altar in an empty space decorated as the Garden of Gesthemane. There, all knelt and prayed for a time. When the service was declared to be over, virtually all stayed for a least a half hour in silent prayer before leaving for their homes.

There were two Good Friday services. The 3:00 service ended with a Way of the Cross procession somewhat like that described in the NYT article above where a half dozen young Mexican parishioners costumed themselves as participants in the original Passion, and we processed throughout the neighborhood, with "Jesus" being symbolically flayed by actors portraying Roman soldiers. Bi-lingual lectors read the meditations for each of the fourteen stations.

We even passed close by that other spiritual temple, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and ended at a neighborhood playground, where the actor portraying Jesus, just like was done in the Iztapalapa, Mexico procession, was tied to a crucifix and hung there for 15 minutes or so. He was then taken down and placed in the arms of his Holy Mother, played by a young parishioner and then placed on a folding table, enshrouded and carried two blocks back to St. Esteban's where he was placed on the floor in front of the altar. A time of silence and adoration ensued.

The evening service on Good Friday featured the procession for the Adoration of the Cross, and a Holy Communion Service. No Masses are permitted on Good Friday.

Unfortunately, I didn't attend the Holy Saturday service, but I fully expect that another procession was involved.

There are good things happening at St. Stephen's/Esteban's parish in South Minneapolis. Interestingly, the sisters of the local Missionaries of Charity convent (Mother Therese's order), chose to celebrate Holy Thursday with the parishioner's of St. Steven's/Estaban's. If you are looking for a home, you might want to give US a try.


Mark Francis said...

It's good to hear St. Stephen's is doing okay. I might try it out some time I'm in the Cities. It would certainly be better than where I (unknowingly) ended up on a recent visit -- St. Edward's! I was young and naïve. :-)

P.S. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has regularly found himself attending mass in different parishes.

Happy Easter!

Unknown said...

"Little guy"

I can gar-un-tee that St. Stephen's will be more to your liking than St. Edward's!!!

Already I am known at St. Stephen's as the "new guy who sits in the south side pews." Look for me there.

And yes, we "church shoppers" are a large but rarely mentioned sector of the Catholic Church.

And a Happy Easter to you!!

Anonymous said...

He is truly Risen! Alleluiah! Happy Easter, dear Ray!

The Ironic Catholic said...

Happy Easter Ray! Thanks for the nice commentary here--interesting story!

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

What a great report! Thanks for the update Ray!

Anonymous said...

I wish that the Catholic teens in the US were like their brothers to the South in devotion!

Vianney33 said...

That was a great report. I had followed the happenings of St. Stephen's when the hippies left and wondered what had transpired since. I love what is happening in our diocese thanks to our Archbishop. Thanks for being part of this church's rejuvination.
I am a western suburb church shopper who is on the brink of formalizing my leaving a St. Joan of Arc wannabe parish and settling down in a parish that doesn't play games with the Liturgy. One of the 2 choices I am looking at has a similar situation to St. Stephen's in that there is a Spanish Mass and a growing Hispanic population. Plus the church building itself looks like a church and not a basketball stadium.

Unknown said...


Good for you! God bless you in your search.

Unfortunately, there might be as many as 30 or 40% of the parishes in the archdiocese that have improvisational liturgies.

Thank God for all the wonderful new young priests that have been coming out of the seminary since 1990 or so.

Terry Nelson said...

I will have to visit sometime soon - right now I'm finding great spiritual nourishment at the Cathedral. We are blessed to have such solid young Catholic priests throughout the diocese - with such an excellent Archbishop at the helm. I believe we are witnessing a Catholic Rennaisance.

Anonymous said...

I received my First Holy Communion at St. Stephen's in May, 1947. I went back this morning to go to Confession and Mass. Tell me why the Mexican people go into the Confessional in groups. They took such a long time, I couldn't go to Confession. I doubt I will go back.