The Father showed up without fail every Thursday in the back of a red motorized rickshaw, or putt-putt, as the Nicaraguans called the three-wheeled taxis that seethed and rattled on the roads of Carazo like a plague of hard-shelled insects.
An American from New England, he came in the putt-putt from downtown San Marcos, where he was the attending priest at the American Catholic university there. He would arrive around one o’clock, after we had completed our labor therapy in the fields and had eaten lunch, the tropical sun pinned at its zenith and glaring, as if custodially, down upon the addiction-recovery center that I had entered to treat a drinking problem that had flared horribly while staying with my dad’s youngest brother in Jinotepe, a neighboring town. The Father would get out of the taxi, pay the driver, and begin preparations to give Mass in the relative cool of the classroom that stood adjacent to the dorms, shaded by overhanging tree boughs.
The 60-day treatment program was periodically oppressive, and often time seemed to crawl. I used the Father’s visits as a time marker that I preferred to weekends; every time I saw the putt-putt heading up the path, it was heralding, in an appealingly ceremonious way, that I had made it through another week. I was not a Catholic, nor religious by any means (I grew up in an atheist household), but his visits also fed a yearning for ritual and some sort of spiritual direction, a yearning that was being gradually laid bare by sobriety and the scarcity and minimalism of life at Hodera as compared to my drunk and distracted life in the U.S. As alienated as I might have been from Catholic belief, the ritual of the Father’s visits, and the ceremony he performed, gave provisional shape to this yearning.
The Father was an exceptionally slight and delicate man, perhaps five and a half feet tall, with bony shoulders that stuck out and active, long-fingered hands strewn with liver spots. He walked with a bit of a slouch, as if some invisible weight had been placed between his shoulder blades to prevent him from slipping off the earth and up into the heavens. Upon departing the taxi, which would raise clouds of brown dust as it motored back up the bumpy dirt path toward the outside world, the sunlight seemed to infiltrate the Father’s pores and illuminate him from within, as if his flesh were a scrim, and as if light, rather than bone and sinew, were his substance. Within seconds of his arrival, one Nicaraguan would be holding his elbow, another would pick up the satchel that held Bibles and liturgical paraphernalia, and another would be holding open the door to the classroom. It was a solicitude and reverence that had something to do with his office and probably as much to do with his age.
Nicaragua, miscegenated and religiously colonized by the conquering Spaniards in the 16th century, still bears the Catholic imprint of this meeting of cultures (the country remains 80 percent Catholic, according to a recent study), but Evangelical missionaries have been making inroads since early in the 20th century, and many young people, especially the poor, have now cast aside Catholicism and adopted the looser, more dynamic practices of the Charismatics. Most of the guys I knew there were Evangelicals, given to ostentatious displays of praise and worship rather than quiet ritual and liturgy and opting to seek a personal relationship with Jesus rather than rely on the intercession of a cleric.
Once inside the classroom, where the elementary-school desks we used for addiction-recovery class in the mornings had been arranged in a circle for the Mass, the Father would begin his preparations. Out of his satchel emerged two brass candle-holders with pale candles inside, and he would always ask one of the residents who had a cigarette lighter to volunteer to ignite the wicks, which the resident would do by turning the candleholder upside down so as not to burn his thumb as he reached in with the flame. As this was happening, the Father would thrust his white vestment over his jeans and button-down shirt, then drape a gold crucifixion necklace over his neck. He would then page through his Bible until he found a passage that was to be read as part of the ceremony and ask for a volunteer to read it, then page through a second Bible for a second passage and ask for a second volunteer and hand them the books. Always the following was recited by everyone, in Spanish of course, but I translate for English readers:
“I confess before all-powerful God,
and before you, my brothers,
that I have sinned greatly
in thought and in word, by commission and by omission:
It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s all my fault.
For this I pray to Saint Mary, perpetual Virgin,
to the angels, to the saints and to you, my brothers,
that you would intercede for me before God, our Father, Amen.”
When the Spaniards came and imposed their religion on the indigenous peoples of Latin America, the indigenous succumbed but not completely, and the Spanish clerics permitted some remnants of the Indigenous religion to color the Catholic rites and rituals. You can see this medley in the iconography present in Latin American Catholic churches today and in some of the peculiarities of Latin American Catholicism, such as the pointed reverence for the Virgin.
When the Father performed his Mass at Hodera, he was ministering to mestizos, men who had both Spanish and Indigenous blood in their veins, and he was ministering to mostly Evangelicals who expressed the same insistence on retaining something of their rituals as had their forbearers with the Spanish.
So this may have been one of the only Catholic Masses where where the parishioners shut their eyes, held their hands out palms up and swayed back and forth grinning as they listened to Catholic liturgy, or where contemporary Christian worship music was sung. One of the songs that was always sung at Hodera was “La Nina de Mis Ojos,” almost like a carnal love song in its simple and heartfelt professions of intimacy.The Father gave time in Mass for us to sing this song, which stood in starkest contrast to the cool asceticism and severity of the Catholic prayers:
“You saw me, when nobody saw me.
You loved me, when nobody loved me.
You loved me, when nobody loved me.
You loved me, when nobody loved me.
“I love you more than my life,
I love you more than my life.”
The Father spoke Spanish, but extremely haltingly and having a great deal of difficulty with the Spanish vowels, a struggle which did not elicit the slightest snicker or provoke a single eye roll among the Nicaraguans who were given to sarcasm and pranksterism at other times; the deference was too great to permit this. Sometimes, however, the Father would get stuck in his brief homily because there was something he didn’t know how to say, and I would step in, ask him what he wanted to say in English, then translate it for the Nicaraguans. Whatever distance there was between his religious convictions and my lack thereof was spanned by our shared language.
After about 45 minutes, the Mass would be over and the Catholics among our number would line up to approach him and give their confession in low voices. Then the Father would return the Bibles and the candleholders to his satchel and walk out of the classroom onto the grounds, to await the putt-putt’s return. Often he and I would chat about traffic on the George Washington bridge in New York City or about the NBA, or other American concerns, as the Nicaraguans looked at us curiously. It was the only time at Hodera that I could speak English, and I relished these conversations, as they returned me to a part of myself that was suppressed during the rest of the week.
Eventually the putt-putt would return and the Father would bid me farewell with a hug, climb into the taxi, and wave to us, signaling the driver to rumble back up the dirt path. I would watch the taxi until it disappeared over a crest in the road, and return to my routine, another week having passed, closer to some things I could know, and even closer to others that I could not.