Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Thurible Day

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I had only attended one Catholic service—but it was an unforgettable one. In the fall of 1979, I was doing a senior semester working as a Congressional intern in Washington, DC. John Paul II, in his first year as the new pope, came to town to meet with President Carter and to hold mass on the mall in front of the Smithsonian castle.

Early that fall morning, I rode my bicycle down to the mall and got a spot under a tree across from where the service would take place. By the time the service started, there was a huge crowd. I was able to see better than most because I leaned my bike up against the tree and then stood on the bike while hugging the tree to get an elevated view. It was a memorable event even if I wasn't Catholic.

Since arriving in the Caribbean, I'm learning a lot more about Catholicism. In my village, there are three churches—a Catholic church, a Pentecostal church (both in the heart of our village), and a Seventh Day Adventist church (up on a high hill halfway between our village and the next one). I decided to attend the Catholic church, which is the largest congregation. It is not some grandiose cathedral, but instead just a very modest concrete block building (with some of the blocks set so that the normally hidden holes provide extra ventilation).

Peace Corps volunteers are not required to get involved with religious activities, as it is a very personal decision, and I respect whatever choices my cohorts might have made in their assigned villages. However, it was the right choice for me to go to a church in my village on Sunday mornings, if for nothing else than to spend some quiet time contemplating my life and my current situation.

Since I am not officially of the Catholic faith, I don't cross myself, touch the holy water, or take part in the communion mass, but I find just being there is a good thing. Having something regular to do each Sunday has been helpful as I sort out a new life for myself here. More importantly, I think it has helped me to better integrate into my community. I am getting to know some of the village residents better, and I enjoy seeing some of my students there as well. It is also an interesting exposure to a different culture for me.

This past Sunday, there wasn't a service at our church. Instead, buses carried myself and many of our members to the capital for a huge gathering at the sports stadium. The purpose was to celebrate 60 years of priestly service by His Eminence Kelvin Cardinal Felix. He is 83 years old, and retired from his position as Archbishop in 2008, returning to his native Dominica at that time. However, Cardinal Felix was too active to retire, and now serves as a parish priest in the town of Soufriere. So if there is a need to pick a new pope, he would go to the Vatican to participate as a Cardinal, but he is now far down the management chain as a mere priest in a small local congregation. He sounds like a humble man who loves his job. Below is a picture as he walked into the stadium.

Although I've never met the Cardinal, I'm impressed with anyone who has continued their chosen vocation for 6o years, and is still going strong! It was quite a celebration for him, with perhaps thousands of Dominica Catholics at the sports stadium (see the panorama above), and lots of "pomp and circumstance." The Prime Minister, the President, and a multitude of bishops, priests, and other dignitaries were present. Several talented and colorful groups also performed, as shown in the pictures below.
However, perhaps the most interesting thing I saw was something that I had not seen or thought about since I was standing on the frame of my bicycle leaning against a tree on the Washington mall nearly 37 years ago. That is where I first saw what I have since learned is called a thurible, the metal incense burner that is suspended on chains and swung back and forth. I was fascinated when I first saw it with Pope John Paul II, and watching it in action again on Sunday unleashed all my memories from seeing the Pope all those years ago. Look close in the next two pictures and you can see it in action, rhythmically swinging back and forth, leaving an undulating smoke trail behind.
I'm glad I got up early for the hour-and-a-half bus ride to the capital for this event. It was not a typical Sunday! I was able to learn more about catholicism, Dominica, Roseau, and my fellow villagers—plus learn about an unpretentious “man of the cloth” who has had an amazing career that has lasted longer than my entire lifetime. Bravo, Cardinal Felix!

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