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Forty-four Priests and a Bishop

Last night I noticed I was shaking, and I´ve had migraines so far every day I´ve been here, so I decided to take today to rest, hang around Leiria, re-hydrate, and be still. Every hour I go douse my head under cold running water, to keep the heat down, but it´s a blast furnace here. No way I could have walked the Caminho in this heat. I lay in bed, drifting, daydreaming, thinking about yesterday all morning. I looked forward to blogging. Traveling alone is not the least bit lonely with this to do. I feel I get to bring a whole crowd with me, and say, “Look at this!” but I don´t have to worry about anybody but me. This is just exactly right. For me. So around lunch time I went out to find a bowl of soup. I get free breakfast, and I eat from the grocery store (goat cheese, salad, fruit and bread) for dinner, but it´s nice to get some soup for lunch. After lunch I decided to go to the Leiria Cathedral, knowing it would be cooler there than anywhere else, and, as Manko says, Omigod! I stumbled across another fantastic event. I still don´t know what it was. For the first hour and a half I thought it was the funeral of some very important person, but then the bishop (more about him in a moment) put his hands on the head of a young man in white, then hugged him, and the whole church exploded in applause. So maybe it was an ordination. I thought I saw a casket at the front, but maybe it was just a huge spray of flowers. Could it have been a funeral AND an ordination? Whatever it was, Portuguese Roman Catholics DO CHURCH WELL. I was spellbound.

Here´s what happened. I got there about 2:30, and I noticed that lots of old people were on their way into the church. I figured they were like me, looking for somewhere cool to hang out. Very compact people, the elder Portuguese. No fat people. Short, muscular, sun-wrinkled. Some came leaning on canes, others on walkers, a couple on crutches. But when I got inside, I saw, from the back, a flash of wood and an arrangement of flowers about five feet wide and three feet high. So I thought it must be a funeral. I sat down on the back row to watch. Then gradually some younger people started coming in. There was a contingent of nuns in gray habits, then some nuns in black and white habits, a large number of families, and last, at just about 3 pm, in came the teenagers with the gelled hair and jeans, and by then the church, which easily holds 500 (nothing like the magnificence of Alcobaca, but very wonderful nevertheless) was more than half-full. I scooted over next to the pillar on the back row, trying to be invisible, at which I think I succeeded. And then the chanting started. Layers of voices, male and female, and this time it definitely was a whole choir, chanting, repeating, chanting, first the tenors, then the sopranos, then the baritones, then the altos, chanting so beautifully that tears began to stream down my face, which I didn´t realize till they hit my hands in my lap. Maybe, I thought, this is a funeral for everybody I ever loved and lost. I could just about hear Manko´s voice saying, “Typical. You always think it´s all about YOU.” Point well taken. They were singing in Portuguese, a gorgeous language full of shushing sounds and nasal sounds that make wonderful music in a cathedral full of echoes. Then suddenly everybody stood up, and from the right side of the church a procession began, all men in white: first a few altar boys, then a young man holding a gold cross, then a man with a red book, another man with incense, and then (I counted them) forty-four priests in white robes with stoles of white, gold, or gold-and-white. Following them, here came the Bishop in his gold mitre, carrying a crozier, stopping to greet various people like a politician, bowing and smiling and shaking the occasional hand, and after him came another scatter of altar boys. The priests mostly had their hands in prayer position and looked solemn, but one of them was smiling and held one hand across his body, supporting his elbow, Jack Benny style, two fingers of the upright arm touching the flesh just under his chin. That one, I thought, is definitely gay.

When the procession got to the front of the church, with everybody still standing, someone took off the bishop´s mitre, revealing a fuschia skullcap, and the choir switched from Portuguese to Latin. They sang a Kyrie, then an Alleluia, and many people all over the church wept. At that point I was still thinking it was a funeral (which perhaps it was), and that the person being honored must have been greatly loved. After much more singing, including some congregational singing, and more incense waving and bells and organ and candle-lighting and book-holding and chanting (all enough to put even the most adamant Marxist in a kind of stupor of wonder), then the bishop started to talk. He talked wonderfully, expressively, but for a long time. My mind began to drift, so I looked at the people I could see and found them so utterly lovable that I was still mesmerized. Then there was more chanting, and then that´s when the bishop put his hands on the young man´s head, then embraced him, and everyone clapped like this guy had just won something. That´s when I began to question whether this was a funeral or not. After that they took up a collection, did some more singing, shook hands (I always like that part) and got ready to start the mass.

People started lining up to take their wafers and wine. I had drunk a litre and a half of water with my soup at lunch time, and I was really needing to get out of there, so when the people at the end of my row got up to go receive the sacrament, I tiptoed out into the blast furnace outside, made my way to the internet place (where there´s a toilet and a fan, although it isn´t air conditioned either), and started blogging. I guess I´ll never know whether the wooden thing at the front of the church was a casket or part of the flower arrangement, but I certainly am blown away by the beauty of the ritual. I feel as though I´ve been to Rome. Only this was more personal, more tender, clearly a community at one with itself for a couple of hours. The tears in the eyes of all the people, even tough young men, tell me that this still works, for many people. I stagger off in wonder, receiving gifts, hoping these words help to make me worthy of the astonishment laid before me.

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One response to “Forty-four Priests and a Bishop”

  1. Christopher says:

    Kendall, keep those dispatches coming — they’ve been fascinating.

  2. John says:

    Howdy Pilgrim,

    Just thought I’d check in today. Thought to myself, “she won’t have blogged anything yet,” and here I find THREE amazing entries. It’s good fortune for us that the internet cafe is a such a fine respite.

    Go Kendall!

    Loving you,

  3. admin says:

    Thank you both! This is the best of all possible worlds: my friends go with me, but I get to run everything. If only love relationships had worked this easily.

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