Experiencing Spanish Mass

A woman and a small boy kneel in prayer during Spanish Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)
This summer, we were lucky enough to spend a week in El Paso. Apart from the obvious great things that come with being in El Paso — La Lupe, La Lupe’s food, La Lupe’s hospitality, the descendants of La Lupe — one of the things I look forward to the most is going to Mass.

Whenever we are in El Paso we attend Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. When we lived in El Paso we were so loyal to this church that I actually thought it was the only church in all of El Paso until I was about 9.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. As you walk into the church, you are immediately drawn into La Virgencita’s story. The entire 40-foot wall behind the altar is a painting of Jesus crucified with Our Lady of Guadalupe at his side. Lining the other walls are huge 10-foot tall paintings that tell the story of the indigenous people being colonized by the conquistadors and then ending with La Virgen’s apparition to Juan Diego. The art, for actually a pretty poor parish, is beautiful and breathtaking.

What I love about Mass at this church, and any Spanish Mass in general, is the oneness I feel with the people. If you have never attended a Spanish Mass I really encourage you to do so. The sounds that come from the congregation are plentiful. Older women adorned with mantillas loudly pray the rosary throughout Mass, children are allowed a little more latitude in their noise level, no one is shy about making their voice heard. With the use exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions, faith is much more an outward expression. You can feel the faith of the people hanging in the air. Not that it is better, just different.

There are some funny quirks about Spanish Mass; the choir is hardly ever in tune (at least in my experience). I guess God never asked for perfect pitch, just faith. Also, for some reason, the organization of Communion lines never really works out, even when ushers are present. There will always be that strong-willed La Lupe-type that will get up and make her way to the front immediately as Communion starts no matter where she is sitting in church. And when one person has done this, everyone else gets nervous and gets up and does the same. It pretty much turns into a reverent free-for-all to get up to the front. It’s pretty comical.

It is all the small devotions everyone does that really make me feel like I am with “my people.” There are many important traditions to be observed:

  • Whenever you drive past a church you do the Sign of the Cross even if you’re not going to church.
  • Walking into church, if there is a crucifix in reach, you kiss your hand then touch the feet of Jesus.
  • At the holy water font you would cross yourself three times.
  • Next, on to any saint statues that need to be venerated. As for my family, we’ve always had a special devotion to St. Anthony so we go to him.
  • Upon entering a pew, regardless of being late to Mass, it is necessary to put down the kneeler and kneel to say a short prayer of thanksgiving.
  • When the opening song begins, everyone, and I mean everyone, turns their bodies to face the center aisle to watch the priest process from the back of the church to the front. As the cross and the priest pass, you do the Sign of the Cross and then turn to face the front of the church once again. And at the end of Mass all will do the same in the opposite direction.
  • It is imperative to never, ever give your back to a priest or to Jesus. Especially in Adoration, you will see people walk out of the chapel backwards so as to not give their back to Jesus. Even when the chapel is very full and you have to step over people’s legs that are kneeling, you still do so backwards.

I love all this. I love that I can do all this and not feel strange. At English Masses we’ve tried again and again to do the whole turn-toward-the-center-aisle-to-watch-the-priest-process-up and it just doesn’t work. If the people next to you don’t do it then you are just staring at their shoulders, and they feel awkward and you feel awkward.

Spanish Mass. I love it. I love its beauty. I love its people. I love its quirks. It feels like home to me. And not just the-city-I-grew-up-in home but my-soul-is-at-peace home.