Sunday, December 19, 2004

Fr. Tucker of Dappled Things posted on an article in a Houston newspaper about quinceañeras (the 15th birthday celebration for Latino girls). I share his lament of this custom for many reasons. It really is a bizarre thing. It harkens back to when a girl was presented to society as being of marriageable age. Thus, in days past, it was more significant that, as she turned 15, the girl wear the attire of a woman, that she have formal shoes, make-up, a ring, and that she dance not only with her father, but with another young man. Now, however, many girls are already dating by the time they reach their 15th birthday and have long since stopped dressing like little girls.

The amount of money spent on these affairs is truly scandalous. Add to that, that it is very rare that any gift be made to the parish, even though outrageous sums of money are spent on everything else. There is more to-do made about these quinceañeras than some weddings. As the newspaper article reported, the girl may be escorted by a court made up of 14 couples. That is larger than any wedding I have ever seen. And, I'm sorry to sound pessimistic, but almost all of the Latino weddings I have done have been "blessings" of civil marriages outside of the Church or situations where the couple cohabits. Maybe that is a contemporary explanation for why the quinceañera is so big in our own time -- because there may not be much "to-do" about the wedding, but rather an attempt to regularize an irregular situation as quickly as possible. I don't know.

I routinely see kids attend these events as participants in the court whom I almost never see at Mass. They come dressed very inappropriately for Church (I even had to turn two young men away from the Mass because they came to serve as escorts wearing jeans and white undershirts). Many times, the girls themselves, do not participate in RE, are not in preparation for the Sacraments, but make darn sure they take the required quinceañera classes for that special day.

All of this has caused me to implement some new policies. I don't know if I am doing the right thing, but I do know that something needed to change about the way the Church is used for quinceañeras around here. I will highlight only a few of the new rules.

1. We do not do quinceañeras for people who are not parishioners. Since I live in an area where it is possible to cross the state line to get to another parish, it is not uncommon that girls come to our door, wanting to avoid the rules in their own parishes. I don't play that game.

2. Before a girl is eligible to take the required quinceañera classes, she must have been enrolled in Religious Education for at least one year and must have at least begun preparation for Confirmation. It is not uncommon for girls to show up for the quinceañera classes but never attend religious formation. Somehow the quinceañera gets more attention than a Sacrament (Confirmation).

3. If a girl has not received all her Sacraments, we do not perform a quinceañera. Routinely, families arrive hoping that I will engage in a marathon Sacrament and sacramental ceremony to catch them up for lost years on the one occasion they decide to darken the doors of the church. Recently I had to tell a family (that never attends Mass) that since their 14-year old daughter had only been baptized, had never received other Sacraments, and had never attended RE, that I would not allow a quinceañera at this time. I told them they needed to enroll her in RE next year and we would get her caught up and then, after that, she could have the quinceañera. The mother objected that the daughter would be 16 by then. I explained that it was their duty to see that their children are raised in the faith; that such was not accomplished in this case was not my fault. I know some places will do the marathon catch-up ceremonies. In our diocese we are told that Confirmation should not be done in the same ceremony in which a person to be confirmed is also to be married. This is so that the nature of the Sacraments of initiation are not lost. Due to that advice, I don't see it as a wise pastoral move to jam all the Sacraments into one mega ceremony.

4. In this parish, quinceañeras are done as ceremonies outside of Mass. I noticed that the large crowd that would attend a quinceañera Mass (before I changed the policy) on Saturday morning, would not attend any Sunday Mass. In addition, since many girls who come to us are not regularly practicing the faith, having a Mass seems counterintuitive to me. As I evaluated this problem, my first idea was to allow quinceañera Masses for groups of girls only four times a year, instead of on an individual basis. This would be a happy compromise. However, in my town, there is only one hall to rent for the party and so we would run into major problems with several quinceañeras and only one hall. Since people in my area seemed to desire more that each girl have her own individual celebration, I decided the only other option was to not have Mass as part of the ceremony. We still have readings from Scripture, the girl renews her baptismal vows, there are songs, a flower homage to the Virgin Mary, and a special blessing, but no Mass. This also allows our deacons to take some of the ceremonies, thus relieving the pressure on the priests on an already busy Saturday morning.

5. We also charge for the use of the church facility. The rental fee for the one hall in town (not associated with the church) is $1800.00! I was shocked when I heard that, knowing that it was the very rare occasion that a quinceañera family would give even one cent to the parish church. I decided that since so much was being spent, and if the church ceremony was truly important, it is not unreasonable to charge for the use of the church facility. This is money that goes to the parish and does not line my pockets (so calm down).

Anyway, all in all, I think the quinceañera practice is very ridiculous and basically pagan. Whatever meaning it may have once had in the Church, and as an event of faith, seems almost entirely lost on most of the people who show up in the parish office wanting a quinceañera. The one and only good thing I will say about this custom is that just about every kid who participates in the court (about 29 kids) makes sure to go to confession beforehand.

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