Monday, August 07, 2006

Vive San Cayetano

The evening began with a bang: fireworks in the street outside the Iglesia de San Cayetano. Once inside, the congregation shouted "Vive San Cayetano" three times, at the beginning and at the end of the vigil mass for the much adored patron saint of bread and work in Argentina. During the mass, a steady stream of pilgrims processed on the mezzanine in the modern church to a statue of San Cayetano. Down below them, a packed audience sang the saint's hymn:
San Cayetano danos la paz
danos trabajo, danos el pan.
Siempre vivamos en alegría
en la justicia y en el amor.

I attended the midnight ceremony with Ofelia Gonzalez, my hostess for the month in Buenos Aires, along with her nextdoor neighbor, Rita, and her good friend Sylvia. Rita is a fiery redhead, whose Castellano is too rapid for me to understand, and proud of her Italian descent. Ofelia and Sylvia are perhaps under five feet tall and I towered over them as we stood in the crowded colectivo for the short ride along Avenida Santa Fe from our building in Palermo to the neighboring barrio of Belgrano. We walked a few blocks to the church in a poorer section of the same area where my school is located and where I am told many retired generals live in the luxurious high-rise apartment buildings. There were chairs in the square outside for the mass and procession through the streets today, the feast day of San Cayetano, but I'm sure the rain will put a damper on festivities. Vendors were selling medals, statues and prayer cards, along with stalks of wheat to symbolize bread. They reminded me of the palm branches we hold on Palm Sunday.

Inside the church, Ofelia proudly introduced me to her many friends, some of whom trying out their English to say "hello" to me. It was a cold evening and many of them were wearing fur coats, the kind that would get you run out of town in fur-unfriendly Santa Cruz. A large image of Argentina's patron saint, the Virgen of Lujan, was beside the altar, and people came up to her, touched the icon, and prayed. As elsewhere outside of the U.S., it seems important to make tactile contact. The mass was familiar, if in a different language. Only the intercesory prayers to San Cayetano and the various hymns to the saint marked the liturgy as exceptional. But what was truly unusual was the blessing. People held up stalks of wheat, prayer cards, and keys -- yes, keys -- to be blessed. It was a symbol, so I was told, of the house, and San Cayetano sends down his blessings on households.

Because I was unfamiliar with the saint who seems so important here, I looked him up on the internet. Saint Cajetan was born near Venice at the end of the 15th century. He studied law and worked for Pope Julius II before become a priest in 1516. He founded a hospital but was more interested in spiritual healing and in combining the spirit of monasticism with the an active ministry. It sounds very much like the work our own Father Cyprian is doing. Cajetan founded the Oratory of Divine Love which, following the name of his companion, the bishop of Chieti (in Latin, Theate), was later known as the Theatines. After the sack of Rome in 1527, he moved to Naples, and later to Verona and Venice. It's not clear from the official biography why the Argentine poor have embraced him so warmly.

The image of San Cayetano was used at the Museum of External Debt to illustrate the roller coaster ride of Argentina's economy. In bad times, went their thesis, people flock to church, and in particular to San Cayetano who promies to provide them peace, bread and jobs. This is a functional explanation that doesn't entirely satisfy my need to know. In the church I saw a broad range of popular devotion. I expected to see mostly women, as I have in churches in the U.S. and abroad. But last night there were men as well as women, along with young people in their teens and twenties. I didn't see small children, but that was probably because of the lateness of the hour. What I witnessed was the expression of an active faith in God's concern for the poor and the needy, and not an intellectual exercise.

As we walked back to the bus at half past one in the morning, the streets were mostly empty save for the vendors, who seemed to be mostly poor Indians who are otherwise rare in the streets of Buenos Aires, along with cartoneros who were clearning up the trash. On Sante Fe the newspaper stalls and flower stands remained open and traffic was steady. Bs As is a city which rarely sleeps. I know that from the nightly rumble of trucks and buses that reaches my third floor room.

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