This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. In continuing celebration of the Easter season, we republish it here as part of Magazine Classics, a new series highlighting notable works from the magazine’s archives.
Day One and brief history: March 27, 2010
When I was a freshman at Notre Dame, I learned that Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, the president then, would spend Holy Week in a village without a priest in Mexico. That thought never left my mind. So when I was assigned to the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame in 2009, I decided to do the same. After being pastor of a parish for 19 years, I also knew it would be hard to celebrate Holy Week outside of a parish.
In January a dear friend connected me with the bishop of Tepic, who assigned me to the village of Tequepexpan, which has not had a resident priest for the past 25 years or so. Tequepexpan is a village of about 1,000 people at the foot of the mountains. It has no banks, no restaurants, no hotels, no beauty parlors, no supermarkets, no clothing stores, no gas stations. Electricity and running water arrived only 10 years ago. The highway leading to the village is several years old. Teque, as the people call it, is economically poor. It has more horses than cars. In fact, I was awakened today by the sound of horses trotting down the street.
The trip here took 20 hours and included three plane rides, a long taxi ride from the airport in Guadalajara to the bus terminal in Zapopan, a three-hour bus ride from Zapopan to Tepic, a walk from the bus terminal in Tepic to the bishop’s residence and an extra-long ride from the bishop’s residence to the village — because the poor driver kept getting lost and we went to two wrong villages.
When I arrived at the home where I am staying, my romantic idea of serving Christ in the poor took a deep dive. I hadn’t really thought about how much the poor don’t have. While I knew I would love being here, I realized it would not be so easy. When I learned there was no hot water in the house, I thought, OMG what I am going to do? The family assured me, however, that there would be lukewarm water. And there was.
During my first night here, when I had to go to the outside privy — and it was cold! — I was reminded of Dorothy Day’s words, which she quoted frequently from The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” This week was to be love in action.
Day Two: March 28
I do not know how many people live in the modest house where I’m staying. So far I have counted 12. They have been so kind, so gracious, so welcoming. I kept waiting for the family to give me a key, until I realized no one locks their doors in this town. In fact, most doors don’t have locks.
One of the great things about being a priest is that you can be at home anywhere. Within one week I stayed at two of the nicest hotels in the United States — the Crowne Plaza at Times Square and the Marriott in Burbank — and then in this quite humble home in Tequepexpan. A priest can be at home anywhere.
One of the things I love so much about the Mass is that it makes sense everywhere. On Monday and Tuesday of this past week I went to Mass at Saint Malachy’s, the Actors’ Chapel in midtown Manhattan. It draws the most sophisticated dressers on their way to work and street people stopping in the church to get out of the cold. On Wednesday I went to Mass at Saint Finbar’s in Burbank, California. It was the school Mass — all those cute Catholic school kids dressed up in their uniforms. On Thursday I went to Mass with students in a dorm chapel at Notre Dame. On Friday I went to Mass at Notre Dame’s basilica. And, on Palm Sunday, here in this village. It’s always the Mass, and I always love it.
Today’s Mass was beautiful. The church was full of people. I am always moved by the deep faith of the poor. Usually on Palm Sunday the priest is led into the church by an altar server carrying the cross decorated with a palm. Not today. Today the procession began two blocks from the church, and I was led into the church by a teenage boy dressed up as Jesus with a crown of palms on his head, sitting on a donkey. It was amazing.
I found a tiny place with an Internet connection, so I can answer email and stay current with things. After using the Internet for about 90 minutes I headed back to my temporary home. On the walk I had to move out of the way of 15 cows and a guy on a horse. I thought to myself, What different worlds in the same place — an Internet place and cows walking down the street.
In the evening I heard confessions for about 75 minutes. Same sins, different faces. When nations are big and strong they fight other nations. When cities are big and strong, they fight other cities. When a town is too small to fight anyone else, they fight internally. Jesus’ Gospel of Reconciliation needs to be preached everywhere, at all times and in all places.
At night there was an outdoor dance in the town plaza. I had been there earlier, when the sound system arrived for the dance. Since the town is only three streets east-west and three streets north-south, I knew loud music would fill the entire area. And it did. But it was great. I stopped by the dance for a few minutes. It was so interesting to see all the young men arriving on their horses and “parking” them along the plaza.
During the day it’s probably 85 degrees here. When the sun goes down, it gets chilly. This makes for perfect sleeping weather. The house is made of adobe, so it holds the heat at night. Going outside to go to the bathroom at 3 a.m. is another story.
Day Three: March 29
Today a pickup truck arrived. In the back was a man with sacks of beans and a scale. A loud megaphone was blaring the truck’s presence and how much the beans cost. The truck stops in front of whatever house wishes to buy beans that day.
During my walk I saw many trucks taking men to work. All the males in the town work in the sugarcane. So all the men in those trucks carry machetes. It looks scary at first. Even young men on horses and bicycles have machetes in their hands as they pass by on their way to work.
When I went to take a shower today there was no water. I learned how to pump water from a concrete tank holding 1,400 liters up to a big tank on top of the house that provides its water. Tomorrow or Wednesday I am going to buy a chicken, so I can see how they kill it and take the feathers off and sell it. I am at once looking forward to this and greatly repulsed.
Mass is at 5 p.m. The church sacristan goes up into the tower to ring the bell before Mass — 30 minutes before and then 15 minutes before and then when Mass is about to begin. You can hear the bell everywhere, and the people are always aware of it. You hear them asking one another, “Was that the first bell or the second bell?”
After Mass I heard confessions until just after 8 p.m. A tremendous amount of alcohol is consumed in this town. Very sad. So many women are trapped in bad situations. Unlike any big city, where the priest might suggest that the woman get out of the situation or ask her husband to leave, it is nearly impossible for the priest to suggest this in a town of 1,000 people where everyone knows one another and when the entire town is three blocks east-west and three blocks north-south. Very sad.
Day Four: March 30
Today was the Chrism Mass in Tepic, the diocesan see and capital of Nayarit. It’s a big city. After 19 years of going to Chrism Masses because I had to go since I was the pastor, tonight I really wanted to go to renew my commitment to the priesthood and to pray for priests.
The Mass was at 5 p.m., and the cathedral was packed, packed, packed with more than 200 priests. I was struck by how many young priests attended. I know that I am getting older and almost everyone looks younger, but there really were a lot of young priests.
Well before reaching the church, I could hear people clapping and cheering inside. As I entered, I learned that it is a Mexican custom to clap and cheer for the priests at the Chrism Mass. I was overwhelmed by this display of affection, gratitude and love. I started to cry. I cried in gratitude for the gift of priesthood and because I know how unworthy I am of this vocation. The Mass was beautiful. There were hundreds and hundreds of teenagers.
The church in every city and town in Mexico is always located around the Zocalo, or the main plaza, so as the people exited the church they simply went to the Zocalo and continued the celebration. Music, dance, food (great churros) and even a Ballet Folklorico. The beautiful scene will remain in my mind and heart for a long time.
With all its imperfections and faults and failings and corruption, I love the Church. Tonight’s celebration reminded me how much I love the Church.
Day Five: March 31
I took the noon bus from Tepic to Tequepexpan. It is about 44 kilometers, slightly more than a marathon. Nonetheless the ride took more than two hours. The bus stops in every little town and village along the way — Santa María del Oro, Santa Isabel, Chapalilla and God knows where else. At every stop people get on or off. The scenery is beautiful. So are the people. At one point, I had this overwhelming realization that I will spend eternity with these people.
We had Mass at 5 p.m. and I heard confessions until 8:15 or so. In the three days of confessions, I learned more about this town and its internal conflicts than I ever would have imagined. I know who is mad at whom, who stole whose sugar cane properties, who is not talking to whom. There is a saying in Spanish, “Pueblo chico, incendio grande” — “In small villages, there are big fires.” So appropriate. Everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everything about everyone else’s business.
There is almost nowhere to diffuse problems. The role of the Church and of the priest can be so important in a village like this. The people tell me that all the internal conflicts have gotten much worse since there has been no resident priest. Even in a small town like this, social classes are obvious. Some people own acres and acres and acres of sugarcane; others own no acres and work for the owners. I have to say again that the Gospel needs to be preached everywhere, at all times, in all places.
At night I went back to the house where I am staying. While I was brushing my teeth, the house ran out of water. Luckily I had a bottle of water that I could use to gargle and rinse. And, at the risk of giving too much information, brushing teeth is not the only thing that one does at night. When you have to go, you have to go — water or not!
Day Six: April 1
Today I awoke to horrible news. Still no water. Now there are eight more people in this house than when I arrived on Saturday. That brings the count to about 20, as best as I can tell. The pump where water comes to this town is broken and there is no money to fix it. Luckily some people in this village have cisterns, and I will go to someone else’s home to get a shower. To me, camping or roughing it is a four-letter word.
Today is Holy Thursday. We will celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight at 6. One thing for sure, when it comes time for the washing of the feet, I won’t be washing feet that were already washed and perfumed before coming to Mass. Almost everyone wears sandals, and, since there are no paved roads, feet can get quite dirty. I am really looking forward to the Mass.
After the Mass, the people have a tradition of putting on a celebration called “La Judea.” Two big stages are already set up in front of the church for this purpose. I am eager to see just what it is. The people have kept alive all sorts of traditions. I have heard that on Good Friday, a bunch of guys dress up like the devil and run around the village and kidnap every child and take them to a hiding place. They paint them, and later in the day they return them to their families and give them candy. I’m not sure what it symbolizes, but I am eager to see how the people keep these days holy by their tradition.
Continuation of Day Six: April 1
Today I heard the confessions of about 50 children. The sins of children the world over are always the same. “I disobeyed my mom and dad. I fought with my brothers and sisters.”
As I listened to child after child, I kept thinking of how unfair life is. This group of 50 contained some bright and talented children. You could just tell. If they were growing up in a Chicago suburb, they would have many of the advantages and privileges the world can offer. They would become professionals. They would get master’s degrees. They would travel and go on vacations and perhaps serve the common good in some way.
Instead, they will have no advantages or privileges. They probably won’t be able to study past high school, and their schools have no computers. It made me sad that they will be poor all their life long. I know that that’s not the worst thing in life. It made me sad nonetheless.
You look at the hands and feet of the people here and you know they have worked hard. Until about 10 years ago, most of the homes had tin or even cardboard roofs. There was no running water. People walked to the creek and carried water back. The poor have a tough life.
The food here, however, has been delicious. It’s so fresh. In the morning the people go to the little meat markets and buy beef or pork from a cow or pig that was slaughtered last night. Every day we have super-fresh fruit and juices. And every meal — three meals a day — we are served refried beans. I love them. But they are not the best food to eat three times a day when there is no water in the house.
It appears that 90 percent of the people over the age of 40 have really bad teeth. They all have those silver teeth, and most of the old people only have three or four teeth. There are no dentists here. As I am listening to old people go to confession, I am wondering how they can chew food with only three or four teeth not in strategic places.
Mass on Holy Thursday evening, April 1
Tonight’s Mass was beautiful. The church was packed with people. Several things moved me. Beautiful flowers were all over the church. Easter lilies and another flower that looks like the Easter lily, called Alcatraz, grow everywhere. People bring the flowers, and the common vase is a No. 10 can of La Costeña jalapeno peppers. At one point, I was just staring at the cans with the labels on them filled with beautiful flowers.
When it came time for the washing of the feet, I was moved to tears. The tradition in this village is to wash the feet of 12 children. The sacristan brought me a 5-gallon bucket of water — one of those buckets that paint comes in — a pitcher and a basin and one towel. I am so used to nicer items bought from IKEA or places like that. The bucket filled with water looked like something Jesus would have used. And then the sacristan took a bar of Dial soap out of the wrapper and gave it to me. I don’t know why, but this, too, made me cry.
In all my years of going to Mass on Holy Thursday the washing of the feet has meant pouring water over clean feet. But today I thought, This is so real, as I used the bar of soap to wash the children’s feet. They laughed and giggled as I washed and dried their feet. Thank God no one told them to behave. Instead of 12 perfectly washed and folded towels, I was given only one towel to dry all the feet. All during the Mass, I felt so privileged and so blessed to be here.
Day Seven: April 2
At 10 a.m. about 150 people gathered for the Stations of the Cross. People set up outdoor altars, and the crowd stops at each altar for one of the stations. There is a reflection and a prayer. As people walk from station to station, they sing and carry a big cross. Everyone wanted to carry the cross part of the way. More people wanted to set up an outdoor altar than there are stations, so we had 17 stations instead of 14. What the heck.
Tonight there will be a traditional prayer service called “El Pésame a la Virgen.” Everyone will come to church and pray the rosary like at a wake. Then people, one by one, will go up to the statue of Mary, who is dressed in black with a handkerchief in her hands and is crying over the death of her Son, and offer her their condolences. I will cry as I listen to people talk to Mary as if she were standing right there. So many people here have lost children. They will talk with her as one grieving parent talks to another.
Holy Week in Mexico is a time of vacation and celebration. If you were here today you would not necessarily know it is Good Friday. Kids play on the streets. Street vendors sell everything from secondhand clothing to churros to fish to snow cones. Music is blaring. Today, a day of fast, I eat more than I have eaten all during Lent. Now that people know me, I am constantly invited into their homes to have something to eat. I had delicious chile rellenos, shrimp empanadas, nopales to die for. I am so privileged and blessed to be here.
Continuation of Good Friday, April 2
At 8 p.m., about 200 people gathered outside the church and then processed in silence around the village with a statue of Jesus lying dead in a glass coffin/box. It was very moving. Once inside, they placed the coffin in the center of the church just like you would do for a wake.
From 8:30 until midnight, they sang songs and prayed the rosary. Even if you do not understand a single word, you would know the songs are sad. The people told me that the songs are very old. They learned them from their grandparents who learned them from their grandparents who learned them from their grandparents. All during the night people went up to the statue of Mary and paid their condolences.
Day Eight: April 3
Today is a Holy Saturday that I will never forget. After getting up I went to the home of Rafaela, and I learned how to kill chickens, and I actually killed one! Can you imagine? Rafaela sells chickens for a living. After killing the chickens, we took off all the feathers (this is a lot of work), and washed the plucked chickens thoroughly, marinated them and got them ready to eat.
Then Rafaela’s dad brought me a beautiful horse. He and I rode for about 45 minutes to a ranch where we will roast the chickens and eat them. It was an absolutely beautiful ride. Rafaela’s dad is 83, and he rode a burro. We ate fruit picked from the trees we rode by. Everyone else, about 15 other people, came in a van. Then we started the fire and roasted the chickens.
The lunch was beautiful. We sat on the ground and talked and ate delicious chicken. It was amazing for me to think that just two hours before that chicken was alive. The weather was perfect. After lunch, as we rode back to the village, I learned about horses and mares and burros and donkeys and mules. I learned about pigs and cows and bulls. What an interesting morning.
When we got back to the village, two men asked if they could see me for a moment. Wanting to express their gratitude for the week that I spent in their city, they gave me 1,000 pesos, which is about $80. That’s a lot of money for this village. Knowing Mexican culture as I do, it would be a complete insult to not accept it.
Easter Vigil in Tequepexpan
During the Easter Vigil the church was packed. The people spilled out 20 deep into the atrium. I am sure that there were 500 people there. In a town of 1,000, that’s a lot of people. And the people sang and prayed in full force. A lot of life and spirit was present in the church.
Since Mexicans don’t tend to make a distinction between liturgy and life, all sorts of things go on during the liturgy that would drive a liturgist nuts — like the sacristan moving buckets of water to be blessed while someone is doing the first reading, or the sacristan leaving the altar every so often to get something he forgot or to tell something to a person in the congregation.
Like in the old days, during the Gloria, all the purple was removed from the statues. A big drape hanging from the ceiling to the floor covered the altar area. As the Gloria was being sung, men and boys moved ladders to remove purple coverings. All I could think of was the risk-management world of the United States. I was simply amused. I didn’t know who would be more upset — the liturgists or the risk management folks. I am so grateful that I have been a priest long enough to not be bothered by stuff. Some things are annoying, but what the heck. It all boils down to this: Do we love each other?
After the renewal of baptismal promises, I went down the aisle sprinkling the people with holy water. As I was getting ready to come back up the aisle, the sacristan led me into the side chapel. I was so moved by what was there — buckets of water to be blessed, pictures and images to be blessed, buckets of beans and corn to be blessed, buckets of fruit to be blessed. It was just a beautiful sight.
After the Easter Vigil, we ate delicious tamales. The people don’t have fresh tortillas every day. They have fresh tortillas every meal. Can you imagine? In the early morning, you can see all the señoras going to the store that sells the cornmeal. Most of them make tortillas by hand three times a day!
Day Nine: April 4 — Easter Sunday
In many ways, Easter Sunday is just another day for the poor. There are no holidays or breaks. I heard the bus start up at 3 a.m. outside of my room like every other day, taking about 40 workers to the sugarcane. All the little stores are open on Easter. I think that this is how it is for the poor.
Easter Sunday Mass was at 10 a.m., and we had two baptisms. The church was full, but nothing like at the Easter Vigil. The baptismal font was a 5-gallon paint can, now full of holy water. And the oils were sitting on a tiny stool, otherwise used for a kid to sit on.
After the Mass, I walked back to the house where I was staying and packed up. Chabela, the mom of the house, is magnificent. You would love her the second you met her, as I did. A bunch of people in the house wanted to say good-bye, and they all gave me gifts. The poor are so generous. No wonder Jesus hung around them and called them blessed.
Chabela had arranged for one of her sons to take me to the highway, where I could catch the next bus to Guadalajara. Anyone wanting to go to anywhere simply stands on the highway, near a toll booth of sorts, waiting for a bus to go by. So Chabela, her son, and Rafa and I got into the car and went to the highway. Three buses on their way to Guadalajara went by without stopping. We quickly learned that the buses were completely packed, since it was the last day of spring break. A toll booth worker told us we might not be able to get a bus for the entire day.
So Chabela and Rafa flagged down every car, yelling out, “Does anyone have room for a priest who has to go to Guadalajara?” The 10th car stopped, and I threw my luggage into the back of a car of someone I had never met. I said good-bye to Chabela and Rafa and got in the car with total strangers. But this is Mexico. It was a man, his wife and two daughters. And they took me to Guadalajara (in record time, I might add). They were a very nice family. They dropped me off at a taxi place in Guadalajara, and I took a taxi to the hotel.
Then I took the longest hot shower of my life.
Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage: The Campaign to Improve Educational Opportunities for Latino Children, headquartered at Notre Dame. He is priest in residence at Dillon Hall.