Columban priest John Boles enjoys a feast with a difference, in his Chilean parish.
“Fancy a ride in a supermarket trolley, Father?”
It isn’t the sort of invitation a parish priest might expect to get at the best of times, let alone on the eve of a major feast day.
However, this is the Columban parish of Santo Tomás de la Pintana, in the Chilean capital of Santiago. La Pintana is one of the city’s most underprivileged areas and also one of its most exhilarating. Here, the people make up with ingenuity what they lack in material goods. Nothing can surprise you in La Pintana.
The feast in question is known as “Cuasimodo.” In an Englishspeaking context, the first thing that this word brings to mind is probably the deformed hero of the same name in the classic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, in much of the Spanishspeaking world, Cuasimodo (or, “Quasimodo”), is the title given to the Second Sunday of Easter. In fact, the term comes from the Latin, “quasi modo,” meaning, “in the manner of,” which were the first two words of the liturgy of that day.
In colonial times, it was traditionally the day when the priest took communion to the sick members of the parish. It was regarded as a great event. In an age before Eucharistic ministers, it was often the only day of the year when the housebound could receive the Eucharist. For this reason, it was celebrated with great fanfare. The priest would ride out on his horse, leading a procession of the faithful, with music sounding and banners flying.
The Spanish have been gone from Chile for 200 years, and lay ministers now take communion to those who can’t get to church. However, the custom of Cuasimodo endures. To this day, after morning Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter, the priest is invited to visit the sick in procession. In well-to-do parishes, Father is still mounted on horseback and accompanied by an equestrian parade, the participants invariably dressing up in traditional costume. In middle-class areas, the priest is now more generally taken in a car. In La Pintana, he is wheeled around on a supermarket trolley.
As it turned out, on this particular occasion (which was my first experience of Cuasimodo) I gained a reprieve. Maybe the previous incumbents had been slimmer than me, because various attempts to place me in a chair atop the trolley resulted in some very precarious arrangements. Finally, I was given an upgrade. A friendly street-seller agreed to lend us his handcart, into which both chair and passenger fit very nicely, and off we went.
The spectacle is noisy and colorful. We were all decked out in papal yellow and white and led by the parish musicians and choir. Between songs, much use was made of horns, rattles, bells and anything else that would make a din. For good measure, we were launched on our way by a volley of firecrackers. In this fashion, we passed around the homes of some fifteen ill or elderly parishioners. Onlookers lined the route, and there was a carnival atmosphere to the whole event.
However, I soon realized that, behind all the pomp and circumstance, there is a serious side to the Feast. Given that a dedicated team of Eucharistic ministers take communion to the sick of our parish on a regular basis, this is a rare opportunity for me to visit some of these homes. Many of the situations I witness are both sad and uplifting, with serious illnesses borne with courage and the longterm sick tended to devotedly by family members.
Also, Chileans value a house blessing conducted by a priest. As I always finish the sick visit with a blessing of the home, I feel I am giving something to them in return for the inspiration that they are giving me. Cuasimodo is a wonderful opportunity for the poor of a Chilean parish to demonstrate their faith, creativity and cultural roots. If this entails the parish priest ending up in a somewhat less than dignified conveyance, then it is a price I am more than willing to pay.