Like all other 3rd graders at the Columbus School, Aiden has been preparing for his First Communion. Unlike the other 3rd graders, he’s not actually Catholic, has not been baptized, and he thinks he’s half Jewish. This has presented a few challenges. In honor of Holy Week, here is the guide to becoming Catholic in Colombia. Like everything else we’ve done in Colombia, we did most of it incorrectly, and only had a vague idea of what was going on.
Step 1: Religion Class
My kids have attended 2 different pseudo-international schools, and both had religion class. And religion means Catholicism. We met with the religion teacher, Carlito, at a parent-teacher conference halfway through the year and Aiden confirmed his interest in participating in the First Communion. He said that, while he thought there were some real problems with the story of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark, he believed in God and Jesus. This wasn’t really a surprise. Aiden has always been curious, and opinionated, about religion. When his brother was born he lobbied hard for him to be named John the Baptist. We explained our status to Carlito, that we weren’t a Catholic/Jewish family as Aiden had reported, and he offered to get us in touch with a priest who could help with the process of getting Aiden baptized.
Step 2: Get Baptized
Andrew and I met with the priest on a rainy night to try to convince him we should be approved. I thought they were eager for converts and would just be happy we were there, but that didn’t seem to be the case. As a former Sunday school teacher, Andrew’s credentials are much better than mine. I thought I could get away with feigning no Spanish, but when the priest started talking about how important it was that all the family members were involved in the process, it was clear I would need to step up to make my son’s religious dreams come true. I told him I come from a Catholic family, my grandparents were devout, my mom feels a deep connection to Mary and my dad lives like Jesus. (Andrew mentioned the time my dad gave all his money to undocumented workers while taking care of his dad in Florida). I have no idea what he made of us, but he sent us on our way and said he’d be in touch.
Step 3. Get Pardoned
All the parents were required to attend a Ceremonia del Perdon. As we were getting ready to go I made a joke about our upcoming spiritual cleansing. Aiden called me out and told me this was important, and he didn’t think I was taking it very seriously. Yikes. I apologized and told him it was more that I didn’t understand what was going on. So much of religion is about ritual and community. If you don’t understand the rituals and you’re not part of the community, it can feel very alienating. And of course that’s why the priest had reservations about us and wanted to make sure we were all on board, to support our child during the process instead of make fun of it. (As they say in church here, mi culpa, mi culpa, mi gran culpa.)
We gathered with all the other parents at a religious center to listen to a priest and reflect on the upcoming First Communion. Or I think that’s what was happening. I understood: Jesus, sin, table, church. The priest mumbled into the microphone in an Argentine accent. I think he said our children might ask why we go to church so infrequently, and that we are welcome any time. There was prerecorded music and reflection and then we were all dismissed. Or maybe pardoned. Not sure.
Step 4. Get Baptized, Part 2.
After a few failed attempts we were told Aiden could be baptized the following Sunday morning and we would need a padrino, or godfather, with us. Perfect, because the uncles were coming to town that weekend!
This happened to fall on a holiday weekend and we planned my brothers’ 5-day visit around the commitment to be in town early Sunday morning. On Sunday we obsessively called the priest and Carlito to find out what time we were supposed to be there. We finally heard back that it would need to be postponed; they needed a copy of Aiden’s birth certificate and our Colombian IDs before they could do anything. Was this a Colombian stall tactic/brush off (they hate to say no) or a legitimate need to register our details with the mothership? The First Communion was less than 2 weeks away and I was getting a little nervous. At this point in the process, the first thing out of Aiden’s mouth every morning was “Am I getting baptized today?!”
Step 5: Confess
A week before the First Communion all the kids were required to go to church for their first confession. Sam decided at the last minute he wanted to come too, and even agreed to wear a button shirt, the first miracle associated with the whole endeavor. Both kids have an unusual fear of buttons and generally refuse to wear anything with snaps, buttons, or zippers. I wish I had filmed the process of them trying to get dressed for church. Aiden was like an unfrozen caveman lawyer; he yanked at the collar of his shirt until the top button flew off. He pulled his pants up and yelled, “they don’t fit!” not realizing they didn’t have an elastic waistband like all his other clothes and needed to be unsnapped and unzipped first. He has no buttoning skills. I have failed as a parent, but the zipper-button-snap lesson would have to take place another day.
We were the last family to make it to the church; there were 50 kids ahead of us waiting for their turn to confess. Sam fixated on the scene at the front of the church: Jesus on the cross, who he referred to as “the dead guy.” And the questions began: ”Where does God live? Is he dead? Is Jesus dead? Why did they kill him? Do I have sins? God and Jesus both live in my heart? Do they each live on one side?”
I referred him to Andrew.
At one point Sam started to get a bit loud and I told him he had to keep his voice down.
Me: Because if you don’t, they’ll tell you to be quiet.
Me: The Priest.
Sam: And the dead guy?
Finally, after 2 hours, Aiden got his chance to confess. Just moments beforehand, I realized he was probably the only kid in the church who hadn’t been baptized. Can you confess if you haven’t been baptized? What if they didn’t let him do it and all this was for nothing? What are the rules here? As usual, I had no idea what was going on. The priest we had met with, who we still hadn’t heard back from regarding the baptism, was one of 3 priests taking confession. I made the mistake of voicing my concerns and said I hoped Aiden didn’t end up with the guy in the white robe because he might not let him confess. Sam took it upon himself to warn Aiden, at the top of his lungs. He continued to try to intervene until the last moment when Aiden was sent to the guy in the purple robe, who I’m guessing had no idea about the process we were going through or the half pagan-half United Church of Canada unbaptized gringo child before him.
Aiden confessed and seemed to enjoy himself. He said he wasn’t going to tell us what he said, which was fine with me. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with his brother.
Step 6: Get Baptized, Part 3; Find Godparents
We received another call about the baptism. It could be held the next day, less than 24 hours before the first communion, but we needed to provide copies of the godparents’ IDs. The uncles were gone and we had no godparents. The search was on… At this point Aiden had been practicing for months at school. They had had 3 dress rehearsals, which involved several hours on the bus to and from the University theater. I think they had given up on school at that point. Songs were memorized and parties planned. I started asking around and found a Lutheran friend with a Catholic husband. They agreed to be Aiden’s godparents. Mission accomplished! We found our padrinos and were all set to be at the church the next day.
Step 7: Get Baptized, Finally.
Aiden got home from school 10 minutes before we were supposed to be at the church. We left Sam behind this time and rushed off, only to find the padrinos waiting at an empty church. I started freaking out about this never happening and all Aiden’s hard work going to waste. His madrina informed me that she was authorized to conduct emergency baptisms, actually all Catholics and Lutherans are, so if all else failed she would take care of it. I wish I had known this before.
The priest finally showed up and the ceremony got under way. He read, asked questions, and paused when we were supposed to say something in return. We mumbled and mispronounced, and sometimes stared blankly. I can only imagine what he made of us, but I felt like a deer in the headlights. He started pointing to the parts in the book where we were supposed to answer or repeat. A script would have been very helpful. He poured water over Aiden’s head, put oil on his forehead and hands and completed the ceremony. He told Aiden he was probably the most prepared of all the children for the First Communion, and joked that he would arrive ‘clean, clean, clean’ (with less than 10 waking hours left to sin before the ceremony.) The priest congratulated us, took pictures, and then we headed to the bar next door for a celebratory drink.
Step 8: First Communion
The next morning we took a taxi to the University of Medellin for the First Communion. Families who had contracted with the professional photographer had to be at the theater at 8:00. We opted out of the wedding-style photos and got there at 9:30.
Aiden lined up with the other kids and we went to our seats. Sam’s shirt had only 2 buttons. As this event was in a theater, not a church, there were fewer questions.
The ceremony was the most well-organized event I have been to in Colombia. It started on time and went off without a hitch. All the kids were involved; some sang, and everyone had to say a line or two. The girls looked like brides. The boys were (thankfully) casual in turtlenecks and blue cords. Two by two, they received the First Communion.
At the end of the ceremony everyone gathered outside and the kids ran around distributing cards, mementos, or chocolate bars commemorating the event. This was one of many things I had no idea about.
I also had no idea that Aiden might be expecting gifts or a party. We had nothing (except for the card and cash provided by his amazing, last minute, super Madrina). Aiden informed us that the party was actually a very important part of the First Communion.
Step 9: Have a Party
I had signed Aiden up for the class party at the school the next day, which seemed very pricy to me at $140 per family. I had no idea that most of the kids would also be having their own First Communion parties that cost as much as a wedding, and they’d be receiving gold and envelopes full of cash. As we were leaving, Aiden expressed his disappointment about the lack of gifts from us. I tried to appeal to his Catholic side and asked what Jesus would do. Andrew said I was being mean. (In my defense, we had spent the previous weekend in Florida to renew our visas and had taken the kids to a toy store, a book store and to Whole Foods to buy their favorite things. That seemed like enough gifts for a while. And the over-the-top parties in Medellin drive me crazy, especially considering the poverty here and the city’s status as one of the most unequal in Latin America. It would be nice to see more charity and fewer thousand-dollar extravaganzas for little kids. Ok, rant over.)
We told Aiden we would spend the afternoon celebrating as a family and he could choose anywhere he wanted to go for lunch. Woohoo! We hopped in a cab and Aiden directed the driver to Dominos Pizza. We celebrated with a large cheese pizza and a liter of Colombiana. Then we went to several bakeries to find the best cake– chocolate with chocolate frosting- and bought M&Ms to decorate it with. While I’m sure this atypical First Communion party was another reminder of how different he is from his friends here, Aiden is now officially the most assimilated of us all. I have been completely befuddled by the whole experience, but I am really proud of him. He worked hard, he was committed to the process and took it very seriously. He can sing songs in Latin and Spanish. My grandparents would have been very happy. And if you’re going to become Catholic now, you get to have this Pope.