It was September 21 and my last day in Oaxaca: indeed, the last day of my 2-week trip to Mexico.
I woke up early and went wandering through the town. Not the least attraction of Oaxaca is that its climate is always equable – permanent shirt-or-light-jacket weather. The sun hadn't risen yet but the sky was light. Remembering that this was the day of the autumn equinox and that sunrise would be at 6am (or 7am summer time) throughout the world, I positioned myself in a picturesque spot by Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and waited.
It was evident that the Mexican sun was a leisurely orb, and what had started as a spontaneous good idea was turning into something sterile and laboured. So I walked up the hill to the church of S. Domingo. Without giving myself time to think I went in to early Mass.
It was pretty well attended – perhaps 40 people, far more than the proverbial "three charwomen and a cat" of English church services, and a more mixed congregation than the evening Mass, which tends to be packed with rosary-saying female stormtroopers. There was an interesting thing when the time came for the bidding prayers. After the first few prayers, odd members of the congregation started to stand up and call out something to be prayed for. Each petition would be heard with respect and after the pause there would be the usual "Lord, hear us / Lord, graciously hear us".
That sort of thing is beautiful and incredibly difficult to organise. It demands trust, for a start. We have to trust that those who stand up will not use their moment of fame to make political or controversial points, because that is a despicable invasion of our moment of vulnerability and openness to God. We have to trust that those who stand up will be competent and have some idea of what works as a bidding prayer and what doesn't – which all adds up to the fact that you need a congregation that has experience of working together, not merely a collection of random arrivals. And of course we have to trust the priest as well, to trust us to do it and to know when to bring the bidding prayers to an end – neither too soon nor too late.
He did just that, while I was still dealing with my stage fright and deciding whether pilgrims in Spanish were "pelegrinos" or "peregrinos" (no-one would have minded either way, but it was a good excuse for delaying).
On the way out, the Stations of the Cross had started, so I stayed, not really wanting to but not able to persuade myself not to. They were taking it in turns to do each station, using a book that they all had (Guía del Peregrino, so it's just as well I didn't say "pelegrino"), and after one or two stations I was really gripped, because of the thing itself and because the G. del P. has rather splendid commentaries and prayers for each station. It was extra moving to see a crowd of rather poor people (I could imagine them to be porters and street-sweepers) doing all this for themselves without the instigation of the priest.
I got nearer the centre of the group and by the 11th station my neighbour offered me his book and suggested that I do the 12th. I hesitated because I didn't know how to say "12th" (décima secunda)… got over that, got ready to do the 13th, but was pipped at the post because some woman at the back started saying it. I then realised that there was no set order and it's just whoever jumps in first… I was rather upset because I felt it would have been a great honour to do it, but there we are, next time perhaps. At least having the book meant that I could say the Our Father at last instead of miming it.
Afterwards I explained to my neighbour what had happened. His name was Victor and he was very friendly (we used "tú" at once). We expressed a lot of good feeling, I explained I was leaving the city, he asked when I'd be back, and we ended with "Dios te bendiga" on both sides. Outside it was light, and he went off to his work and I back to the hotel to have breakfast with my late-sleeping friend.