Quinceañeras get a special Catholic prayer book
By Alicia Lozano LA Times March 8, 2009
As she sat primly under a portrait of the Virgin Mary, 15-year-old Angelica Arroyo's silver tiara glistened against the gold-plated altar of La Placita Church on historic Olvera Street. When Father Richard Estrada handed her a calligraphy-adorned certificate, the church erupted in applause: Angelica had completed her quinceañera.
"To me it's a very special moment because she's my only daughter," said Arroyo's mother, Maria Soto, outside the church. "She didn't want to do it, but I told her to keep the tradition."
Quinceañeras have been a custom among Latinos since pre-Columbian days, when indigenous tribes in South America inducted young women into the community on their 15th birthdays. Over time, this rite of passage has evolved into the kind of lavish ceremony one might associate with a debutante ball.
The Roman Catholic Church has recently taken steps to institutionalize the ceremony by introducing a prayer book especially for quinceañeras. The "Order for the Blessing on the Fifteenth Birthday," available in English and Spanish, is a collection of prayers and benedictions specifically designed to "honor the Latino cultural heritage" and "encourage young women to renew their baptismal commitment," according to the book, published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Streamlining the ceremony was no easy task. Because quinceañeras are not considered sacraments, no official ritual book exists. Priests are free to tailor the ceremonies according to the family's requests or their own ideas about what is appropriate.
It took a committee of 10 bishops, priests, nuns and laypeople, representing Cuba and Spain, almost a decade to reach consensus on the prayer book, which consists of Scripture readings, blessings and prayers, said Sister Doris Turek of the Conference. Though a similar book was published in 1976, this is the first to be approved by the Vatican.
"By encouraging the text, we're trying to strengthen the religious aspect," Turek said. "As more Hispanics are arriving in the diocese, it became obvious that this ceremony was going to continue."
The committee took special care to mold the text, plucking benedictions and prayers that underscore the special role of women in the church. The process was painstaking, Turek said, but resulted in a book that speaks directly to the girls.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the text is that it allows for the ceremony to be performed outside the church by an unordained minister called a deacon. This version begins with a reading from Scriptures -- any passage can be used, but the text suggests the Book of Jeremiah, in which God asks Mary to carry his child.
It reads: "The word of the Lord came to me thus: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. 'Ah, Lord God!' I said, 'I know not how to speak; I am too young.' "
Although the Catholic Church officially adopted the text in September, it has sold only 5,000 copies, each of which must be purchased through the publisher for $6.95, nationwide. Few parishes know about it, and this bothers some priests.
At La Placita, Estrada is especially troubled that he has never heard of the book. He assumes that it's a way of "Americanizing" the ceremony, but perhaps the church is missing the point, he said.
"Many, many Anglo parishes refuse because it's too expensive," he said, referring to the lavishness that has come to typify most quinceañeras. "The key is that it's a teachable moment when you can gather kids who don't usually go to church."
For Estrada, the language and structure are secondary to the meaning of quinceañeras.
"In these times, young girls and young boys need to hear about responsibility, that they are contributing members of society," he said.
Estrada thinks the cost of the dress, limousine and after-party should not outweigh the moment when a young girl reaffirms her Catholic faith before her family, friends and God.
"Instead of scolding these people, can't we just understand that this is part of the culture and that they want to give something to their daughter?" he said.
Traditional quinceañeras are elaborate affairs celebrated in the context of a Catholic Mass. The celebrant typically chooses up to 15 friends or family members who form a kind of adolescent bridal party.However, Angelica Arroyo and her family decided not to burden others with the exorbitant cost of dresses and tuxedos and invited only one young man to be her usher, or chambelán.
As the church music swelled, Angelica and her chambelán, 15-year-old Vincent Barron, stood looking up at the altar. The Mass commenced with the usual prayers and readings, until the priest gave a sermon about the role of women in the church.
"We can learn a lot from this angel," Estrada bellowed from the altar. "The Virgin was a masterpiece from God, chosen because her humility was so tremendous and real. Her response was to put God first."
Angelica was then asked to reaffirm her vows as a Catholic and her commitment to serve the church. Sometimes the girl lights a symbolic candle -- Angelica opted for offering a bouquet of yellow roses to a dramatic portrait of the Virgin Mary.
Serenely watching from behind the altar, Angelica looked more like a bride than a 15-year-old. She was swathed in a red Cinderella dress, her dark hair tussled in a prom-style up-do. When the ceremony ended, she and Vincent led a procession out to the street, where family members and friends snapped pictures and posed for the professional photographer documenting the event.
"Get me a churro," Angelica called to her mother from the Hummer limo as she prepared to leave for the reception. Her mother, clutching a tissue, smiled warmly, prepared to give her daughter anything she wanted on this, her 15th birthday.