Evidence of the Catholic presence in Quito, Ecuador can be found everywhere. Most bus drivers keep small crosses or pictures of “Papa Francisco” at the front of their vehicle, there is a church on practically every street corner, and festivals and parades for religious holidays regularly stop traffic in the bustling historic center of the city. Ecuadorean Catholicism is vibrant, diverse, and rich in tradition.
I was able to experience a taste of this tradition on the first Sunday I spent in Ecuador, which happened to be the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Some friends and I went to a parade of indigenous dance in the center of the city in honor of the feast day. There was music, dancing, singing, beautiful costumes, flower petals thrown in the air, llamas, and an atmosphere of joy as people walked along the sidewalks to keep up with the parade. There were also parade-goers dressed up as the Three Kings, the Holy Family, and shepherds. All along the parade route, people were carrying small cradles decorated with ribbons and flowers that had tiny baby dolls in them, representing the child Jesus.
The atmosphere was very different from any parade I’ve been to in the U.S. There were no policemen or fences barring spectators from joining in the parade themselves. People jumped in, singing and dancing along with the costumed throng, and then just as quickly returned to the sidewalk after a few blocks. The boundaries between participant and onlooker were blurred, if not nonexistent altogether.
The parade brought us to one of the main arteries of the city center called La Calle de Las Siete Cruces, so-named because it is lined with seven stone crosses and corresponding churches that date back to colonial times. One of the churches on this street is La Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, the oldest Jesuit church in Ecuador, built in 1613.
I was immediately struck by the beauty of this incredible baroque structure. The outside is constructed out of Ecuadorian volcanic rock and the inside is covered in gold leaf. The vaulted ceiling is a masterpiece of Moorish-influenced patterns. Pictures I had seen online beforehand did not do it justice. During Mass, particularly as I made my way to the front of the church to receive Holy Eucharist and was able to see more in detail, I was struck over and over by the scale of the structure’s beauty. Everything about it cried out to me, “Here is Christ, and here you are, and it is right and just.”
As the parade itself made its way into the church, music still playing and people still dancing, I had never seen a church more packed. People were crammed into every possible space, overflowing out of pews, children sitting on their father’s shoulders and old ladies perched on the sides of massive columns. Everyone wanted to participate in this triumphant celebration of the baptism of the Lord, clapping and singing and crossing themselves as the people dressed as the Holy Family walked by them.
It felt like I was witnessing a glorious fusion of heaven and earth, of religious and secular, and of doctrine and custom. The practices of ordinary people were sanctified in a holy place in that moment. The world of the city was brought joyously into the divine house of God, and the harmony sounded quite sweet.
All things considered, it seems fitting to me that all of this happened in a Jesuit church. Ignatius tells us to find God in all things—from a resplendent ecclesial structure, to an indigenous woman dancing in praise of the Lord. God is fully present within the world. If everywhere is holy ground, perhaps I should always be singing and dancing joyfully, if only in my heart.