A Mass Baptism
June 1 was Ascension Day, a legal holiday in Burkina Faso. I was informed that there would be a big Mass at the Catholic Church, at which a lot of young people would be baptized. I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate for me to go, but my friend who co-leads the sex education meetings for girls invited me to come. I asked what time and she said 9:00. Remembering all the times I have waited for a hour for a meeting to start I wondered if 9:00 meant 9:00, but like a good American I got there at 8:55. Much to my surprise, it sounded as if things were already in progress. When I parked my bike and headed toward the church one of the ushers (designated by a green sash with a red cross on it) came over to me and directed me to the door to the front of the church. There I was again, in one of the seats for special folks, right up by the altar. There was not room next to my friend, who was a few rows back, so the usher directed me to the bench right behind the nuns. The mass really had not yet started, but the folks were all saying the rosary.
When I looked out over the congregation I was stunned to see how many young people were there to be baptized. You could tell who was in the group by the fact that almost all were wearing clothes made from the same material. The styles were very different. Some of the boys wore just shirts of the pagna, but others had matching pants, long or short, and others had tunics and pants, which that remind me of men’s pajamas. The girls had a wide variety of styles. Some resembled ball gowns, with lots of satin or other material in addition to the pagna material. Some looked like a typical American little girl’s dress, but many were in a traditional African style, with a fitted bodice and pagna, wrap around skirt.
The boys were all seated in the front rows of one section, and the girls in the front rows of another, and across the chancel from where I was sitting the other side was filled with teens and young adults. I tried to count the boys, to get an idea of how many were in the group. They were in the first seven rows of benches, with about 25 boys on each bench. Comparing that to the space taken up by the girls and young adults I guessed between 300 and 500 people to be baptized. Later I was told several “official” numbers that ranged from 425 to 475. In any case, a LOT of people.
The way they managed this was, when it was time to baptize people, three priests and a couple of helpers created three baptizing stations. Each person to be baptized had a piece of paper to hand to the priest, giving their name, much like the cards the students hand to the Dean at graduation at John Carroll. They also carried white candles, unlit. One of the helpers handed the priest a small gourd filled with water. Another positioned the person over a big bowl and the priest tipped water onto the person’s head three times (in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I presume, but did not hear). While people filed by to be baptized the choir sang a series of songs. Even though they sang in the African style that I find hard to listen to for long, I was right next to the choir and could appreciate the harmony and watch the choir director, which was interesting. By the way, the Mass was all in Moore, as were the songs. I couldn’t understand a thing that was said.
After everyone had been baptized, they all filed around again for the priests to make a cross on their foreheads with holy oil. That went a bit faster, but I kept thinking about how tired the poor priests must be getting. I wonder if they needed someone to message their thumbs and wrists after the service! With everyone back in place, the priests and their helpers passed the flame from the big Christ candle to the newly baptized folks until all the candles were lit. There was a short prayer, and everybody blew out the flames. I wondered what an American fire marshal would have thought of so many young folks waving around lighted candles at such close quarters. They newly baptized folks then each held up a crucifix on a cord of some kind. The priest said a blessing (and I noticed that the man sitting next to me had help up his rosary, too). They, in unison, they all put the symbol of their new status around their necks, reminding me of the Masters degree students putting on their hoods at graduation.
Then it was time for the Eucharist, and the newly baptized folks had their first communion, followed by the rest of the congregation. Not exactly like a first communion in The States! After the Mass I visited the homes of a couple of people I knew who had relatives who had been baptized. At each home, food and drinks were served, and music was playing. At one home I visited the neighbor was having a similar party and there was loud music playing at each. Once in the court yard I didn’t notice the competing music, however. I think a lot of folks had several calls to make.
I wondered whether the reason there were so many children being baptized was because the church is relatively new in the town so they had not been baptized as infants. Close, but not quite the right idea. I was told the reason was that infants are only baptized if their parents have been married in the Church. Otherwise, they have to wait until they are old enough to understand things and go through two or three years of preparation before their baptism and first communion. I think those baptized at birth have a different time for their first communion. In any case, it was a stunning number of new members for this church! I understand that these same folks will not have two or three more years of classes before they are confirmed by the Bishop of the region.
A note about the weather
It has continued to be hot, but now it is a bit muggy. Everyone is waiting for the rains to begin. We have had several days when it looked like there might be a storm, and even some strong winds with the smell of rain, but the ground is still bone dry. A neighbor, who is a cultivator, told me that, if it does not rain enough for folks to plant the seeds of some plants, like millet, before June 15, there will not be enough time for the grain to fully develop before the rains end in the fall. The result would be stalks without good grain to provide food for the coming year. This could be a serious problem.