Catholics who happen past church on a Saturday afternoon may see something that resembles a wedding party: limousine, men in tuxedos, a young woman in a white dress. But wait — she's too young to be a bride. And there's no groom.
Chances are, it's a quinceañera.
Among some Spanish-speaking countries and many Hispanics in the United States, a girl who reaches 15 celebrates the passage from childhood to adolescence with a ritual that expresses thanksgiving to God for the gift of life and seeks a blessing for the years ahead.
Origins of the quinceañera are unclear. The tribes of Meso-America celebrated elaborate rites of passage for their young men and women. Rites of passage are known to have existed in Spain as well. The Spanish conquistadores may have brought the practice to Meso-America, where they melded with native rites.
It's in the United States that the quinceañera has again become a truly religious event. Sister Angela Erevia, a Missionary Catechist of Divine Providence who serves in Kansas, has led development of the Catholic rite in recent years. Before the Second Vatican Council, the quinceañera had become a family party that included a brief stop at church to pray the Te Deum. But with Sister Angela's influence, the ritual now can be enfolded in a Mass or held in church with a scripture service. There is an official U.S. bishops' conference ritual book, approved in 2007.
During the rite, the girl often is accompanied by 15 young men and women of her choice — damas and chambelanes. She enters the Church in procession, together with her parents and godparents. If she has prepared the readings, she may serve as the lector for at least one of the readings. After the Liturgy of the Word, the girl makes a commitment to God and the Blessed Virgin to live out the rest of her life according to the teachings of Christ and the Church by renewing her baptismal promises.
"It's a moment of vocation, a promise to be for others," says Pedro Rubalcava, director of Hispanic ministries for worship aid company Oregon Catholic Press.
Then, signs of faith (a medal, Bible, rosary or prayer book) which have been blessed and may be given to her. A special blessing of the quinceañera, given by the priest or deacon, concludes the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After Mass, the young woman is presented to the community. The ritual continues with a dinner and sometimes a dance in her honor.
"The Virgin Mary is a model for women of every class and age group," says a document on quinceañeras from the U.S. Catholic bishops. "In a culture where machismo is still evident, the choice by a young Hispanic woman to celebrate her fifteenth birthday in the Church offers a host of possibilities for her and the parish. If the young women are received with understanding and a willingness to meet their needs, the celebration of the quinceañera can be a 'teachable moment' for the parish."
The bishops suggest that the quinceañera be preceded by a day of retreat during which the girl and participants focus on the positive contribution of women in society and on becoming active participants in the life of the parish. The sacrament of penance could be offered.
"The celebration of quince años is a crucial time in the life of a young Hispanic woman," the bishops wrote. "While society invites youth to gang membership, drug and alcohol abuse and irresponsible sexual behavior, the Church can offer the quinceañera an opportunity to reflect on her role as a Catholic Christian woman in a society which often distorts the woman’s role."
Many Hispanic families save for years to provide the celebration. Often, friends and relatives contribute funds or services. In some parishes, there are so many quinceañeras that they are celebrated once per month en mass.
Quinceañeras are spreading. Boys go through them on occasion and the rite is being taken up by Episcopalian and Lutheran congregations.