Catholicism and nationalism have always seemed to go hand in hand in Panama- at least that was my impression that school year of 1951-52 as a Westindian kid in my first year at secondary education at the National Institute of Panama. The religion teacher would later need assistance in herding the hordes of us uninitiated students to the historic Golden Altar Church located in the Santa Ana district to prepare for our First Communion ceremony.
It was during our first couple of weeks of class and there we were taking a stroll that called the attention of the residents of a part of the city that had more Catholic Churches than even the Vatican in Rome, I thought, as I walked with the long line of First Communion aspirants. It was, after all, my first conscious official incursion into the rites of the Catholic Church, although I remembered my mother telling me that I had been baptized in Santa Ana Catholic Church.
Upon arriving at the church the crowd was so packed that a lot of us did not get to see any of the priests while we waited around for what seemed like an eternity. When the much awaited announcement that we could disperse and go home came, most of us lingered around the church admiring the “Golden Altar” in Casco Viejo for the first time like foreign tourists. Indeed, most people I knew, both Westindian and Spanish, had never even seen the church. It was inferred from our religion teacher that our education would not be complete at the National Institute if we did not fulfill the process of receiving our First Holy Communion. This is how education, religion and nationalism seem to be welded into one in Panama.
The process for the religious rite, however, would not be complete until we were instructed by the religion professor. “All you young men must wear a white shirt and navy blue trousers with the same color tie for your First Communion Ceremony,” she said. She also added a first for National Institute history. “You will need that same attire next year as your uniform,” she added, giving us all plenty to talk about after class. “Also remember to prepare a candle; any kind of candle will do. I will announce to you which classes are scheduled for religious instruction in the coming weeks.” And with that we were sent home.
At home I dutifully announced to my grandmother that I would be taking my First Communion as a Catholic and needed help in getting the prescribed attire ready for it. She seemed surprised as she exclaimed, “You really want to become a Catholic son?” Her reaction surprised me since we had always played a teasing game of her calling me a “Pañaman,” the way Westindians referred to native Panamanians, and I in turn called her a “British Object.” Although we had never really discussed religion before, not in depth anyway, she reacted with a simple sign of resignation and a sigh upon receiving my answer in the affirmative. “Well, I guess one religion is as good as the other,” was all that my grandmother said.
Our First Holy Communion ceremony transpired uneventfully enough much the same as did the other mass public ceremonies the Catholic Church sponsored. This, however, was my initiation into the church and as for my grandmother and me we reveled in the secret joy we derived from dressing up for the ceremony, although she and I both knew she had never set foot in a Catholic Church.
The next time my Mamí and I would team up to get me dressed up in elegant attire for a public function would be for the annual 3rd of November Independence Day celebration, Panama’s great exhibition day for patriotic fervor.
This story continues.