Catholics Rethink Quinceañera Craze

By Eric Gorski
Associated Press
Saturday, January 12, 2008

DENVER -- On the day she is to become a woman, Monica Reyes sits in front of the church for Mass. Her white dress -- sewn in her mother's Mexican home town -- spills over her chair like an oversized lampshade.

The priest urges her to live as a daughter of God. Her parents give her a gold ring shaped like the number 15. Near the end of the service, Monica lays a bouquet of roses before a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Then she steps through the worn, wooden doors of St. Joseph's, a Roman Catholic parish attended by generations of poor, Hispanic immigrants, and into a 20-seat white Hummer limo that rents for $150 an hour.

Before long, a stretch Lincoln Town Car arrives for the next quinceañera Mass.

An elaborate coming-of-age ritual for Hispanic girls on their 15th birthday, the quinceañera has long been divisive in the U.S. Catholic Church, where it's viewed as either an exercise in excess or a great opportunity to send a message about faith and sexual responsibility.

The latter view won an important endorsement last summer when the Vatican approved a new set of prayers for U.S. dioceses called Bendición al cumplir quince años, or Order for the Blessing on the Fifteenth Birthday.

Consider it an acknowledgment of the changing face of American Catholicism. Hispanics account for almost 40 percent of the nation's 65 million Catholics and 71 percent of new U.S. Catholics since 1960, studies show.

In the Archdiocese of Denver, Hispanic ministry leaders view the quinceañera craze as not just a chance to strengthen faith and family but as a weapon against teen pregnancy.

Before Monica could get her quinceañera Mass, she and her parents had to enroll in a four-week curriculum introduced last year at Hispanic-dominated parishes that combines Catholicism 101 with a strong pro-chastity message.

"Some girls come to the class expecting to be taught how to dance," said Alfonso Lara, the archdiocese's Hispanic Ministry coordinator.

The girls in Reyes's class gathered in a stuffy room with a map of Mexico on the wall and a crucifix on the table.

One lesson included tips for safe dating (avoid Internet dating sites in favor of group outings in public places such as the mall or family barbecues). Then there is an explanation of the difference between simple abstinence (a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases) and chastity (living like Jesus and Mary).

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