This year, the City of Oceanside couldn’t afford to host its downtown celebration of Día de los Muertos, but the festival found a new (if slightly smaller) home on the grounds of Mission San Luis Rey. Masked caballeros stomped out their dances on the pavement in front of the bone-white Mission façade, followed by a bellowing brass band and then Mesoamerican dancers adorned with feathered headdresses. The emcee asked attendees to gather at 1:15, “when we will attempt to revive one of our dead.” In the meantime, the crowds bought street food, poked around the vendors’ stalls, and searched for a patch of shade.
Part of the festival’s spiritual element — marigold-laden altars dedicated to deceased loved ones — was tucked a few dozen yards to the west, in front of the Mission’s Serra Center (where the parish’s faithful do their actual worshipping). A placard placed at the foot of one altar did some explaining: “The Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration of indigenous Mesoamerican origin which honors our ancestors on November 1 and 2 just as the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day,” which were in turn inspired “by the pagan Celtic ritual of Samhain, or The Day of the Banquet for the Dead. At present day, the Day of the Dead in Mexico represents a mixture of Christian devotion and pre-Hispanic customs and beliefs.”
For instance: a trio of sugar skulls might signify the Trinity, and the memorial candles might bear Christ’s image, but the Northgate Market brand Pan de Muerto? That’s for the spirits of the dead, drawn by the smell of marigolds so that they might enjoy once more the goods of the world. It’s also important to have a bowl of water “for the souls to calm their thirst after the long journey” to the altar.
Death got a mention inside the Serra Center as well, when the man leading the prayers of the faithful asked intercession “for the dead — we remember and pray for those who have been called home to God by our sister, Bodily Death, from whom no one can escape. May they rest forever in the peace of Christ.” The reference to death as sister came from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, portions of which were depicted in backlit stained glass along the center’s rear wall: “Praise be to You my Lord...through Sister Bodily Death; blessed are they she finds doing Your will.”
But for Catholics, the general Day of the Dead was still a day away, on November 2. November 1 was for honoring the saints, those who, as the reading from Revelation put it, “have survived the time of great distress,” who “washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” Now, in heaven, they praised God’s glory. (From the opening hymn, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”: “Respond, ye souls in endless rest/ Ye patriarchs and prophets blest/ Alleluia! Alleluia!”)
The church was set up on an axis: baptismal font, Paschal candle, and pulpit at one end, facing the altar at the other. The congregation sat (or stood) on either side. Father Philip Garcia bore the Gospels from altar to pulpit and read Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.... Blessed are they who mourn.... Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness....” Then he descended into the space between altar and pulpit and began his homily, pacing and pausing as he preached.
“Saints,” he said, “were people who continued to believe...no matter whether they were having a good day or a bad day. They continued to transform everything that they experienced into the blessing that renews the face of the earth. Brothers and sisters, we are called to the same thing. We are called to transform our hunger for righteousness so that others can have justice and peace.... We are children of God” who “through the light of Christ within our life...become comfort and mercy and meekness and justice. We become the blessed.”
At the presentation of the gifts, the cantor sang a long litany, asking for the intercession of Saint Timothy, Saint Elizabeth, Holy Mary, Saint Juan Diego, Saint Catherine Drexel, Saint Francis, Saint Lucy, and on and on.
Garcia’s final blessing included a final invocation of the blessed. “God is the glory and joy of the saints. May the merits of the saints deliver you from present danger and their example of holy living turn your thoughts to the service of God and neighbor.... God’s holy Church rejoices that her children are one with the saints in lasting peace. May you come to share with them in all the joys of your Father’s house.”
What happens when we die?
“Hopefully,” said Garcia, “we wing our way back to the Genesis from where we came.”
4070 Mission Avenue, Oceanside
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Founded locally: 1798
Senior pastor: Charles Talley
Congregation size: 5000 families
Staff size: n/a
Sunday school enrollment: n/a
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: around $20,000
Singles program: n/a
Dress: casual to formal
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon (Spanish), 5 p.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes