Life is a gift.
That’s the message Father Rene Canales of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Blackwood wants to get across to the young women he helps prepare for their quinceañera, or 15th birthday, celebrations.
“Every year that passes is a gift,” Father Canales said, “but it’s especially at quinceañeras to say, ‘listen, legally you’re not old enough, but now the church accepts you, recognizes you, that you are here to be blessed, you are here to receive God’s blessing and God’s goodness and remember God walks with you.”
Quinceañeras, in Latino tradition, often begin with a Mass, filled with messages of coming of age — both in their lives and in the Catholic faith. Father Canales presides over those Masses, but his involvement doesn’t begin there. He also meets with the young women for several preparation classes before the quinceañera — where he speaks to them about the church, the sacraments and the importance of faith in their lives.
The number of those classes, he said, depends on whether the young woman has experience in the church. Those that do are usually more open and already understand much of the material he shares with them.
At the preparation classes, Father Canales also tries to discuss topics that affect the girls’ everyday lives — their struggles in school, at home, with friends and even at church.
“I try to make a connection to everything, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Otherwise they see that it’s something they don’t like to do and they don’t see a connection to their personal life, to their mundane life, their normal life, [and] they don’t make a connection to church. They think church is something that you go to, and they don’t realize that church is something that affects everything that you do.”
As the date of the quinceañera comes closer, he brings in the young men in the girl’s court – some of whom are fallen away Catholics – for a talk, which he calls “an opportunity to evangelize.”
Each quinceañera is filled with symbolism — the girl receives a ring on her finger which signifies her responsibility to her community and God. She also is given a medal, either of a crucifix or an image of Mary, usually Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Father Canales adds a unique ritual to the celebrations he presides over. The young woman typically processes into the church only wearing sandals, with her father carrying her dress shoes.
“I invite the father first to come up and place the shoes,” he said. “And I use the biblical image from Moses when he’s at the burning bush, when he goes up to see God and he says, ‘remove your sandals because you’re stepping on this holy ground.’ And I explain that her father is the one who gave her maturity, her father is the one who gave her security.”
Her mother then places a crown on her head.
“The crown in biblical language symbolizes wisdom,” Father Canales said. “Wisdom is often personified as a queen, as a princess with a crown. If you’re a queen, if you’re a princess, [that] means you’re wise, that’s why you have a crown, because crown means wisdom…. So I explain that all the wisdom that she knows as a young lady, that she knows as a woman, it is because of her mother.”
Father Canales, who has been a priest for 11 years, has served at Our Lady of Hope for about a year and a half and has helped to prepare young women for their quinceañeras for about 20 years — even before he entered seminary — said he often sees the young women maturing after their special days.
“The way that they talk, the way they act, they’re not the same,” he said. “You can see a change. Even though it’s not a sacrament, it is a change that the person experienced.”
At Father Canales’ previous parish, where he stayed for six years, he had the opportunity to get to know many young women as they grew up — years before their quinceañeras.
“They became part of the youth group, they became altar servers and I prepared them for first Communion, for the sacraments … and then I had to prepare them for [their] quinceañera,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It was beyond understanding. You make an impact. They make you part of their life in that regard. They respect you.
“When you’re preaching to them, it’s not like I just met you three weeks ago,” he added. “I have seen you growing up, I have seen you develop, I have seen you in the midst of the struggles how you rise to the occasion.”
Father Canales has witnessed weddings for two women whose quinceañeras he presided over — and has baptized the children of a few more.
“This is my work as a priest,” he said. “When you are in these young people’s lives … you realize, wow, I am making a difference. And it really helps you to grow in your faith, and you become more committed in your ministry, committed to the life that you have chosen, that God has called you.”
Amanda Woods is a writer from Saint Andrew the Apostle Parish in Brooklawn, New York.