Hours before, under a clear night sky and surrounded by relatives, guests and neighborhood kids, Laura and I walked out of the tiny church, Capilla Santa Julia, newly married. We had no traditional receiving line as in the States, where the guests line up politely after the wedding ceremony to greet first his parents, then her parents, perhaps the grandparents, then hug the bride and award a handshake to the groom. The Argentine post-ceremony greeting was more spontaneous, chaotic, and emotional.
Laura and I were the first to walk out of the church, followed by a hundred guests. A cousin, a young man, said "felicidades" and gave me a kiss. Then another cousin who had not seen Laura in years. Then an aunt and an uncle, both said "felicidades" with a kiss. The crush of so many "felicidades" and kisses from all sides separated me from Laura, and I did not see her until the last person greeted me, after her neighbors, school friends, my parents, my sisters, my brother-in-law, and my aunt and uncle who traveled from the States. The eyes of my father, one of the last to greet me with a kiss, were red and brimming with tears.
The Capilla Santa Julia is a tiny church in a barrio a few miles from the center of Pergamino. It sits in a small yard with bushes and a few trees, and is surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. The largest feature of its white façade are the double wooden doors, 10 feet wide, that creaked and protested when the church secretary tried to open them for us on the Friday afternoon before the ceremony.
Wooden pews for 100 people filled the church, surrounded by statues and icons of various saints and virgins. Near the altar sat an image of the Virgin of La Merced, the patron saint of Pergamino. At the back hung another image of the Virgin, "Desatanudos," the "Knot-Unraveler," whose hands were busy with thick plaits of rope. She was the Virgin to whom you prayed when you wanted help out of a tough situation.
A building next to the chapel housed a school for kindergarten through third grade. Two kids ran out of a classroom like escaped bees and watched us at the church steps. The teacher, dressed in the same red and white checkered apron as the kids, walked out and gathered them back. "Vengan, pollitos," she cried out to them. "Come, little chickens!"
When Laura and I looked at the photos the week after the ceremony, we saw his sermon in one picture. Every eye was on Ariel and every head faced his and traced the words that came out. Afterward, people talked about the sermon, how captivating it was, how it got inside them.
"This is not the first time that I have met David and Laura," he began at our wedding. "I met Laura a few months ago, and we have kept in contact by e-mail. "I want to begin with what Saint Paul has to say about love," he continued. "Love is not egotistical. Love is not simply trying to feel good, but rather love is wanting the other to be happy. To love someone is to provide all one's goodwill, everything that one has inside, to provide for the other."
At the end of his homily, I felt a shudder of ecstasy at his final words: "May God give the both of you a long life and may you one day see your children's children seated at your table. God bless you."
As in other countries, the Catholic Church in Argentina commands a twofold following. There are those who go to pray with all the strength of their faith and those who say jokingly, cynically, that they go to church twice-once when they're born and once when they die. In Argentina, a country castigated by years of corrupt governments, rising crime, falling wages, and facing the business end of economic globalization, the devout lean upon their faith to sustain them when the economy does not.
Churches range from opulent cathedrals in the heart of Buenos Aires to tiny cube-shaped cinderblock buildings with folding chairs opening onto narrow streets where dogs run untethered. Many years ago, my mother-in-law recounts, an exceptionally tall priest in a poor parish had to take up a modest collection so that he could buy a bed for himself.
The devout, however, go to wherever their faith and community call them. As I stood on the sidewalk in my black suit on that Saturday night, I listened as Ariel finished the Mass that preceded our wedding ceremony. More than that, I watched. The crowd had spilled out of the open doors onto the stone steps and the grass. Boys ran between the bushes, and girls huddled in clusters. The crowd on the sidewalk filled with people as I recognized Laura's cousin, then a school friend, then my parents. The people from the Mass were exiting as the wedding guests were entering. I watched the chaotic effect of a rush-hour train station until I thought I saw a head covered with a veil in the back seat of a car. I rushed in.
All eyes followed the groom as I walked down the aisle before the ceremony and waited next to my parents. Ariel walked out and greeted with a kiss Laura's mother, then my parents, then me. I watch Laura stand with her father and with a glowing smile at the end of the aisle. A neighborhood girl not older than 5 ran up beside me and looked down the aisle where she saw what a bride looked like through the eyes of a groom.
At the end of the ceremony, Ariel walked to the front of the altar, where he told us in a low voice, "You are now married. I hope that we can keep in touch with those e-mails."
I nodded, stifling a lump in my throat. "Now you may kiss."