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An Alpaca at The Altar

An Alpaca at The Altar

by The Reverend Dr. Roman D. Roldan on May 11, 2023

TLDR: I found a Small Altar at My Sister’s House. Read Below for A Description of What I Found

Many Texan homes have a wall where a few crosses hang in close proximity to each other. Some walls have a couple of crosses, while others have dozens of crosses of different sizes, colors, materials, and designs. The Colombian equivalent to these walls is called “Altares” (Altars.) There are significant theological differences between these altars and the Texan walls: 1. The Texan walls, for the most part, fall under the category of religious art and are used for decoration purposes. The altars, on the other hand, are a focal point one faces while praying the rosary, and little effort is made to ensure the aesthetic value of the statutes one places on the altar. Some statues may be beautiful and expensive, but they are placed next to the “Dollar-Store” version of other saints. What you place on your altar is rather a personal choice that represents the believer’s piety. 2. The Texan walls are primarily Christo-centric, most often we only display crosses. The altars can have from a few to a large assortment of statues of saints whose intercessions the believer solicits through prayer. Images of the Virgin Mary often stand side-by-side statutes of twentieth-century saints and mythical figures from Scripture. There is no rhyme or reason for the selection, other than the person’s faith. 3. The walls usually display religious art, but there are often secular items given space at the altars, for no other reason than a choice made to place these items there. They mean something to the person, but a visitor will often smile and wonder about the story the extra items have to tell. 4. The crosses on our walls often have an origin story we celebrate and talk about. Some of the images at the altars have a historical context which has by now been forgotten. The images are now used because of folk stories told for generations about the images and what they represent. They have become “Patron Saints” of a variety of causes, and to those who have altars, the saint’s purpose is more important than his or her historical context.

I just returned from my sister Ligia’s funeral service in Hollywood, Florida. She had one of these altars in her kitchen, and I found myself looking at every statue and wondering about its significance to Ligia. The first statute is that of Saint Michael, the Archangel, wings wide open, sword on his right hand, victorious after his fight against the devil. There are biblical passages that talk about Michael leading the armies of God against Satan (Revelation 12:7-9, Daniel 12:1, just to mention a few.) The devotion in Latin America, however, is an inheritance of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903.) In 1870 King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured Rome in war against the papal states. This conquest ended any vestiges of political power for the newly exiled pope. In 1890, Pope Leo wrote a prayer to Saint Michael, the Archangel, to liberate the papal states and restore the Church’s power. The prayer goes like this:

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

The Pope mandated that this prayer be recited at all low masses (non-festive days) until the conflict was resolved. Many good Catholics believe the prayer was heard with the creation of Vatical city in 1929. After that, the famous prayer began to be used for protection against spiritual warfare, as expressed by Pope John Paul II in 1994, “Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.” I am almost 100% convinced that Ligia had no idea about exiled popes, the loss of papal states, restauration, the creation of modern-day Vatican City, and all the political intrigue with which Pope Leo XIII had to deal. But she believed in the forces of evil and she prayed this prayer daily for her protection and the protection of her family. Simple faith that still believed in saintly advocacy on her behalf.

Down at the feet of the archangel, we see a small statute of Saint Joseph holding baby Jesus and a short distance away a similar statue of Mary also holding the baby. These two statues present Jesus’ parents from the mid-section up, as the baby seems to be the real focus of attention. In between these two statues, you will see a statue of Mary, also holding the baby, but this one shows the full body of the Virgin, and she is the primary focal point. Next to her, there is a muted statue in yellow paster, which no one I asked could identify. A wide variety of names were given, but I could not find much information online. So, this one will remain a mystery for a bit. Right next to the small standing statute of Mary, you will see a small book of novenas and prayers. The Novena for the “Souls in Purgatory” had been underlined and well used. The section on the Rosary in this small book was also very well used. One of my nephews told me about visiting mom when she was doing her Rosary and nothing, short of blood, would cause her to stop until the very last prayer. 

Two prominent statutes to the left of the archangel are called, “Merciful Jesus” and “Saint Jude Thaddeus.” The statute of the Merciful Jesus is very popular in Latin America and its long prayer is beautiful and fills the heart with great comfort. I give you the first verse and encourage you to find the entire prayer, “Most merciful Jesus, I turn to You in my need. You are worthy of my complete trust. You are faithful in all things. When my life is filled with confusion, give me clarity and faith. When I am tempted to despair, fill my soul with hope.” The prayer ends with the following words, “May I trust You always and in all things. May I daily surrender to Your Divine Mercy.”

Saint Jude is the patron saint of those who suffer great affliction. There is a popular novena in Latin America dedicated to him and he is a common saint at most altars. A prayer to St. Jude in times of suffering states, “Most Holy Apostle, St. Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, I place myself into your hands at this difficult time.  Help me to know that I am not alone.  Please pray for me, asking God to send me comfort for my sorrows, bravery for my fears, and healing for my suffering.  Ask our loving God to strengthen my faith and give me the courage to accept His Will for my life. Thank you, St. Jude, for the hope you offer to all who believe in you.  Amen.”

I am sharing this intimate portrait of my sister’s simple faith not because I agree with the daily practice of praying to the saints for their intervention. I know we need no intermediaries and we can talk directly to Jesus. I am also not encouraging that you have a novena for the dead or begin to believe in the purgatory. This is not our tradition and we don’t believe in purgatory. Lastly, we have a very different view of the Holy Virgin Mary than Roman Catholics. I do want to draw a lesson from Ligia, if you allow me. Scripture tells us to pray at all times and in all circumstances. In her daily cycle of prayer, Ligia found great comfort and peace. And I pray that you will find the same comfort and peace in your own unique prayer style. We are as dependent on God as the Alpacas are in the mountains of Peru. Perhaps this is the reason why she has an Alpaca on her altar (a gift from one of the grandchildren.)

Pray in season and out of season to the one who loves us beyond measure. Focus your mind on Christ and you will find much comfort.

May our Lord continue to bless you,

Fr. Roman+

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