Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reflections on Mexico, Part 1

I have arrived back in the States after a wonderful trip to Mexico. After we finished our meetings, we had the long ride back to Mexico city from Guanajuato (about a five hour trip), and took the opportunity while in the city to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This was very moving, more than I had expected it to be for me.

If I have a chance, I will return to that experience. More importantly, I and the other Americans all found the faith of the people in the small towns to be perhaps even more moving and edifying. The signal moment came when we visited the parish church at Atotonilco, a major pilgrimage center for the penitentes (flagellants). The church, while not in the best repair, is stunningly intricate, painted on almost every surface with scenes from the life of Christ, especially his Passion, as well as with hundreds of poems by the founding priest. As we were leaving the church, a procession from a nearby town came marching in, with the brass band playing, fireworks exploding, and children in costume dancing. They were, we were told, coming to ask Christ's permission to hold a fiesta in their town. They marched right up to the church, said some prayers together, and then marched back. It was a moving scene.

The sense of God's pervasive presence in this culture is unlike anything I had ever experienced. Abbot Anselm and I both felt as if we were visiting a 'Catholic culture' for the first time (he grew up in northern England and has travelled very widely). In every church we enetered, one could find persons young and old praying, especially to 'Our Lord of the Pillar', the scourged Christ dressed in purple and crowned with thorns. Frequently, someone would approach the statue of Christ and touch the edge of his robe (the statues tended to feature both robes and hair!). Certainly I felt that the faith that I witnessed made mine seem weak in comparison.

It seemed clear that we American Catholics have a lot to learn from this culture. Yet, already in the conversations that I have had (not in our community thankfully) since returning, I have sensed a kind of condescension toward these simple practices. It is difficult to mention flagellation, obviously, but we shouldn't be too quick to judge this cultural expression. At Atotonilco, 3000-4000 people come 33 times a year to do penance, and this at only one shrine in a sparsely populated area. I'm not sure that our guest house has accomodated 4000 persons coming for retreat in our 17 years in Chicago combined--and this in an archdiocese of 2 million Catholics!

Sadly, this condescension seems to come mainly from those who would want to minister to the poor by making them more like 'us', a little more sophisticated perhaps. While we have a duty to relieve the sufferings of the poor where we can, and while the American bishops (and indeed Rome) have made it clear that they would like more solidarity between American and Mexican Catholics, I hope that we can accomplish these things so as to enrich our American Catholic experience without losing the strong faith of Mexicans. I don't believe that pooh-poohing local devotions is the way to go, especially if we intend to replace them with our own typically deracinated and uneasy spirituality. This is also not to say that Americans should simply adopt Mexican cultural expressions; what is really needed is an American cultural expression of Catholicism. I hope to reflect on this a bit more in the coming days.

Peace to all who visit here!


Anonymous said...

"This is also not to say that Americans should simply adopt Mexican cultural expressions; what is really needed is an American cultural expression of Catholicism."

Wow - good luck. That is what I would call a spiritual "Deep Tunnel Project".

The Archer of the Forest said...

The Anglican Church isn't much better. We Americans talk a good talk on social justice, but when it comes to actually treated folks from other parts of the world as equals, we are about as hypocritical as can be.

Comes from the fallout of the British Empire I suppose...

Scott said...

Looking forward to your comments about the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. At one point I did a Web study to find the church that had the most Masses each week in its schedule. That Basilica won, with 100+ per week!


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