March 18, 2009
Mexico’s Catholic culture a home away from home
GUADALAJARA, Mexico—Bendiciones y paz a ustedes desde Guadalajara. (Blessings and peace to all of you from Guadalajara.)
I am writing to you from Guadalajara, deep within the heart of Catholic Mexico, where I am in the fourth week of a six-week total immersion Spanish-language course. I chose the city of Guadalajara because it has a rich Catholic tradition and is a city where the Catholic faith is exceptionally alive and active.
In the short time I have been here, I have found this to be true. For example, the Archdiocese of Guadalajara has the largest seminary in the world with an enrollment of more than 1,000 seminarians, all of whom are studying for the Archdiocese of Guadalajara. On Monday of last week I celebrated holy Mass at the minor seminary in Guadalajara (seminarians of high school age) for 400 young seminarians.
My language program is a “one-on-one” learning environment and my teachers are very good and competent. They are also patient with me and my tendency to fall back into Italian, which is my default mode. My teachers are also Catholic and much of what we discuss in class is centered on our Catholic faith.
My host family lives about a block from the local Catholic parish church in the neighborhood known as Chapalita. I quickly discovered that this corner parish is the spiritual center and hub of daily life in this part of Guadalajara. In the parish there are six Masses celebrated each day and 12 Masses on Sunday. Next to the church is a beautiful eucharistic adoration chapel where people come and go all day long to spend time in quiet prayer before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
I know we are not supposed to watch other people when we come to pray, but I can’t help but notice the different kinds of people who come to the chapel to pray, so natural, so effortless and so ordinary—young teenagers, businessmen on their way to or home from work, mothers with infants in their arms and children in strollers, elderly grandmothers escorted by their young grandsons, and poor indigenous peasants whose lives are difficult but whose faith is strong.
On Ash Wednesday, in addition to the six daily Masses, ashes were distributed on the hour throughout the whole day until 10 at night. As I was kneeling in the back of the church waiting to go up to receive my ashes, the whole message of Lent—the call to prayer, penance and almsgiving—became abundantly clear to me. I got in line to go up to receive my ashes, a sign of self denial and of our own mortality, alongside the young and old, rich and poor, all sinners, all in need of conversion, all striving to be better than we are. Huge signs were posted outside the church reminding us of the days of fasting and abstinence during Lent, fully aware that in our human weakness we forget the laws of the Church and need to be reminded.
As the ashes were being distributed, priests were hearing confessions in the confessionals, people were praying in the adoration chapel and the faithful were coming and going in such a routine and unassuming way. This was a part of the fabric of their lives. At the end of the distribution of ashes, volunteers went through the congregation taking up a collection, a meager collection to be sure, but, like the widow’s mite in the Gospel, these were people of faith who realized their need to give out of their own want.
Prayer, penance and almsgiving, it was all there in a “snapshot” before my eyes. Even though I barely know the language and found myself deeply immersed in a culture that is different than my own, I felt undeniably at home, and proud to be a Catholic.
As if this were not enough, street venders were set up outside the church and all along the street selling “los tamales verdura” (vegetarian tamales) and other meatless dishes for people to take home or eat on the spot. Now that’s Catholic culture!
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