By Shakira Andrea Sison
I was baptized a Catholic in a culture where one was just born into the faith, where the title was key to being integrated into society and to getting into good schools. If one wasn’t baptized he wouldn’t have godparents who, if they were well-connected, became one’s ticket to school admissions and job applications. Back in the day a baby could not be baptized without taking on a Christian name, so my siblings and I had to get a second more mainstream name next to our eccentric first names. It was something that was more of an inconvenience than the fact that it also cramped our imagined pre-pubescent style.
Still, my father believed that we should be raised as free thinkers who would decide on our own spiritual calling later on. We conformed enough to be able to write “Catholic” in the box for “Religion” on most forms, but were sent to a non-sectarian grammar school and weren’t educated in Catholic teachings as most of our peers did.
Before starting high school my mother had a change of heart when she turned to Christ for strength and became convinced that we also needed to be educated in the Catholic way of life. My brother and I were swiftly enrolled in Catechism classes and at ages twelve and thirteen, we were made to attend our First Confession and First Communion with our school’s first graders. We marched with them to the church altar in our regular casual clothes. I stood out in the sea of white dresses and suits as a twice-older girl wearing a bright floral shirt, a fuchsia denim skirt and pink Roman-style espadrilles.
It wasn’t a painful thing to blend in with the status quo. After all, the Catholic culture was so ingrained in everyone that it was the basis for almost every holiday and celebration. Christmases were festive, Halloweens were spent visiting our departed in the cemetery, and the Holy Week was a time for families to come together and go to the beach, attend a couple of religious processions mourning the death and celebrating the resurrection of Christ, the whole nine yards. Local soap operas changed their themes to include repentance and rebirth, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Ten Commandments played on the TV 24 hours a day, and people pretended to change and live life according to the way of Christ.
I attended an all-girls Catholic school and became versed in celebrating saints’ feast days as well as subjected to repeated film screenings of fetuses being aborted. Sex education included a firm emphasis on the rhythm method as the preferred choice for family planning. Any interaction with boys was in the form of a highly-supervised mixer called a soiree where a class of boys from an all-boys Catholic school came over and we shyly asked each other’s names and played parlor games.
When I moved to the US in my twenties my mother’s farewell letter included a serious concern that I would lose my faith and harden my heart. I stopped going to Sunday Mass long before I moved away, but sometimes in a foreign land one can’t help but miss the festivities that tied people together in a way that wasn’t particularly religious but more cultural.
I miss the sound of waving wet leaves on Palm Sunday and how they would splash Holy Water on my face at the end of the Mass. I miss seeing my cousins around our grandparent’s plots in awkward annual gatherings where we compared our respective family’s dysfunctions. On Good Friday our older cousins would be part of the church procession where they had roles and dressed in frightening black robes and thorns on their heads as they marched every year in the tradition they kept after their fathers and grandfathers before them. The “real Christmas” in Easter and the more festive one in December were both celebrations of color, fancy lights, scrumptious dishes and endless parties that froze the city streets with traffic and a cool humming buzz.
I do not miss the treatment of women as accessories who don’t deserve to be taught about their own bodies and how to protect themselves from harm. I did not particularly enjoy how Catholic faith turned a blind eye to philandering husbands but castigated and discriminated against their resulting illegitimate spawn. I despised the Church’s involvement with the government and how they blocked not only reproductive health aid from other nations, but also stigmatized people for contraceptive use. Most of all, I did not appreciate how people used their faith to fall back on as a “normalizing” or legitimizing fact, i.e. I am Catholic so I am telling the truth, or I liked the movie Da Vinci Code but don’t forget I’m Catholic, okay?
I’ve always believed in the free-thinking my father really wanted for us, and my idea of faith revolves mostly around my feelings about life and goodness and truth, and not around following rules created by a historically corrupt political organization of men. I appreciate Catholicism as a cultural binding force, and most especially (as is the case for variants of faith throughout the world), for the irreplaceable life moments it inevitably provides.
A particular childhood memory resonates:
An elder aunt came to visit us one day and was disgusted to learn that my brother and I, at about age eight, were not attending Sunday Mass. It was a fact that seemed so embarrassing to her as an adult to be around something she considered blasphemy. And so one Sunday she dragged the two of us to church and had us sit down quietly in our pews, and told us that the echoes of children crying around us were noisy children locked up and starved behind bars for not behaving in their seats. When it came time to receive Communion, she was petrified that people would see two children of age not lining up to receive Jesus Christ. She huddled with us and rapidly whispered a quick lesson on the Blessed Sacrament.
“Okay. Line up in front of the priest. It’s okay to cut the line because you’re in church and no one will get mad. When it’s your turn, go up to the priest and he will say ‘Body of Christ…’ and you will say ‘Amen.’ Open your mouth and receive The Host. Make the Sign of the Cross as you walk back to your pew. Don’t chew! Don’t bite into the host because Jesus will get hurt! Kneel down on your pew and bow your head until Jesus melts. And BE QUIET!”
|Sagrada. Photo by Shakira Sison|