When I arrived in Mexico nearly three months ago, I was in the middle of a 54-day Rosary novena petitioning God to unify His church. The gist of such a novena is: for the first 27 days, you say the Rosary every day, asking for whatever it is you are hoping for. You might hoping for the answer to a question that is baffling you (e.g., should I get married?) or perhaps for the healing of a loved one, or for grace to love someone against whom you have a stubborn grudge, etc. Then during the second 27 days, you leave your petitioning behind and simply offer the Rosaries in praise and thanksgiving for God’s response to your petition, whether or not it is exactly what you thought you were hoping for.
So, every day since August 10 I had been petitioning God for Church Unity. To be honest, my reasons for the petition were partially self-centered. If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m Catholic, but my boyfriend (another Ichthus alum!) is Protestant. I was concerned that during the 9+ months I’m in a predominantly Catholic country while he remains behind in Boston, I would become more stubbornly Catholic, while he, ramping up his involvement in his evangelical church post-graduation, might become more stubbornly embedded in his Protestant ways. Upon being reunited in several months, our differences could have grown beyond reconciliation.
Well, I can see now that my concerns were silly. I shall explain why. After my grant orientation in Mexico City during the last week of August, I made my way to Xalapa, Veracruz to meet up with the team of researchers with whom I am presently working. Though I did not realize the extent until sometime later, it’s worth mentioning that Xalapa is a very, very Catholic city. The city is centered around the Cathedral, where the Bishop of the local diocese holds Mass, and the surrounding environs are littered with little shops selling artículos religiosos (religious articles), consisting mostly of books about saints, rosaries, images of Mary, missalettes with the daily Mass readings, and other characteristically Catholic goods. Also scattered across the city are various adoration chapels, where the Holy Eucharist is put on display to be worshipped as God Himself, Jesus in the flesh under the form of bread (whoa! talk about a humble God!). There also seems to be a parochial “house of prayer” on just about every block. I took advantage of all this with gusto, attending Mass and meeting up with a large group in the Cathedral to pray the rosary nearly every day.
Nonetheless, about a week after I arrived in Xalapa, I found myself (through a series of surprising, serendipitous, and, I gather, God-directed events that I won’t describe in detail) in Primera Iglesia Bautista de Xalapa (First Baptist Church of Xalapa, or P.I.B.) worshipping God alongside some Protestant brothers and sisters. We sang Spanish translations of familiar Christian worship songs common in non-denominational and evangelical American churches. And I was sobbing. Although I was raised Catholic, and am most certainly quite Catholic, many of my most formative early encounters with Christ and religious education pertaining to the basics of the Gospel happened in non-denominational settings (including Aletheia in Central Square, just down the street from Harvard). The church service at P.I.B., I noted, was happening at the exact same time as Aletheia’s church service in Cambridge. And while the preacher’s style was different than Pastor Adam Mabry’s at Aletheia, the content of the sermon was reminiscent of an Aletheia sermon and the music style was identical.
I don’t remember what the preacher at P.I.B. said that Sunday; I just remember feeling blown away that these songs that I love to nitpick and criticize for their pop-iness and lack of narrative depth were being sung in at least two languages on the same morning, in churches whose members and leaders have exactly zero interaction with one another. And I can’t help but wager that Hillsong, or some other popular Christian band, is not the reason for this unexpected unity. No, Jesus is the reason for this unity.
When I arrived in Mexico, I expected my experience of the Catholic church here to be fairly similar to my experience in the good ‘ol U.S. of A. After all, like Teacher How there is a Pope and who teaches an elaborate system of teachings and a liturgy and fixed Mass readings and a pecking order of church authorities to hold us together.In Xalapa, it has indeed been my experience that, while there are certainly some cultural and stylistic differences, on the whole, the tone is familiar. But when I am out at the tiny little pueblo surrounded by ranches and forest and wetlands in the state of Tabasco, the vibe of the Catholic community is, in many respects, beautiful and vibrant, but also feels completely foreign and unfamiliar, Pope and all.
I did not expect to find myself worshipping in an evangelical church in Mexico. And if I did, I had no expectation that it would be so similar, so united in tone and in message to what I have experienced in the United States. And so I wept as we sang “Cuan Grande es Dios” (“How Great is Our God”) and “Abre los Ojos de Mi Corazón” (“Open the Eyes of My Heart”) because it was God. Yes, Protestant missionaries helped. Yes, the internet helped. But at the end of the day, God did that. Xalapa is really not a touristy city at all. I have only run into one another American in the three months since I left Mexico City, and she was a visiting professor here on the same grant I am. So to say that it’s all the Americans running around the city of Xalapa that made this church service so similar would be untrue. Nope, I’m pretty sure it’s Jesus that unites Primera Iglesia Bautista de Xalapa in Veracruz, Mexico to Aletheia Church in Central Square in the fair city of Cambridge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Later in the day, when my grateful sobbing had subsided, I realized that I was on day 28 of my novena for unity: the first day of offering up praise and thanksgiving rather than petitions. And so for 27 days I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to thanking God for the Unity of His Church, even if this unity is not formed in my image. After all, it is with good reason that God is God and I am not. And maybe it’s true that even if the Church is not united in theology and liturgy and the various other ways I had in mind when I embarked on my novena on August 10, that God really is not only King of the Universe but actually King over His own Church (imagine that): sovereign, all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving. During this period of time, I also began to learn a bit more about the Church Fathers; I had always naively assumed they were all united in theology. Oh how wrong I was! If we contend that the early Fathers of the Church were united within one Church, as I hold that they were, it was not because they all agreed with one another on all important points of theology.
And yes there are still important points of theological difference within the Church today, and I hold that there is such a thing as Truth with a capital T and that we cannot all be right. But maybe that’s really not the most important thing. Perhaps we can be united in love, in mutual submission and service, united by the blood of the paschal lamb, even as we quibble about Mary and the correct number of sacraments.
Indeed, I am Catholic. What does this mean? It means that I believe there are seven sacraments given to us through the Church, by God, for our sanctification. My being Catholic means that I believe Mary to be immaculately conceived and without sin. It means I have benefitted from my (imperfect, oh so imperfect) submission to the teachings of the Church of Rome even on points that make me feel uncomfortable or confused, admitting that I do not know everything, that my opinion, my intuition, my word is not final. But above all these things, it means that I confess that Jesus is Lord! More important than my understanding of Mary or the communion of the saints or the correct timing of baptism, being Catholic means that Jesus is my King and my lover, and I submit my life to him as a full burnt offering at the foot of the cross.
Yes, I believe that Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist. Yes, I have experienced veritable miracles in association with the Eucharist. Yes, I pray to the bread and I adore the bread because it is Jesus’s body broken for us. Yes, my experience (both with my boyfriend and with Jesus) is that the easiest way to get to know someone better and learn their ins and outs, why he has his particular quirks and habits, and how I can love him in a way he will experience as love, is by meeting his family, and getting to know — in particular — his mom. And so I take recourse to the guidance of Mary, who knows her son as only a mother can. I am Catholic; what can I say? To be honest, it grieves me to think of my Protestant brothers and sisters going whole lifetimes pursuing Jesus without meeting him face to face in the Eucharist.
Yes, I believe that the Sacraments offered to us by the Catholic Church are God’s offer to us of a means to reliably and reproducibly access His boundless mercy and grace every single time we faithfully approach Him through them (the sacraments, that is, enacted through the ministry of the Church). But I also believe that the sacraments were made for man, not man for the sacraments. I also believe that God cares more about human hearts than about theological correctness. Everything in my experience tells me that God cares more about where my heart is than exactly where my head is. My heart orientation is so much more important than what I know. That is why I, a rather literate Harvard grad, can be blown out of the water by the wisdom and faith of semi-literate women in the Mexican countryside.
And I am not so naive as to not concede that there are bad Catholic priests in this world, just as there are bad Protestant preachers, bad politicians, and bad cops (and maybe even some people who manage to be all of these at once!) Nothing can inoculate a human heart against the Gospel so much as a bad experience of the church during childhood. And I concede that such Gospel-inoculating can be prevalent in a culture of Catholicism, where the traditions of the church are commonplace but the heart of the gospel is nowhere to be found and, furthermore, that there are all too many pockets of Christendom where this is the honest state of affairs, including in both the United States and in Mexico.
And so I am grateful to the Protestant missionaries who did time in Mexico; better a Protestant on fire with the Spirit, confessing Christ’s Lordship, than an utterly apathetic and lukewarm Catholic, attending Mass by rote muscle memory and habit. Yes, I give God praise that He is willing to look past our spurning of His love and our rejection of the gifts of the utterly miraculous and unmerited sacraments, and pursue us all the more. I praise God that His Church is big and diverse and carries the message of the Gospel is hymns and liturgies and in podcasts and Christian pop music. I praise God for Carmelite nuns and I praise God for all the non-denom worship band drummers who are out to destroy my ear drums and save my soul at the same time.
I praise God for all the devotees of Our Lady of Guadalupe here in my tiny pueblo of Balancán, Tabasco, and I praise God for the setup team at Aletheia that shows up to the YMCA early in the morning rain or shine, sleet or snow to unfold chairs and set up projector screens and a platform stage and (yes) the drum-set of the ear-drum shredder (actually, the volume of the music at Aletheia is pretty reasonable, I have to admit). I praise God for the preachers who spurn Mary but preach Jesus Christ risen and I praise God for the abuelitas (little grandmas) that recite the rosary faithfully every day and the squadrons of teenaged “Atorchistas” who are dispatched by the thousands on an 11-day pilgrimage by foot, by bike, in buses, and crammed in the backs of pickups in the rain, traveling across Mexico in honor of Mary in the days leading up to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And I praise God that I don’t have to agree with all of these people on every point of doctrine (even the important ones) for them to be my brothers and sisters, the adopted children of the Father, the body of the Church under the headship of Jesus, and the bride of the Lamb. I don’t have to agree with all of them to serve them, to love them, to spend eternity in perfect communion with them. Praise God that Jesus really is Lord.
Jane Thomas ’15 is a Fulbright Scholar studying the gut microbes of wild howler monkeys (A. pigra) in Mexico.