Lost in a 'Catholic' Country

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, April 17, 2006

At 10:05 every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Father Pardo checks his watch, crosses himself and recites an "Our Father" and a "Hail Mary" aloud to our theology class. He simply closes his eyes and begins, unconcerned with offending his students. The prayer is not a rhetorical device. He expects the believers in the class to recite the prayers alongside him.

This certainly isn't Georgetown I'm describing-though it's a Catholic School as well-it's a course at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where I am studying abroad. I'm one of two foreigners in the class. If this were Georgetown, I might cringe; I might be scandalized. I was born a Presbyterian, after all, and I struggle with the Lord's Prayer even in English.

But, here in Chile, the presence of Catholic Church has been so pervasive in daily life for so long that it goes largely unnoticed. For a long time, I had difficulty realizing that. I would ask my fellow students if they found classroom prayer disconcerting, but they were surprised at the question. "It's a theology class," they said. "What did you expect?"

Chileans, my program directors told me, love to dissect and analyze their national psyche. Furthermore, they are not very religious, though most of them describe themselves as Catholic, because most rarely ever attend mass. Not surprisingly, half of my theology class usually sits quietly with me, either ignorant of the words or quietly recusing themselves.

But classroom prayer was the least of it. During Holy week, La Católica decorated its campuses with dozens of wooden crosses, and hung a crown of thorns from each. No matter what I did, I felt-go to class, read on the lawn, buy a Coke-reminders of the passion loomed over my shoulder. The week before, the university authorities even hung a Pro-Life banner on a statue of Christ the Redeemer at the main gates. The design had two halves, one white ("the day before") and one black ("the day after").

My Chilean friends told me they had not thought about the decorations as potentially offensive. After all, the university celebrated Holy Week that same way every year, and everyone knew the Church was opposed to abortion.

Looking back, I could not remember Georgetown ever being so candid about its positions on controversial issues. Georgetown, though it's explicitly Jesuit, usually kept the opinions of its non-Catholic students in mind. When it forgot them, it stirred up a war of words, as evinced by last week's drama with the student group H-oyas for Choice (see the two university newspapers, especially the opinion pages, if you want to know more: www.georgetownvoice.com or www.thehoya.com).

Why weren't the Chileans vocally supporting their fellow students who didn't belong to the Catholic Church?

I was wrong, I now realize, to expect an American response to a Chilean question. Who would the students be defending? 95 percent of Chileans claim white or mestizo origin, and only 10 percent are not "Catholic." Perhaps, I thought, this lack of concern was the very proof of a Chilean identity increasingly independent of the Church.

Chile, in fact, just inducted a socialist, agnostic, divorcee into the presidency. Perhaps the forceful imagery of the banner and the crosses was a heavy-handed attempt to remind Chileans of their collective roots-the Church was fighting not to be overlooked.

I began to respect the religious imagery as a part of this university's culture, ignored or not. But it reminded me how much I miss America's diversity and the manner in which we as a people constantly reassess our values-vocally, publicly and confrontationally, rather than with quiet indifference.

In many ways, our proud diversity was something I overlooked back home-only occasionally pausing to listen to all of the foreign tongues spoken on the Metro, or to recognize the distinct backgrounds my own friends come from. Chileans, on the other hand, are a much quieter people. And if the Catholic Church is slipping into the past, they will watch it do so quietly.

In being struck by the details here most Chileans are blind to, I stumbled across facets of my own daily life that I never gave even a glance. In discovering how Chileans introspected, I become conscious of how I, as an American, turn inward. Through that dialogue, it seems, I am finding common ground with this populace whose actions once seemed so alien to me.
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arichardson on

Re: Pausing for Thought
You're certainly entitled to your opinion. In fact, last night there was a catholic youth concert in one of the main plazas here, and 15,000 kids were estimated to have attended.

One of the things that makes me hesitant to agree with you is the amount of anti-church sentiment I hear in casual conversation. The church is remembered as never voicing opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship, and for having a heirarchy close to the general himself.

All over latin america, there's still anger over the church's silencing of liberation theology in the 70s and 80s, and the choice of Joseph Ratzinger-the man behind much of that silencing-as Pope.

One of the things I've yet to mention about Santiago, at least, is how rebellious so many of the youth appear. I've never seen so many goths in my life. Perhaps they're just in a phase.

And I agree with you that no one just forgets the past and moves into the future. The Chilean way of dealing with things, by trying to forget rather than confront, irritates me endlessly-as it does, at least on a conceptual level, many Chileans.

I'm not sure they're accepting who they are, though. I think they're trying to ignore the past. Who do they want to be? Like everyone, I think they're working on finding an answer to that.

shoz on

What most Chileans are waiting for is to make their ritual weekend trip to the nearest "mall".

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