Lost in a 'Catholic' Country
Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
27Trip End Aug 2006
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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
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
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
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.