Sidelined during Holy Week

Except perhaps for the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Roman Catholic Church’s grip on Mexico and particularly San Miguel de Allende, is never firmer than during Holy Week.

It actually begins a week before Palm Sunday, when hundreds of chanting pilgrims come to San Miguel carrying a statue of a flagellated Jesus—ghoulishly bloody as Mexicans seem to prefer their religious icons—from a shrine eight miles outside of town. It remains here until three days after Easter when it makes the return trip amid more prayers and rituals.

The Virgin of Guadalupe couldn’t be a more important religious symbol to Mexicans: Sometimes her ubiquitousness almost overshadows Jesus Christ himself. But her feast is only a day long and celebrated privately or inside churches.

Holy Week in San Miguel on the other hand goes on for ten days—more if you count Lent when some restaurants offer special menus and churches sponsor prayer vigils—and it seems to consume most of San Miguel’s public energy. A tidal wave of loud tourists on Good Friday only magnifies the occasion.

There are donkeys and palm fronds on Palm Sunday; altars to the Virgin of Sorrows; reenactments of the Via Dolorosa and the Crucifixion; street decorations and fireworks. It climaxes with a Good Friday procession of such DeMillean proportions that it preempts practically all other activity in town. I’ve never been to comparably sized towns in Italy, Spain or other hotbeds of Catholicism during Holy Week but I doubt they can top this spectacle.

Good Friday procession in San Miguel.

Even an auto mechanic near our house plants a six-foot-tall wood cross draped with purple bunting, the color of mourning, in front of his shop. If your car needs a new muffler, it’ll have to wait until Monday.

And every Holy Week, as this panoply of Roman Catholic pomp, ritual and tradition swirls around me, I wonder if this will be the year when my faith in the Church is rekindled, the faith that was implanted at baptism deep inside my head, like a computer chip, about sixty-five years ago.

That chip, God knows, has received copious additional programming and updating, at a Marist elementary school, a Dominican high school and a Christian Brothers college. At one point I even considered, briefly, the monastic life.

This Holy Week I took Stew—who was brought up in a Christian denomination in Iowa so light in dogma that to this day he has trouble explaining what it was all about—to the English-language Palm Sunday mass at an old Catholic church in San Miguel.

Since we moved to San Miguel seven years ago we’ve been making tentative Sunday pilgrimages to various denominations in town looking for a simpatico spiritual community. I thought an old-fashioned Catholic mass might be the answer, particularly one led by a younger priest we had met a New Year’s Day brunch.

Hmm, maybe next year.

The mass was old-fashioned alright, with no nuns plucking guitars or dancing around the altar. The priest also had three acolytes on hand wearing starched and ironed vestments; a paten, the gold or silver plate that it put under the chin of congregants receiving communion presumably to prevent any precious communion bread from falling on the floor; a hand bell to announce the long-winded consecration; congregants receiving communion the old-fashioned way by putting out their tongues instead of receiving the communion wafer on their palms; and enough incense to choke air traffic at O’Hare.

There were a few contemporary touches, such as a small but peppy choir with some Mexican singers and musicians, and a participatory reading of the Gospel that involved two lay people, the congregation and the priest who read Jesus’ lines. The sermon, brief and workmanlike, didn’t scare any horses.

But rather than inspire the service reminded me how little has changed since I gave up any pretense of formal Catholicism, maybe thirty years ago, despite the chip chirping inside my head all along. Indeed it seemed that under John Paul II—the pope who is revered by Mexicans almost as fervently as the Virgin of Guadalupe—the church had come full stop and hit reverse, with any fresh air fanned away as so much doctrinal pollution, after which the Church’s windows were shut tightly again.

There was a woman reading Scripture during part of the service, but the priest and team of acolytes was all-male team. A penis is clearly still a requirement for the priesthood, and for that matter any prominence in the Church, despite the grief and expense that wily appendage has wrought priests and church alike in recent years.

And the entire service, conducted from behind an altar that at times loomed like a bulkhead, kept priest and congregation safely apart and left no doubt who was in charge. Likewise, the sermon—in this case a lecture rather than a discussion or conversation—came from behind a lectern to one side of the altar. Any sense of spontaneity or involvement by the congregation was squelched by a strict choreography,  responses and prayers spelled out in a “misalette.”

But maybe I was focusing too harshly and cynically on the incidentals of Catholicism as revealed by this mass and this priest.

Except that Catholicism’s message to me as a Catholic individual who has lived with another man for almost forty-one years is no less hostile. And for all of the new pope’s “I’m one of you guys” humble     style, that hostility is likely to remain in force with regard to me and millions of gays, women, divorced couples and other Catholics expelled into a distant orbit by the Church’s unwavering doctrines. I don’t sense any changes coming from Rome even if the new leader is an affable Argentine who pays his own hotel bill and wears regular shoes.

Yet the Catholic chip is still in my head. Maybe next year it will receive a more welcoming message. But today I’m not betting on that.


8 thoughts on “Sidelined during Holy Week

  1. Your Catholic Church is a conservative institution by its nature, even the word catholic is based in the concept of “our way or the highway”. Change does not and will not come easy to an organization whose name means “The true religion”. The new pope is a conservative so do not expect too much change in your church from him but what we might see is a return to respect and concern for the poor that is a foundation of your church-a reactionary principal I can support. You and yours have a nice Easter.


  2. I am currently read a fascinating Ross Douthat's Bad Religion. It is a fascinating review of the various American religious heresies and the importance of orthodox Christianity. I tend to be a bit heretical in my theology, but I find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of his points. When I return to the mountains, we need to discuss this burning that seems to inhabit both of our hearts.Happy Easter.


  3. Al:This is a fan letter. Today's blog about the church “knocked it out of the park” for me on many levels. Your ability to sum up, on the electronic page, my feelings, attitudes and observations with a delicate overlay of humor is a real treat and is being forwarded to many friends and “in law” relatives with the same brain micro chip as yours. The same quandaries also.Thanks for a great start for this Easter Sunday. I must go watch them blow up Judas Znow.Suzie Z-E


  4. I'm encouraged the new pope is not as pompous as his predecessor, who seemed to have a real thing for custom-made Prada shoes and ermine-trimmed capes. I hope Francis does put more emphasis on helping the poor. God knows we have enough of them in


  5. I have tried to read Douthat's column in the NYT and they haven't really captured my imagination, but I don't know about his book. Christian denomination's propensity for schisms, heresies etc is amazing. I read a book about the Amish and it was fascinating to find out how many splinter groups there are among them–guys whom I thought were very tranquil–about ridiculous issues…Let me know what you learn from Douthat. BTW how does one pronounce his name?


  6. Dear Al – You so succinctly captured that chip in my head also. I tried about 15 years ago to return to the Church. It lasted about one week until I heard their “teachings” on homosexuality. A church who is so non-inclusive to me is not even religious.I've never returned even though for 35 years it was a huge part of my life.Didn't someone say, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”? Boy the Catholic Church is the most judgmental group that I have ever been involved with…….Love the photo.


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