I was baptized a Catholic in a culture where one was born into the faith, where the title was key to being integrated into society. 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 were.
A change of heart
Before I started 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 eleven and twelve, 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 (plus Fourteen Stations). 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. Well, at least for Holy Week. (READ: On Palm Sunday)
I attended an all-girls Catholic school and became versed in celebrating saints' feast days, and was also subjected to film screenings of fully formed fetuses being aborted (an attempt to dissuade us from premarital sex). Sex education included a firm emphasis on the rhythm method (with matching cervical mucus monitoring chart) 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. (READ: In faces and voices, a search for home)
A culture of tradition
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 grandparents' 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 how Catholicism emphasizes the submission of women, how we are valued in the home but don't deserve to be taught about our own bodies. I did not particularly enjoy how Catholic culture turned a blind eye to philandering husbands but stigmatized 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 condemned 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 did not like how politicians wore Catholicism as a badge of morality, or any use of the religion as validation so one didn't have to stand by their own opinions. Example: "I like the movie Da Vinci Code, but 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. Many of my close friends are religious, but not blindly so. They've had the rare realization that faith and spirituality are not contests of how many regulations one can follow, or how many people they can judge, but a personal relationship with their God.
Most of all, I appreciate Catholicism as a cultural binding force, being Filipino and steeped in its traditions, but most especially (as is the case for variants of faith throughout the world), for the irreplaceable life moments it inevitably provides.
A life moment
A particular childhood memory resonates:
A religious aunt came to visit my family one day and was appalled 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 you know what? We believed it. We believed that Jesus Christ could melt. He could be crushed, hurt, and killed again by our chewing; that noisy children were sent to jail, and that if we stayed kneeling and praying, we could join this group of worshippers, call ourselves Catholic and belong to something - anything - and fit that mold.
Only years later do some of us realize (if at all) that tradition is one thing and religion is another, and that faith is a relationship with a higher force or being, and not a set of rules and penalties intended to trump human reason and moral judgment. We were, after all, born with the capacity to know right from wrong. In that respect, using our own God-given gift of conscience must in itself be a high form of worship. – Rappler.com
Shakira Andrea Sison is a Palanca Award-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours in some form of worship in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Her column appears on Thursdays. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison and on Facebook.com/sisonshakira.
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