Some of the Catholic stuff we’ve witnessed on our travels has been both interesting and kind of quaint. My suspicion is that the particular brand of Catholicism – almost folk religion – is a little different to many Catholics’ practice at home, but I’m not sure.
- In Baños we followed a parade of the virgin statue normally housed in the basilica. Marching bands played and the statue was followed as something to be revered. Good fun was had by all.
- We saw a holy week parade in Quito where, dressed like the KKK, thousands of devotees put themselves through significant pain carrying large crosses, dragging chains and even flagellating each other.
- We were once in Manila for the parade of the black Jesus, an ebony idol that was paraded through the streets for a crowd of millions. People were anxious to have their possessions touch the statue, believing it would bring them good luck. Sometimes people die in the stampede to get close.
And that’s to say nothing of transubstantiation. It feels quite foreign. I went to Anglican and Presbyterian schools. Most of the sermons I heard would still have worked without mentioning God. Fiona has only recently learned who parted the red sea (“It was Jesus, right?”). Neither of us come from a particularly religious tradition. But to the extent that we have experienced Christianity it has been of the ethereal protestant variety.
There’s something different about what we’ve seen in Catholicism. For a start there’s the focus on idols – one supposes not false idols in ten commandment terms. It feels a bit more supernatural to put stock in a statue. Further down the disbelief continuum. More towards the Amazonian shamans that wave leaves over people to see whether they have a grave disease or a minor ailment. (One indigenous tribe we visited reported they practice both Catholicism and their more traditional beliefs at once.)
And there’s a difference between a nativity play, retelling a story, and a procession of penitence that processors understand to cure them of guilt. It’s a different kind of belief. It’s something beyond a moral code bound together by faith.
We might be overplaying the distinction and given we’re not Christian we are somewhat splitting hairs of disbelief anyway. But from what we see there is a real distinction. Maybe that’s why when we talk to Spanish speakers about New Zealand and they ask about religion they say “is it Catholic, or Christian?”