The priest standing in front of us never raises his head or changes the tone in his voice as the night grows longer. There are no inflections or breaks, but a continuous murmur of the prayers of the rosary. Even his hand movements are perfectly executed, seemingly without thought as his fingers go from bead to bead following every “Hail Mary.” We all murmur the same words in unison, creating a loud buzzing of prayer throughout the side room of the funeral home.
This is how the Catholic Church said goodbye to my uncle after he passed away. I was in middle school and his daughters were younger than me, but, just like the adults, we were expected to sit in our front row seats and say our prayers. If not, for every shift in our chair or wandering eye around the room, we got a stern look from our grandmother. These were the rules until the end of the service. A service that only said my uncle’s name six times throughout the hour and never addressed his life, though we were supposed to be bidding him farewell.
My grandparents are all practicing Catholics and my parents were as well when they were growing up. I was baptized Catholic and a priest led the religious ceremony for my sweet fifteen. I pray the rosary, believe in the Virgin Mary, and respect the Holy Trinity. I can even say a few prayers without glancing at a page, but would I call myself Catholic? It really depends on the day and who’s asking.
When people ask me if I’m Catholic, they see the bracelet on my hand with the saints or the rosary hanging from my rear view mirror and it is their natural assumption. Most of the times, I’m not in the mood to talk about religion, so I say “yes.” But there’s always the rare occasion when I’m feeling talkative and a simple “yes” won’t suffice.
Yes, I’m technically Catholic, but there are too many disparities between what the church believes and what I believe. Things like karma and reincarnation are ignored, people who support gay marriage are deemed heathens, and, if you don’t adhere to all the rules, you’re not welcome. So, according to Catholicism, I’m a heathen, too. Plus, it’s hard enough trying to fit into a church while living in the U.S. when you only know the rules and prayers of your faith in Spanish.
My uncle’s service was done in my first language, so I could at least follow along with the priest, but, growing up, I didn’t even realize there were English translations to the few verses and prayers I had memorized. I remember thinking about Catholicism as a religion that was strictly part of Hispanic culture. It was only until a few years ago that I found out “The Lord’s Prayer” is the same thing as “El Padre Nuestro” prayer. But I haven’t told my grandma about my early ignorance. As a woman who watches mass on TV when she can’t physically go, she would only be ashamed that I was so uninformed about the family’s faith.
I don’t entirely disagree with my grandmother’s devoutness or the Catholic Church, but I think the organized religion lacks some moderation. Organized faith gets problematic once it dominates your life, so there needs to be a balance. I can’t commit to Catholicism, if it means I have to mindlessly accept all of its conditions, so, instead, I pick and choose what I value from religion until I feel like I have a well-rounded perspective on faith.
I consider myself to be very religious—or rather very spiritual. I haven’t gone to church in months, but I feel like God and I are on good terms. I try not to judge what I don’t understand, while I don’t automatically shut out what is unfamiliar to me. I value tolerance, embracing new teachings, and I try to be kind to others. My faith and salvation do not rely on how much I preach the word of God or how much money I give as an offering, but rather on how well I live my life.
I would much rather feel like faith is an experience with God and positivity than a question of how many times I’ve taken a seat in a pew. I don’t want to robotically pray to the light that is believed to be God, but rather vent about what I am feeling and thinking in order to restore my own spiritual balance. It seems more natural to think that people, even if they aren’t Catholic, can still lead morally good lives and be virtuous. Wouldn’t it make sense for the principles of love and positivity to be the driving force of faith within a soul instead of how many times they’ve confessed their “sins”?
I always ask my elders for their blessing, a tradition in Puerto Rico. I always say my prayers before family dinners and on big holidays like Easter and Christmas. But, no, I don’t go to church and, no, I don’t use the Bible as the sole guide for my life. These are just empty traditions that I’ve grown accustomed to.
At my uncle’s service, I was surrounded by people I had known my whole life, yet for that long hour I felt nothing. I can’t tell you how many times I cried with my cousins over their father’s death or how heartbreaking it was to see him in a coffin, but all of that happened away from a priest. To me, the service had nothing to do with my uncle. It didn’t help me grieve or feel better. I didn’t feel closer to him or my family and I certainly didn’t feel closer to Catholicism. Instead, I felt like the priest was a stranger repeating passages he had memorized, filling in the blanks with my uncle’s name.