I haven’t exactly been the most assiduous church-goer. I did grow up believing in God, or at least in a higher protective/organizing force, but I never took any pleasure going to mass. Luckily for me, my mother (who passed her Catholic upbringing on to me – my father being an atheist and anti-church/religious protocols kinda guy) didn’t go to mass either, and never made me go besides major religious celebrations such as Christmas and Easter. What we did however do for as long as I can remember as a child, was say a little prayer to my guardian angel every night before going to sleep, asking for strength, protection and whatever else I thought I’d need to make tomorrow a good day.
Throughout my adult years I went through spiritual phases, some of which were brought to life by the places I was living in, or the people I was living with (for example as I was living in Bologna with a very faithful Italian flatmate, I started going to Sunday mass more regularly, reconnecting with my personal faith and with what God meant to me). But other than that, it’s pretty much been a private conversation between me and Him / the Universe, whenever I felt the pull.
So here I am, travelling through Mexico and becoming close friends with a fabulous young mother (about my age), who – it turns out – is very much involved in her local church. Being naturally curious and open to new experiences, I asked her whether I could accompany her to the next Sunday mass. She was thrilled, and so was I. What better way to get to know someone and to connect than by participating in what lights up their heart, and what takes up such a big role in their life?
So off we went on a Sunday, at 5:30pm. Before anything, it’ll be helpful to know this was a Christian, Pentecostal community. Honestly, I just read up about them now, after having been to the mass, because of how surprisingly different (and refreshing… wait for it!) their worship seemed to me. For starters, I was welcomed with the brightest smiles and most vivid handshakes, by both men and women (no kissing on the cheek by the women or anything – handshakes only). I was immediately asked to fill out a paper sheet with my name and coordinates. Since I was only passing through, I left my name, the name of the person who invited me, and a phone number. When I asked about how they would use this information, they smiled and said it was for a small ‘welcome gift’ later on… leaving me very curious!
We sat down front row, near a ventilator (thank God they had various all around the church, because the average temperature in Campeche is constantly about 30-35C°) and as we waited for mass to start, I observed the band getting ready to rumble. Yes, there was a full-blown band, including: a singer/pianist, electric guitar and bass, as well as drums. Turns out, mass is basically a huge get-together where people clap, shout and dance along to Christian lyrics!
These are some of the things that amazed me the most (some of which I think we should definitely have more of in the Christian Catholic church!):
- The hearty, personal welcome and everyone saying hello and shaking hands with each other upon their arrival. The atmosphere is super lively and joyful already before mass starts.
- There isn’t one single religious figure or painting anywhere in the church, nor does the pastor dress any differently than all other church-goers. No Trinity, no Saints, no statues, no pictures of Jesus, Mary or anyone else. There is absolutely nothing on the walls, except a very modern power point presentation with the various song lyrics for everyone to sing along to – which I was very thankful for!
- Mass is not conducted by the pastor, it is led by the entire community of church-goers. Countless people step up the podium / altar to sing, read, and worship. There are no rituals, no special gestures, recitations, no nothing. The overall vibe is just so much more empowering than what I’ve known so far, and the active participation of each member of the community is encouraged (even I was asked at one point if I didn’t want to kneel by the altar to be blessed and supported by the entire community… I said no thanks 😛).
- Worship is extremely spontaneous and oral vs. based on religious texts and formal liturgical rituals, which is nice because it enables anyone to participate and play a part without fearing of doing anything wrong. As a matter of fact, praying aloud, clapping and even straight-out shouting during worship is common (which did make it a bit hard to focus on what the pastor was saying, at times… 🙂) There is a LOT of singing. Actually, mass is mainly just singing and clapping. Pure and simple, nothing formal, just worship with body, heart and soul. Hard to fall asleep with such loud music and standing up, I can tell you ! (maybe they do that on purpose…? 😅)
- All new members (that is including me, hence the paper sheet they had asked me to fill in when entering) are named one after the other and asked to stand up to receive a warm clapping welcome by the community. To me, this was incredibly personal and heartwarming as opposed to other, more cold and individualistic practices I have witnessed so far (anyone ever feel alone and almost invisible when going to a new church?). Also, countless people came to me and handed me the bible (since I didn’t have one) to be able to read along as the pastor mentioned various passages during worship – which I thought was very thoughtful.
- Emotional expression is absolutely welcome and even encouraged. People scream, shout and cry their eyes out on- and offstage without receiving any judging look whatsoever. Definitely a good exercise for anyone wanting to get something off their heart or have a good cry/scream/breakdown moment… 😂
This experience was an amazing sneak-preview of a completely different and modern form of worship. I sure think there are many positive aspects the Catholic church could learn from if it cares about reversing the rocketing numbers of current church-goers. I must however admit I was shocked to witness what I sensed was a general sense of powerlessness, despair and resignation. The overall atmosphere was way less joyful than I would ever had imagined (especially taking into account the « fun » upsides I mentioned earlier). Despite the music, singing and clapping, what I felt prevailed were a lot of tears, sad/serious faces and a general sense of helplessness. It felt like mass for the poor, to give them some hope while they wait for better days. « This too shall pass, if you remain a firm believer ». To give them a place where they can come and cry, complain and gather with fellow friends in need. As a matter of fact, I remember distinctly both examples from the bible the pastor gave to prove his point about doing what’s right and following God’s path: one of the stories was about a rich man who was greedy and therefore and lost it all; the other about a poor man who became rich and lost it all. Morale of the story: don’t aspire for riches. Stay poor, happiness lies within.
Although to be honest, if we take away the rich/poor equation (which explains the growing popularity Pentecostal communities have known in Latin America these past decades), I’d say it’s about the same anywhere else you go to church… at least I’ve personally always seen churches as a place where people can feel safe, sad and share their pain with other restless souls 🤷♀️
Tell me, do you practice any religion? How do you view religious gatherings and/or the practice of rituals? I would love to hear and learn from anyone who assiduously practices their faith during public gatherings (of whatever type) and has experienced a sense of empowerment, self-development and joy. Do share 🙏