Catholicism in old Mexico

March 9, 2006

Every Saturday night my husband and I have the pleasure of going over to my 92-year-old grandfather’s house for dinner. He’s a self-taught gourmet cook and always prepares a lavish meal fit for a four star restaurant, and my wine-fanatic husband always manages to pick out the perfect bottle of wine to go with the meal (I just have a sip these days). After dinner we all go into the living room and continue the conversation, sometimes well into the night (our record is 2:00am).

We talk about everything from politics to religion to current events, but one of my favorite topics of discussion is my grandfather’s thoughts and observations from the 35+ years he spent living in Mexico and South America. He was born and raised in Texas but got a job offer to be an engineer at a refinery in a rural part of Mexico shortly after he married my grandmother. They took the offer and only reluctantly returned to the States decades later when my grandmother’s declining health necessitated it.

Lately he’s been regaling us with fascinating observations about Catholicism in rural Mexico back in the 40’s and 50’s. The stories are so enchanting, they make me yearn to be part of a culture where Church and God are so seamlessly integrated into everyone’s lives, where everyone is on the same page about religion and it’s a source of unity and comfort rather than debate and strife.

One of the stories he told me last weekend made me feel a little bit less bad about this whole not eating wheat products during Lent. He talked about watching the poverty-stricken villagers come for miles from the hills every Sunday to attend Mass at their church that had been standing for more than a century, traveling in all sorts of weather on foot or by donkey on gravel roads. And every evening the Church would ring its bells and set off firecrackers. Then, for the Easter Mass (or maybe Good Friday?), most of the villagers would stop about a mile outside of town, put a crown of thorns on their heads, fasten a piece of cactus around their necks and crawl on their hands and knees over the gravel the entire way into town. They would be exhausted and covered in blood by the time they arrived at the church.

Oddly, my first thought when I heard that story is what happy people they must have been. To believe that strongly, to have God be such an integral part of your life, must make you feel like you could face anything. And my grandfather said that, indeed, despite their poverty they were very happy, warm people. They had little by modern standards but their lives were filled with God and Church and family, and that’s really all you need to be happy. Not happy in the self-centered, ephemeral sense our culture knows today, but a deep, still happiness that only someone who lives that kind of life can understand.


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