November 13, 2008

Building Community with Traditions (Anna)

As a cradle Catholic, I think an important aspect of our faith is tradition.  It's one of the reasons many of us (I proudly admit it) liberals stick around.  All that incense, genuflecting and repetition may get to some people, but the truth is that I love it.  I didn't always love it. In fact, in those defiant teen age years I spent a lot of time visiting my friends' non-denominational churches and contemplating the pros and cons of Buddhism. I was on the verge of trading in the Holy See  until I came to the deal breaking conundrum, "What about the Eucharist?" and not only that, but what about the rosary?  And the advent candles? And the peaceful silence?  Being Catholic is more than subscribing to a certain religious doctrine, it's belonging to a culture. I wasn't willing to un-train myself out of all those rituals and traditions, so I decided to get confirmed.

And now I'm a Catholic missionary. Who knew? This week on the mission has shed a new light on all of those traditions and exactly just why they're so important. November is Mary's month in Chile and traditionally, Catholics across the country would gather each evening in the local chapel to lay roses at Mary's feet and to bring all their sorrows, hopes and thanks for her intercession and to pray the rosary.  In recent years, attendance has dropped drastically and nowadays, it would not be uncommon to find two or three abuelitas (grandmas) praying for the community in solitude.

This year, our community decided not us! In our pastoral council meeting the month before, we decided that we could do better. We couldn't let our rich traditions go by the wayside and be forgotten. The older people in the community reminisced fondly of the whole family coming together in prayer and of the early morning Misas del Alba (sunrise services) with the added bonus of breakfast afterwards. These practices instilled the basics for their prayerful attitudes as adults and they wanted to share them with their grandchildren.  Marian devotion is still alive here, but it is more and more a personal devotion.  Each Sunday, Mass ends with a song devoted to the Virgin and many of the faithful pass by her statue, touching her feet and genuflecting, whispering their prayers in the hopes that Mary will share them with her Son. But, individual and communal are different things.  The community needs to be strong in order for the church to grow and that's why traditions and rituals are so important.  They give people a sense of belonging, of unified purpose and of mutual understanding. They help us forget our petty disagreements and come together for the greater love of God.

Through that conversation, many ideas emerged.  If the people wouldn't come to us, then we would bring Mary to them!  Three days a week, we decided that the statue would be taken in procession and left in a home of a community member overnight. That family would set up an altar outside where all their neighbors would be invited to join in prayer.  We would have the Misa del Alba once a week and on the rest of the days, we would come back to the chapel for prayer.  One older women cynically commented, "They won't come. There's no more interest in these things."

The first night out, we had 20 people show up.  From children and youth, to adults and the elderly, the community came together and unified in prayer. The older ones led the prayers delightedly. The younger ones looked on in eagerness, trying to pick up on the patterns so they too could join in. We've now finished our first week of Mary's month and I can happily report that we've had consistent turn up each evening.  Always a good crowd and always a happy conversation to follow. It's nice to belong to a community.  And it's nice to be able to pass on the traditions that we've found so meaningful in our lives.  It has been a good week on the missions and I think that a few more people are a little more hopeful in the next generation of Catholics.  They say that a culture that does not change is dead.  We are changing, while remembering our roots.  I believe that God is very present and active in this community and that we just need to open our hearts a little in order to help people discover that presence.

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