Practicing My Faith While Abroad

Today I rejoice in the first homily in Mexico that I could actually understand — it was about love being more important than power — and the first two Bible readings I was able to recognize during Mass. It was a neat outdoor church with a roof — una iglesia abierta, I was told — and we attributed the clarity of the priest’s voice to the absence of walls. It was a nice change from the other churches, whose roaring fans and echoes from the microphone were a recipe for frustration and not registering anything the priests or speakers had to say.

Before my trip, I had in my mind a specific pattern of practicing my religion while in Mexico. I would attend a Catholic university, so I would go to Mass everyday before class and I would check the Adoration and Confession schedules to try to make it to each at least once. Since Mexican towns have churches like a centipede has legs, I would have no problem finding Mass on Sunday, and my host family would take me.

“For me, keeping a personal prayer life is critical, because if my faith depends on buildings then I am going to have a hard time.”

I would come to learn that my host mom did not have a car and that Adoration was far more available than I would have imagined. It’s easy to declare I shouldn’t have had any expectations, but it’s even easier to just laugh at myself when I experience the reality.

My first week here I had trouble because the other students had so many other activities planned, and it seemed that no one had time to go to church. I had to speak up for myself and state my desires. It was scary, as admitting to being religious often means being categorized as “one of those annoying religious nuts,” but it also paved the way for others who wanted to practice their religion to do so as well.

After several hours of trying to find someone to take me, I started to stress over the possibility of not being able to make it to church at all. Eventually (in the late afternoon), a small group of students and their host mom kindly invited me go to Mass with them.

This experience has taught me a powerful spiritual lesson: For me, keeping a personal prayer life is critical, because if my faith depends on buildings then I am going to have a hard time.

Attending Mass became easier once I got to know another student to share in the faith journey. I should say that I am pretty fortunate to be Catholic in a predominantly Catholic country; I can only imagine how difficult it would be to be Protestant, Muslim, etc. in a place where few people share that faith.

I learned that Adoration (here called Santísimo) is extremely common in Mexican churches and I was able to partake several times. For non-Catholics: Santísimo is an ecclesiastical practice of displaying the Eucharist (Jesus Christ in the form of the communion wafer) on an altar for worship. One church I attended, Espíritu Santo, had 24-hour Santísimo like my church at home, and it was great to have the occasional opportunity to stop by for a few minutes to adore God, relax, pray and just breathe.

I had a goal prior to departure of making a confession in Spanish. Confession is scary, as any Catholic will reaffirm, and the prospect of confessing in another country in another language did not exactly calm my nerves. It was a little bit different: for example, I was stressing over memorizing the Spanish version of the Act of Contrition, but when I had finished confessing, the priest simply asked me to repeat after him: “Jesus, ten piedad…” (Jesus, have mercy), and he didn’t even give me a penance. I wondered if I had misunderstood, but a nearby nun confirmed that he doesn’t always assign Avemarias or Padrenuestros to pray.

She suggested I just go to Santísimo for a while.

Overall, being a person a faith abroad has posed logistical challenges, but with determination and the right amount of patience I have found that it can certainly be done. I was very happy to find an iglesia abierta that minimized bad acoustics (and my ability to understand the message) and finding a fellow student to share in the journey with me.

I learned the importance of relying less on buildings and more on building my own personal relationship with God for instances when going to a physical church are not readily present. And I have relished in the opportunity to experience my faith — the richness, the cultural differences, but the shared beliefs — in another country.

Jennifer Laird is a fifth-year transfer Spanish and speech, language and hearing sciences double major. She is studying this summer at Marista University in Merida, Mexico.

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