Sunday, March 17, 2013

Catholicism and a Vatican II Upbringing

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Last Wednesday, I was sitting in my office trying to concentrate on the work at hand, but the sound of bells kept distracting me.  They weren’t stopping, but growing increasingly louder.  Finally, I looked out the window, and realized the cacophony of chimes were coming from the direction of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary’s churches—all near campus.  Why?  What is happening today?  Ahhh . . . perhaps the Vatican has chosen a Pope.  And sure enough, I returned to my computer, clicked on the New York Times' online website, and I was immediately connected to a live feed (the wonders of technology!).  The camera focused on a cloud of white smoke from a tiny chimney.  

The camera then switched to thousands of people crowded into Vatican square, waving, pointing, clasping their hands. 

A few minutes later, another view of the chimney was replaced with a view of the Vatican balcony.  Soon, the curtains and the Vatican balcony doors  opened and one of the cardinals made the announcement: Habemus Papem (“We have a Pope”).  

A few minutes after that, we were introduced to Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio), the first Latin American Pope from Argentina, and the first Jesuit to become Pope.  I was amazed how in a matter of minutes, the bells, the computer, the chimney, the cameras:  very old and new forms of communication came together to dispatch this news.  

I grew up Catholic.  Perhaps this is why I could not ignore the bells and the live feed the New York Times was offering.  And even though my colleagues in the office did not grow up Catholic, I invited them: “Come and see this.  It’s history.”  They watched the live feed and seemed mildly interested, but soon left to continue their work.  I did as well, but since last Wednesday, I have been thinking about my own Catholic journey, and the impact of a Catholic Latin America on the world in my own education.

My Mexican immigrant parents brought me up Catholic during the “reign” of Pope John XXIII—the Pope responsible for the radical changes in the church, such as changing the mass from Latin to English, requiring the priest to face the congregation instead of praying with his back to the audience.  My mother was very much against my sister and I ever attending public schools. Even though it was a huge sacrifice, my mother made sure there was always money to pay the Catholic school tuition.  Just a week ago, in reading Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, she writes about her mother:  “She [Sonia’s mother] was the one who insisted we go to Catholic School” (14). Perhaps this was more often the case among Latina mothers coming from poor and working class backgrounds who believed that a Catholic school education was the best education. 

What I think is interesting, is that my mother never questioned what “kind” of Catholicism we were receiving in our working class Los Angeles town of Santa Fe Springs in the 1960s. And really, I wonder if there is much discussion about "kinds" of Catholicism.  But I lived in Mexico and in the U.S.  I lived a Catholicism in Mexico infused heavily with indigenous influences (my grandmother teaching me and giving me "limpias" or simple medicinal recipes with prayer).  In my U.S. Catholicism, Mercy nuns ran our school—Mercy nuns from Northern California who were fresh from the excitement of Pope John XXIII radically changing the church (Vatican II).  They were far from the Mexican Cristero Catholic background my mother had inherited.  (To read about the Cristero War, click here.) She was born in 1923 in Gomez Palacio, Mexico.  For the first ten years of her life, she was caught up in the Cristero War.  She watched her family and relatives hide Catholic priests or “throw them over the roof to the next house” so that they would not be killed by the government soldiers who were persecuting any priest holding clandestine Catholic mass or other rituals in private homes (and this included her home).  Such an experience made her very religious—never questioning its limitations. As a child, I marveled how my mother’s face would be so transfixed in prayer, her fingers rubbing each wooden bead, her lips mouthing the prayers or “mysteries” of the rosary, a lullaby of words.  My father, on the other hand, was not coming from a Cristero background. Born in Guaymas, Sonora, his father had attended the school where the future President of Mexico, Plutarco Elías Calles, was his teacher—a man who would be responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Catholic priests and members.  The family story goes (who knows if this is myth or reality) that Calles chose my grandfather to be the student in charge of bringing him a six-pack of beer in the afternoons.  Perhaps Calles’ influence had something to do with my father not at all being the passionate Catholic my mother has always been.  Living with a devoted Catholic mother and a lukewarm, almost agnostic father, provided me with two perspectives.  Adding to this was Mexican Catholicism, my grandmother, the California Mercy nuns and their interpretation of the Second Vatican council.

The Mercy nuns were passionate about Vatican II. By the time I reached the seventh grade classroom, these women were no longer wearing the long many-layered nun’s habit, replete with the headpiece veil and coif that covered everything except the face.  I don’t remember seeing a nun’s ears in those early elementary school days. I do remember conversations among students, speculating whether nuns had ears at all. There were multiple layers in the habit causing a nun’s approach and passing to sound and feel like a swirling phantasm.  The woolen belt which included beads (like a large rosary) swished and clinked with the heavy skirts.  I try to imagine the freedom they must have felt after the Vatican II council when they decided to forgo the heavy uniform to wear a simple kerchief, a blouse and skirt, even pants.  By the eighth grade, we were able to see their ears. We were struck by how human they looked.

 In high school, the Mercy nuns took Vatican II even more seriously with our studies. In Virgil Elizondo’s book, The Future is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet, he writes, “Within Catholicism, Vatican Council II opened up a new era in our understanding and appreciation of other religions.  Whereas before we had always seen ourselves as opposed to all others, the Council sought to discover and proclaim what we had in common and what could be the basis of a world family without everyone becoming Western and Catholic” (102).  And this was demonstrated by the courses I took in high school: "Chinese Philosophy," "World Religions," "Religion and Service to Others."  In college (a Jesuit college), the masses I attended were said with a priest and a rabbi taking turns to discuss scripture.  There was an air of discovery, intense learning and debate. We were no longer the recipients of information and ordered to follow norms without any room for discussion.  There was no fear about the reading and learning of other belief systems. I would begin my Chinese Philosophy class with ten minutes of T’ai Chi. In the span of ten years (the 60s and 70s) the Catholic world had changed radically.  And in Latin American countries, similar changes were happening that would then reach me in college and graduate school.  
By 1971, Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez published his book A Theology of Liberation. In it, Gutiérrez calls for “a sufficiently broad, rich, and intense revolutionary praxis, with the participation of people of different viewpoints, [which] can create the conditions for fruitful theory” so that the poor, the disenfranchised, “make the transfer from a ‘naïve awareness’—which does not deal with problems, gives too much value to the past, tends to accept mythical explanations, and tends toward debate—to a ‘critical awareness’—which delves into problems, is open to new ideas, replaces magical explanations with real causes, and tends to dialogue.  In this process, which [Paolo] Freire calls ‘conscientization,’ the oppressed reject the oppressive consciousness which dwells in them, become aware of their situation, and find their own language.  They become, by themselves, less dependent and freer, as they commit themselves to the transformation and building up of society . . . to exercise their creative potential . . . which can be deepened, modified, reoriented, and extended” (56-7). 

And here in the states (via Catholic school), I was also being influenced by Dorothy Day and the artist/activist, Corita Kent.  Corita Kent, especially influenced me, because of her active role in social justice and the Los Angeles art scene. Even today—we are still touched by Corita, when we buy her “love” stamps. 

Corita wrote:  “Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us.  To create means to relate.  The root meaning of the word ‘art’ is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day.  Not all of us are painters, but we are all artists.  Each time we fit things together, we are creating . . . That’s why people listen to music or look at paintings—to get in touch with that wholeness.” 

Later, in college, graduate school, and in my present teaching, reading and re-reading the work of Chicana feminist scholars, Gloria Anzaldúa, Chela Sandoval, Emma Pérez, Norma Alarcón, Norma Cantú, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and others, I am reminded of the earlier work of Gutiérrez and other theologians I have studied such as Hans Kung. Here are some examples: 

Anzaldúa speaks of “the brown woman” who “surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar.  Deconstruct, construct.  She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person. She learns to transform the small “I” into the total Self: (from “La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a New Consciousness” in Borderlands/La Frontera:The New Mestiza). 

In her book, En la Lucha/In the Struggle:  Elaborating a Mujeritsa Theology, Professor of Theology and Ethics, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (Cuban American) explains that “the process of conscientization . . . requires a strong spirit of openness which presses us always to search deeper and more ardently for what is true and what is good; it impels us to a liberative praxis that has as its goal the creation of nonoppressive structures.  This kind of openness is what humility is all about.  Humility is not a matter of self-effacement and self-negation but of being open always to new ways of being responsible and of caring." 
"Besides our own communities, there are different communities that we Hispanic women must relate to in our process of concientization.  

There is the community of ‘the popular church,’ the community which lives a  Christianity that brings together the tenets of Catholicism with those of Amerindian and African religions as well as with the day-to-day struggle for survival of Hispanic Women . . .  the feminist community, the African American community—especially the Womanist community, the gay and lesbian community, the native American community, the Asian American community, and so forth.  Our dialogue with these communities results in a deep praxis of solidarity which resists any attempts to engage in horizontal violence."  

Chela Sandoval writes: “hegemonic feminist forms of resistance represent only other versions of the forms of oppositional consciousness expressed within all liberation movements active in the United States during the later half of the twentieth century” (The Methodology of the Oppressed, 3). 

Sandoval takes note of  “all liberation movements" active from the 1960s through 1990s. Last Wednesday's bells, then, reminded me of this one specific movement (Vatican II) I experienced as a child—experiencing and observing (transnationally) a time of great change (“deconstruct/construct”). It led a number of us to a life of service through teaching, an insistence upon knowing all our histories: "a consciousness of the Borderlands" (Anzaldúa).  

Lately, I observe we are living in a time of great resistance. The Mercy nuns and other orders interpreted Vatican II as a call for social justice, a call for being engaged with the world. Resistance to this focus began in 1978 with the election of John Paul II and it has continued to veer toward a more conservative orthodoxy. I think of the film "Chocolat" (released in 2000) that, in some ways, can be compared to where we are now (especially when Pope Francis invokes "demons" in his sermons). The eighteenth century Christian theologian, Jonathan Edwards, also comes to mind ("Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"). Of late, the nuns have been criticized by the Vatican for their social work. Click here and here.) I cheer on, of course, these fearless nuns who helped raise me, who taught me to stay creative, to observe and take from a multitude of ideas and philosophies; to be, as Chicana feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa (who was not a nun) says-- "to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking . . . to divergent thinking . . . toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes." 

The Methodology of the Oppressed by Chela Sandoval
The bells on Wednesday ushered in a new Pope who seeks to align himself with the poor.  Yet, he is not a Pope who was appointed cardinal during Vatican II. His writings are hostile to the LGBTQ community (which include what the President of Argentina describes as a medieval view of LGBTQ adoptions). He has not been in agreement with those theologians who feel it is time to consider women as priests, to consider priests having the freedom to marry. And will he attend to the Church’s sexual abuses, the cover-ups, the inability to be honest/transparent with its own inequities?  Only time will tell. I keep thinking of the fleeting wonder of bells last Wednesday. 


Anonymous said...

As always thank you for your time in sharing your experiences and insights. I recall a nun who taught me every Saturday during this time and eventually left because she was "too radical". I was young and just thought she was cool. She made the kids feel welcomed. I appreciate your blog and the remembrance.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Gracias "anonymous!" How lucky you were to have had that "radical" nun in your life.

Anonymous said...

This double-mindedness of the Catholic Church keeps confusing me. Sure, there are all these abuses and scandals going in within the Church, and sure, the Catholic Church, for a long time, really keeps up with conservative Christian ethics - and it is the conservative Christian ethics that are most controversial! But still, what attracts me about the Catholic Church is the teaching of love, forgiveness, repentance, sorrow. I am not raised Catholic; as a matter of fact, I am raised in a nonreligious household. Only recently have I explored religion in the United States, specifically Christianity. I attended a Southern Baptist church service before, and I also attended Catholic Mass quite a few times. For the most part, I enjoyed what I gained emotionally and intellectually, gave me an insightful way to look at the world. Because of the Church, I can now vocalize some of my deepest guilts and repent, so I can become more godly. I don't expect myself to be perfect. But striving for a good role model like God is what I admire about the Church. And then there goes all the naughty things that the Church seems to try to hide to appear righteous. Well, let's just hope that the Church do change, but whether they will vocalize their change to the public is a different story. Even if the Church changes or reforms, I doubt the Church should be pressed to announce their change to the public, simply because change comes from the heart, not from what one says. In other words, change can be observed from what one does in the world rather than what one says.