By Amanda Molé, MSW
Before I begin, perhaps I should say that some of my reflection may seem controversial. However, I feel like it is important for me to be honest and real throughout my learning process.
This morning, I got up early enough to get dressed up for church and decide where I wanted to go. Since I was late arriving for this trip last week, I missed the cathedral trip in Barcelona. I decided to look for a cathedral here, and found the Concatedral de San Nicolas. There was a mass at 11:00, so I left my host’s home at 10:00 so I could take my time getting there.
The walk there was difficult… Panhandlers, who have mostly been not visible in Alicante, were out in droves. It was heartbreaking seeing them lining the streets, and calling out to me in Spanish. Even though I could not understand all the words, I understood their pain. Even upon arriving at the church’s doors, five or six people immediately approached me, with outstretched hands and cries of “Por favor, por favor!” I was torn between wanting to help, and knowing that if I gave money to one person, more would approach me. I repeated “Lo siento” over and over, put my head down, and walked through the doors.
The splendor of the cathedral was mesmerizing. The beautiful gothic architecture was apparent from the ceiling to the floor, with large open spaces, intricately carved columns, and round windows. Ornate tapestries, detailed paintings, and fresh flowers adorned the altar and walls. A massive pipe organ was to the right of the altar, played by a talented young man.
Of course, the mass was said in Spanish. However, since I was raised Catholic, I recognized the parts of the mass (the First Reading, Second Reading, Gospel, and homily), as well as the Nicene Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Gloria. I didn’t participate in reciting the prayers (I felt too self-conscious to say them in English), but I did greet other parishioners after the Lord’s Prayer, donated a euro to the offering, and took Communion. As far as I could understand, the parts of the mass were the same as they are in the United States. This makes sense, since the Catholic church is much more structured than Protestant churches. There were a few differences, however. Nearly all of the parishioners were formally dressed, and in the United States, many Catholic churches do not mind if people are wearing jeans and t-shirts. Additionally, as I looked around, I noticed there was not a single child or even teenager present. I do not know the reason for this, but I found it surprising! As a whole, I found the experience lovely.
After mass, I took a seven-minute walk to the Basilica de Santa Maria, because I wanted to see what the difference is between a cathedral and a basilica. It turns out there is not much difference: a basilica is simply a higher ranking church, given that designation by the Pope. The inside of the basilica was almost as beautiful as the cathedral, though a bit smaller. It, too, had intricately carved columns, gothic architecture, and large, beautiful paintings.
While visiting these gorgeous churches today, I reflected back on our visit to Caritas Parroquial Nuestra Senora de la Misericordia, which is also Catholic. I wondered if Basilica de Santa Maria and Concatedral de San Nicolas had similarly active community service and charity programs. I know we are not supposed to assume, but… surely such large churches must have similar programs. I imagine it is not restricted to Caritas. For some time, I have been disillusioned by Christianity in the United States. Many of our churches do not engage in consistent community outreach, except perhaps around the holidays. We also have supposedly religious people attempting to pass laws to keep same-sex couples and non-Christians from adopting orphaned children while openly oppressing anyone who does not conform to their strict, seemingly arbitrary rules. When we visited Caritas, the Sisters and Padre explained to us that it does not matter what religion or race someone is in order to receive services. They told us that they are more concerned about “healing hearts” than conforming to rules. Are all, or perhaps most, of the churches in Spain this way? I hope so. Are ANY of the churches in the United States this way? I honestly don’t know. It has been difficult for me to find a church in which I feel comfortable as a progressive Christian. Where are the Christians who reach out to the sick, the old, the homeless, the immigrants, the children, the widows? Where are the Christians who want to “heal hearts?” That is where I want to be.
I am grateful for the opportunity to observe and at least somewhat participate in religious services outside of my little area of Florida. It gives me hope that we can accomplish great deeds in spite of all the negativity in the world.