The school chapel was small, but not modest. The shiny marble floor had intricate patterns and an occasional fossil that we used to stare at while the preacher, in his elegant purple robes, delivered his weekly sermon. Mass was compulsory for all students. Nothing was arbitrary. The fancy incense, the golden altar. The pupils carefully selected to sing in the choir about angels, miracles, and eternal happiness. And the sumptuous decor gave this supposedly sacred place an air of elitism.
And there was me, about nine-years-old, living one of the most important days that any Catholic person can live, or so they told me. The day when you become worthy of the flesh and blood of a 2,000-year-old hippie (Jesus) that loved to get drunk (or “multiply wine”) and hang out with hookers (aka Magdalene).
The pew was made of sturdy wood and uncomfortable. The ceremony, extra long. All of the 90 kids from the all-boys elite school, Los Alcazares in Medellin Colombia, had that specific face of solemnity that people put on when they repeat a ritual whose meaning has been forgotten over time, that semi-emancipated look that expects some divine recognition in the after-life for good behavior and for sitting still over an hour and half ceremony where the wafting incense dust plays the how-long-can-you-hold-your-sneeze challenge. Eventually it was my turn to take the holy sacrament. Like a robot, I perfectly and mindlessly fulfilled the task, more thrilled about the wine than the taste of God made wafer.
Outside of the extraordinary events that happen every few years or so, like the holy communion or the confirmation, life was quite indoctrinating. At school we prayed whilst standing up before every class. We had spiritual guidance from an spiritual guide, a dude who had made some sort of vows and dedicated his life to study a book of fiction from an unknown author. We had weekly confessions at our disposal, where the priest asked us about everything from our family life, our school grades, to our temptation level to jack-off at night (as if they got off to that on the other side). It seemed normal to me at the time that we had such an moralistic army of male adults at our disposal to guide us through the tough and tempting times of youth. But as the years passed, that feeling of normality transformed into a sense of awkwardness that endured for a period of my life where doubt and uncertainty replaced faith and penitence.
But as far I was concerned, I was a privileged kid whose ethical duty was to be obedient and grateful not to be starving like many other Colombians. However, looking back, it’s pretty obvious that we were being brainwashed, heavily brainwashed, by one of the most fundamentalist sects in Catholicism: the Opus Dei. A sect known for its ultra-conservative followers whose common practice of inflicting pain on themselves is righteously depicted in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, a book we were told was unworthy of our time. Just like another 6,892 books that the sect has forbidden.
Everything was catered to serve this specific agenda, from the literature, to the ethics class, and the sexual education teaching us that sex before marriage was a grave sin (never heard the word ‘condom’ in school). We were constantly reminded that sin and temptation were always around, and that only through prayers and faith could we redeem ourselves, as sinners from birth. To help with this guidance into purity, we had in every classroom a beautiful photo of the Virgin Mary and the most famous masochistic symbol in the world: the crucifix.
At home, things weren’t too different, even though my parents didn’t officially belong to the sect. They were practicing Catholics — my dad combined a sermon of love with a totalitarian disciplinary dynamic, making obedience and faith the spine of our intellectual compass. There was always a bible at home and the imagery that reinforces all the myths that come with it, from Virgin icons in all formats, to the face of Christ and fashionable crucifixes, the first forms of propaganda in my childhood. Back when I thought I was a believer and repented for my unworthy human nature, we were taught to pray from young age by gathering around in my parents room before bed. Repeating out loud the Catholic mantras and sharing our petitions and intentions. My siblings and I would try to be as honest as possible and not too materialistic; we would mention the poor and hope for their well-being, while every Sunday we would go to the upper-class church in the upper-class neighborhood that we lived in to get our weekly redemption by giving 20.000 pesos to the institution that promised us immortality by the side of an almighty, all-generous, and all-loving old man that somehow had a pretty decent situation going on up in heaven, while managing to keep everything fucked up down here on earth. Maybe we should thank our Spanish conquistadors, for now Colombia proudly ranks in the top ten most Catholic countries in the world, while holding the second place in Latin American for inequality.
Last year 300 children died of malnutrition while the country’s three richest men owned more than 10% of the country’s GDP (I guess they didn’t get their weekly ratio of wafers). Confrontation with the inequality in Colombia is something that can’t be avoided no matter your level of wealth. Street beggars circle traffic lights, drug dealers dominate suburbs, and media rely on shock value to deliver their daily news. Everyone knows to a certain level that somehow things are not going quite as the divine plan would like it to be. Somehow things just perpetuate themselves between an education at home and schools that definitely have a Catholic program, while the government stills consults the priest in turn to achieve a better public opinion.
As kid I believed. I couldn’t have known any different. Everyone around me was a believer. In Colombia, God truly is omnipresent. From local expressions, to reunions, repentance, imagery everywhere; restaurants, roads, bars, you name it. Everytime I complained about being forced to go to Sunday mass (my second mass of the week, after going to the one at school), my Mom would tell me she didn’t enjoy it quite much as a kid, but it was now a very special moment for her.
As I grew up, believing only became harder. I just never had the tools or the strength to confront my doubts with the world that surrounded me, a world that so feverishly assured the validity of a creed that preached love, but demanded money, justice, but not in this life, happiness, with terms and conditions, and punishment for doubt. To every question, a vague answer, to disobedience, penitence, to disbelief, remorse, and to maturbation, shame.
In my last years of high school I was totally disenchanted not only by the lack of coherence between theory and reality, but also by two key events that unfolded. The first was in religion class. I remember the teacher explaining some of the dogmas of Catholic faith (a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as indisputably true) which were to be believed, no matter what. I raised my hand and asked: How can we be certain that these dogmas are true? To which he answered (side note: we only had male teachers and when our mothers had to drop by the school, they were told to cover their skin and were best kept out of the students’ view. For Catholics and their mythology, women are the bad seed of temptation. Talk about an ally of sexism.) we can be sure about this because the bible says so. In my head this made no sense. Here is a man telling me that another man that died over 2,000 years ago and resurrected three days after being brutally murdered is totally true because a book says so; not only that, but the book is composed by different books in which some of them have a difference of over 400 years of being written, obviously by different authors. Why this book specifically then, and not The Iliad for example? Or the Lord of the Rings? Both compelling stories of good and evil, heroes and villains, and all the basic characteristics of good old fiction?
“Because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The other thing that happened that found my total apathy for Catholic religion was probably one of the saddest events in my life. Throughout high school I made a really good friend, like a brother. Like any other teenager, he faced some volatile times. After a hard break-up he decided, as he communicated to me, to marry God. By this time I was already pretty anti and was over and done with the school’s bullshit, so of course the news dropped down like an ice bucket. Marry God? But that’s insane, you are only 17-years-old. How can you know you want to marry and are ready to make vows to the pope of celibacy and poverty?
His answer sounded orchestrated by the religion teacher: “I heard his call.”
After that Sunday I grew dull, filled with an anger. I would get drunk, cry to him, and beg him not to make such a pivotal mistake. I know it may sound a bit dramatic, but I feared my best friend was not only being manipulated in a moment of weakness, but also compromising his future to the extent that the repercussions would be impossible to erase. I felt alone and impotent. Not to mention he came from a wealthy family, which meant the sect would eventually receive his inheritance, and he was smart, the perfect candidate.
This is when the spiritual guidance, that the school so generously offered, came in handy. I would be regularly taken out of class and asked to reflect upon my lack of support for someone, that if I truly loved I should support, because he was special and he had heard the call.
Somehow, my friend and I made an unspoken agreement not to talk about religion anymore. Eventually he, still a believer, decided not to marry God, but live a Catholic life.
A few years after, we finished high school. More traumatized than I knew at the time, I continued drinking, started university, and life continued its course.
But to me those days still represent a vivid experience of how these belief systems work. They recruit, provide comfort, and manipulate those going through a hard time for a specific purpose, promising things they cannot be certain of nor prove.
After about 12 years in an all-boys school, I was sent abroad to perfect my English. My dad, knowing I had lots of doubts about the Catholic faith, was convinced that I would return transformed as a true believer, ready to preach the word of God as the Bible says (this is the mission that all Catholics have, to try and convert as many non-believers as possible; the bigger the crowd the bigger the income, right?). However the experience turned out to be the complete opposite. I got the chance to live with an atheist family that believed in science, progress, equality, and liberal ideals that provided better answers for today’s problems, and more importantly, they listened to my doubts and provided logical answers and reasonable solutions to questions religion can only address with abstract concepts and vague hypocrisy.
Thanks to my time away from Colombia, I’ve realized that curiosity is a gift and doubt has been humanity’s tool for progress. I can go to bed with a peace of mind after having a wank or reading whatever book I want because there’s no creep watching. The world doesn’t need a supernatural all-powerful being to come to its aid (or watch people masturbate). It needs conscious humans that can discern, question, and debate without totalitarian replies or banned titles/ideas. For people to look within, accept ignorance, and take responsibility, no matter how hard it may seem.