Peru is an extremely Catholic country. And within that, Arequipa is an extremely Catholic city. It is woven into the culture here in a very real way. People will state that they are Catholic, even if that just means their family would claim the Catholic church over another, rather than defining their sense of self in relation to God and the world. Nominal Catholicism is widespread, with such participants attending mass on religious holidays, but relatively few times apart from those.
The most common kind of private school is Catholic, and the indoctrination happens in the classroom, with hundreds of students being taught the catechism and being confirmed each year. It is a systematic reality, in that some schools actually require Catholic ties, refusing to enroll students whose parents have not been baptized into the Catholic church and married under the auspices of the church. And students can receive low grades for their lack of participation in yearly activities honoring saints and such.
We knew most of this when we came here. We knew it would be hard to figure out how to deal with this specific aspect of the culture. I have had multiple friends turn down my request to study the Bible with them because they don’t want to mix my beliefs with theirs. It’s an obstacle in our path and no surprise at that. Those who do study with us struggle with leaving behind their family ties, faith in the saints or Mary, history of positive religious experiences, dependence on priests, and even a loss of family time on Sundays while we have our weekly time together. One can’t quite separate Peruvian holidays from Catholic holidays (honoring one or another saint, or name for Mary), and when your entire world seems to function on the Catholic clock, stepping off into the unknown can even affect how you celebrate days that are no longer special. It’s a big deal.
However, I have learned even more. The average person in a Catholic church is not encouraged to read the Bible for themselves, for fear that they might misunderstand its message. They should only study with the oversight of one of the qualified members, such as clergy or other sufficiently studied individuals, to prevent any self-misdirection. After a set amount of time of such overseen study, they can proceed to a new level that provides additional freedoms. There are several such stages that a layperson may achieve, but it would signify years of purposeful, supervised time spent learning the teachings of the Catholic church. Clergy are near the top of this pyramid.
Thus, I was told by one friend whom I had invited to participate with me in several different avenues (group Bible study, personal study, accountability partners, prayer partners, etc.) that her priest will not permit her to engage in any spiritual conversation with me. She did not go into any detail as to how this came about, but I was floored. To not be allowed to share and interact spiritually with a person outside of the bounds of Catholicism?! Not even to pray together? Because I might ruin her belief system? That’s crazy!
And yet, we do that, don’t we? We see people who are outside of our comfort zone, who might stretch us beyond the version of us we like and are used to, and we find a reason to avoid them, to write them off as too risky. We want so badly to protect who we are and what we know that we miss opportunities that God is putting right in our faces to grow, to prove that we will follow His priorities and His guiding, even if we can’t see where it is headed, but our guess is toward something pretty scary, or at least different.
It’s easy for us to look at this culture that is nervous about letting people read the Bible and say, “Well, that’s just sad. Everyone should be able to seek God on their own terms.” We can say that because we have the freedom to do just that. But what kinds of things might strike us? What would be our version of this same struggle of fear and self-protection? Do we have the faith to follow what we know is true but has yet to be allowed to happen?
I know I have seen Peruvians enjoy reading their Bibles much more than you or I probably do. It has been forbidden fruit, of a sort, and they embrace the option to seek for themselves. It is refreshing to be reminded by their responses that the Bible is valuable all by itself, teaching us the heart of God, the message of Jesus, and how the church should be. When they are set free from the shackles of having their faith restricted by the teachings of mere men, they are able at last to develop a walk of faith all their own. Isn’t that what God is all about? He doesn’t want cookie cutter Christians. He is too creative for that. He wants His children to rejoice in who He has made them to be, living the life He has given them, rather than blindly following the preferences of religious authorities.
At the same time, we can draw some wisdom from the practices of the Catholic church. They have put a great deal of effort into preserving a specific religious system, to such success that Catholicism remains a force to be reckoned with. Basically, when you act like something is important, people respond as such. However, we should commit ourselves to valuing the message given to us by God, the teachings of Jesus Himself, rather than adding rules and restrictions simply for our own benefit. Let’s study, know and live that message.