Once a Catholic...
Updated: Nov 8, 2018
"Tell a person that you're the Metatron and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody is a theology scholar."
- Metatron, Dogma 1999
“Hello Alba, we are doing well and we have made it through the super typhoon. We heard that you have some troubles with your pregnancy. Mum says you should not eat so much and please pray as well. We are always praying for you, OK? Love you and God bless all the 3 of you. :-)”
I was staring at the message my sister forwarded me from my parents. She was still typing.
“What did you tell them?“ followed right after. I had to dictate my reply as I was pushing a stroller. Since Alba moved back to Germany it was just me and my parents sharing the same time zone. Although they've lived in Germany for almost thirty years they still get confused about the time difference between Germany and the Philippines. They are now even more confused since Germany switched to winter time which means they are seven hours apart instead of six. Alba and I manage to coordinate our time zones and we chat or Skype every other day. That's why my parents rely on me to stay up to date when it comes to their youngest child.
“I just told them that because of the baby getting bigger you cannot eat 3 big meals anymore and have to snack more. I also told them that because of the bigger tummy you haven't been sleeping well recently. That's it.” The usual pregnancy annoyances. Nothing to worry about. Definitely nothing to bother the Almighty with.
I do not remember exactly when I prayed the last time, but I believe that over the years I started to feel that genuine distress was the minimum requirement to contact God. The prayers also got shorter until they were reduced to their essence: “Oh God, please, please, please. Oh God.” Those are words suitable for when your seven month old baby slides head-first off the bed but not for your sister’s sub-par sleep due to her unborn child's healthy growth rate.
My parents have always been religious, especially my mom. Until now she believes our family is blessed because nothing really awful had happened to us yet like premature death, the loss of a limb or a world war. By that definition most of our acquaintances are blessed. But because we sometimes found ourselves in tricky situations, many of which were self-caused -yet made it out unscathed, my mom believed us to be especially blessed. It was a little bit like Mulan’s granny who covered her eyes and stepped on a busy street just to test if she was holding a lucky cricket.
Due to my mom’s pull our family was very religious. We went to church every Sunday. Dad always went along but was a little bit more laid back. He preferred to sit in the mid- to back rows away from the isle and ideally beside a pillar in case he nodded away and needed support. Mom wanted us to sit way in the front well within the pastoral search beam radius.
Since we had no car and had to walk 30 to 40 minutes to church we seldom arrived early enough to secure front seats. If the German beach towel driven take-over of sun loungers at any resort is any indication it is probably no surprise why four Filipinos were not able to beat German retirees to the front bench. Sometimes there were a few free gaps in the front rows. Dad would volunteer to sit in the less lit back while mom would march us altar-wards. She often managed to seat us in the first row and she’d take seat in the second row directly behind us. With a priest right in front of us and mom behind us we were less likely to fidget. If we were too chatty or giggly mom just leaned over and discreetly pinch us in the arm.
Worship also continued at home. Instead of family game night we would gather in front of the home altar. My dad would strum his guitar and accompany us singing ‘Que sera sera’. We would also pray the rosary in which Alba and I honed our skill to recite ‘Hail Mary’ in lightning speed without sounding disrespectful, slurring words or having to take extra breaths.
Like most Filipinos, we were raised Catholic with a pinch of Filipino spiritualism. It would manifest a reverent anxiety towards God, the usual Catholic guilt and the conviction that there are flying female demon torsos out there sucking people dry in their sleep. Luckily those dismembered entities could not cross the Pacific and therefore we, the Filipinos who made it to Germany, were safe. God was usually portrayed as strict but loving parent who could whack you with fate like an Asian parent with a slipper. All done out of love and for your own good.
A big part of our religious education was watching religious epic movies from the 50's and 60's. They were broadcasted on public-service channels usually on weekends or public holidays. The really epic ones like Ben-Hur were shown in two parts split over two days. So the weekend was all set.
“Mama, why did the son of the king die?” 8-year old me asked while we were watching ‘The Ten Commandments’. “Because the pharaoh did not believe in the one true God,” my mother replied without taking her eyes off the screen. On another weekend we were watching ‘Quo Vadis’ or some other movie where Romans and Christians did not get along. “Mama, why are the Christians tied to crosses and fed to lions?” “Because they believe in the one true God.”
For Alba and me that made completely sense. It can suck to be a Christian sometimes but you have the distinction of being on the right side which will give you the strength to endure all those godly trials like lions, Leprosy and lashings. Rest assured, you are less likely to be smitten by godly wrath. After watching ‘The Ten Commandments’ it felt almost like a validation of learning when we got up from the sofa and blood would rush back into our butts like sight into Apostle Paul's eyes.
There were times when both my parents had to work on Sundays and we could not attend church. Once I turned ten and Alba hit the eight year old mark, my parents deemed us mature enough to leave us alone for a few hours equipped with a toaster and enough toast. We turned on the TV and switched to the channel which showed the live broadcast of a Catholic mass. It was not immersive enough. We decided to hold our own mass. For where two or three gather in His name, there he is with them. Our dining table was quickly converted into an altar by setting it with a table runner, ab bible, a crucifix from the home altar, a silver dessert glass and my baptism candle. I donned my father's bathrobe and took the role of the priest while my sister rose to the occasion and portrayed altar boys, congregation and organist. We did not have frankincense but cotton buds and the dead leaves we gathered from our mom's house plants produced sufficient smoke. Thanks to the ample supply of toast we had enough material to fashion a huge be it somewhat wobbly communion wafer. Grape juice served as the eager Catholic minor's version of sacramental wine.
"Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” I chanted like a monk. Then in unison my sister and I would raise our voices as we had to make up for an entire congregation and sang: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” We skipped passing around a collection basket since it was always our mom who pressed one Deutsche Mark in our hands so we had something to drop into the basket. No mom, no money. But we went through with the sign of peace. Usually after the Our Father prayer, the priest asks the congregation to offer one another a sign of peace. Everybody will turn around and try to shake 3 to 5 hands with people around them mumbling, “Peace be with you”. Alba and I shook each others hands several times and said “Peace be with you” differently each time to keep it diverse.
Having succeeded in reenacting a mass successfully was quite empowering for two primary school children. Should Romans ever rise to power and persecute Christians again, therefore causing a shortage in priests, we'd be solid backup.
Now that we are grown up our religious fire has shrunk down to glimmery glow. Alba still considers herself Catholic, albeit an inactive one who opted out from paying church tax. After much deliberation I would describe myself as Catholic-nostalgic open agnostic. If by coincidence I happened to wander into a church tomorrow I might light a candle for my sister and my probably colossal unborn nephew not expecting anything but nevertheless hoping for less annoyances in her well-being. Church candles have no divine power whatsoever but they still look comforting in a quiet semi-lit room. Amen.