Chapter 5 – Catholics, Catholics, and More Catholics

No one can stop being Catholic unless he was Catholic first. So how did I become so Catholic? I’ll start at the beginning, or as far back as I could trace it.

How Catholic were my ancestors on the Catholicism scale of Richard Dawkins (zero) to Jose Maria Escriba de Balaguer [1](ten)? I did some family tree digging, and it turns out we we’re about a solid 9… just about every ancestor I researched was born and died Catholic.

On my dad’s side, my great-grandparents were all second- or third-generation immigrants from Spanish and Italian Catholic families. They were landowners in the south of Puerto Rico, at a time when abolition should have been written inside quotation marks. They owned sugar plantations, went to Catholic school, had servants at their houses, participated in politics, and got to travel the world.

On my mom’s side, my great-grandparents were all second- or third-generation Spanish immigrant families. They were landowners in western Guatemala, at a time when abolition should have been written inside quotation marks. They owned sugar plantations, went to Catholic school, had servants at their houses, participated in politics, and got to travel the world.

My paternal grandfather was born in a very well-off Catholic home in Ponce (Puerto Rico), went to Catholic school in Ponce, and later studied Agricultural Engineering at Louisiana State University. He married my grandma in his last year of college and moved back to Ponce to tend to the family’s milk farms and processing plant, he would later move on to managing his family’s sugar plantations.

My maternal grandfather was born in a well-off Catholic home in Guatemala, went to Catholic school and later studied Civil Engineering at California Institute of Technology. With the sudden death of his father, he was thrust into managing the family sugar and coffee farms when he was only 22.

My paternal grandmother was born in a well-off Catholic home, she went to (you guessed it) Catholic school and observed all Puerto Rican Catholic traditions such as the day of the Three Kings. In her family, family prevailed, they were so close that her grandparents, aunts, and uncles all shared their backyards and lived on the same city block.

My maternal grandmother was born in a well-off Catholic home, she went to (yup!) Catholic school, and observed all Guatemalan Catholic traditions such as the Day of the Dead. In her family, family prevailed, they were so close that she grew up in a large house that was shared with aunts and uncles, and just steps away from her cousins’ houses.

It’s hard to overstate the Catholicness (it’s a word. But don’t look it up) of my father’s parents. My grandfather retired at 44, the next 30 years his main activity would be as a volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul that, according to their website: “Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (or Vencetians) are men and women who strive to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to individuals in need… we are part of a society of friends united by a spirit of poverty, humility and sharing, which is nourished by prayer and reflection”. From his retirement to his late 70’s, my grandpa would spend the bulk of his productive time taking the holy eucharist to the sick and elderly… he would visit them all over South Miami, pray with them for a bit, then give them communion. I remember the huge respect the whole family had for the blessed hostia (the piece of bread that has been converted into the body of Christ)… it wouldn’t happen often, but I remember the few times that my grandfather brought it home in between visits or before going out to give communion, the whole house grew quiet, we prayed to it. It was seen as a luxury that our family could have the Lord physically in our home.

As Catholic as my abuelo was, if being catholic was a contest, my grandma would’ve beat him handily. She would go to mass every morning at 6:00AM, except for Sundays when she slept in and went to the 8:00AM service. After mass she’d come back for breakfast, which included a short blessing prayer before eating, sweet pastries or a piece of toast with too much butter spread on it, and strong coffee with three spoons of sugar. Some mornings she’d go visit elderly Catholics, talk some gossip and pray with them, if not, she’d pray on her own… at least one full rosary per day. She’d read the local news on El Herald and would devour any catholic pamphlet she came across. Catholic nonprofit organizations would send her letters asking for money, she got a few every day, and she would write a small check to most of them. My grandma wasn’t rich, but she constantly donated small amounts to all these charities even if she had little clue what they were, she felt so bad about ignoring them!

When we visited our family in Miami, I spent most of my time with my grandma. I loved talking with her and playing together, going for walks and feeding the ducks at the park, or going on a bicycle ride. My grandma loved praying with the rosary and I would pray along with enthusiasm and devotion (though, to tell the truth, it did feel a little long, it was a sacrifice to do one whole rosary). Today my granny is 96 and forgets names, places, and stories, but every single time we talk on the phone (and at least five times a day when I visit) she reminds me of two things: one of them is how much I liked praying with her, and how she feels sad we don’t do it anymore[2]. I haven’t told her I’m an Atheist, I hope she doesn’t find out because she probably won’t ever understand.

Just about every one of my ancestors in the three generations I could reasonably trace back, was born in a Catholic home and all of them stayed Catholic enough to raise their kids Catholic. How can a family can churn Catholics at a 99% rate when only 16% of the World’s population is Catholic? I mean, if humans are rational creatures that make decisions that are best for them, it would follow that either (1) people born outside Catholicism would learn its great advantages and convert, or (2) Catholics would figure out that better alternatives exist, and would leave Catholicism.

Why are well-educated people believing in things that they would otherwise shrug off as superstition? They will say it’s ludicrous that Ixmucane, Goddess of corn, made the dough that shaped the first man, but they are OK with the God of the Bible having made Adam out of mud. They will make fun of Mormons believing Joseph Smith found golden plates containing sacred text, but they wholeheartedly believe that Moses was given the Ten Commandments by God written in some stones on top of a mountain. What happens in families like mine that leads to every new generation to adopt the beliefs of their ancestors?

[1] Founder of Opus Dei, a Catholic sect Prelature (subdivision) of the Catholic Church, founded in 1922. We’ll probably have a chapter on it later on.

[2] The second thing she always tells me? She says if I don’t find a girl now, I’m going to be lonely forever.

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