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Catholic by Culture, not Conviction

by sanmigueltimes
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At a large dance event in San Juan del Rios I noticed this sign on a local church celebrating how 500 years ago began the evangelization of the Americas and it struck a chord with me.  I thought “evangelization” or the start of becoming Catholic was an interesting choice of words for the Spanish forming New Spain to take the silver back to Europe and convert the indigenous to the new faith.

There are plenty of other ways to view the Inquisition and the Church’s dominance over Mexico for centuries, but given the location outside a church, the focus on making the indigenous in North and South America Catholic is viewed in a certain, positive, light.

I learned later that day by talking to Mexican pals “evangelization”, or becoming Catholic (and, by default, civilized rather than simply conquered), is always the word used.

It reminded me of an interview I read the day before about a young priest from Pennsylvania now working in Guadalajara.  In reference to what made his priestly duties unique in central Mexico was “”Mexicans are Catholic by culture, not conviction.”

So I spent the day pondering these two statements on celebrating the Church’s arrival and success on making present-day Mexico Catholic and just how Catholic is Mexico?

The short answer is “so very”.

On tours and in books I devote a lot of energy to explaining the integration of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs in present day traditions. For those readers who have not read my piece on the “Twisted Tales of Tamales”, google it for some culinary and cultural fun.

The Church (aka Spanish) had to integrate what folks already believed into tweaked versions of their own beliefs.  That integration, worldwide, along with schools and hospitals are some of the Church’s most outstanding accomplishments.  (Plenty of others have already written about what the Church should be ashamed of.)



The Spanish were vastly outnumbered by the indigenous so placing appeasements in the facades of churches around town was clever, subtle and effective.  I frequently have tours with foreigners living here for decades that had no idea what they see when passing through Plaza Civica daily.

Often on tours folks ask how the Church managed to convert so many.  I assume, like me, they attended Catholic school up North where the Inquisition (like science) wasn’t really delved into!  Simply put, it was the Inquisition.  You either became, at least in public, Catholic, or you were labeled a heretic and disposed of in a gruesome fashion in the Inquisitor’s Prison my pal, Eric, once called home.


You were Catholic or died trying not to be one.

The Church’s influence continued into my parent’s lifetimes, long after Spain, and later France’s, rules were kaput in Mexico.  We’ve other faiths in town today but rarely will you see a Mexican there, they are foreigners’ haunts.  Except for the Mormons, whom like evangelical Protestant faiths in the southern Mexico states, have made inroads.

Our local Mormons have lovely services and activities but even my Mormon pals still sponsor Catholic faith-based events that have nothing to do with being a Mormon, but everything to do with being a Mexican.

Imagine living in Mexico and not understanding saints, Virgins, angels and all the celebrations that come along with them like the recent Dia de Locos.  How confusing it must be to not understand what is going on around you!

In a Northern culture we don’t discuss faith unless I’m trying to convince you of something.  For example, my brother, the Southern Baptist minister, can’t speak to you for a full minute without letting you know if you aren’t Baptist too you are on an express train to Hell.  For the record, he’s not the brother that left the priesthood to marry a nice Jewish gal and become a travelling circus clown with the act “Farmer Toone, his wife and their kid” (a baby goat).

I’ve digressed, my point is, you don’t have to believe what devout Catholics do, but it behooves one, while in Mexico, to understand what Catholics do believe.  Big ticket events like Christmas, Easter, Dia de Locos and alike will make more sense as will the fireworks and clanging bells.  You’ll also appreciate why a church can hang a sign about the Inquisition and after-effects with pride.  Again, you may not agree with the sentiment but you’ll know where it is coming from.

Plus you’ll understand how being a conquered race effects how you, the foreigner from a conquering country like the US, sees daily events.  Perhaps your pal has multiple amours, is unkind to pets or over-charges for your taxi ride but they’ll still do the sign of the cross on the forehead and mouth when passing a church or image of Guadalupe.  Culture prevails over convictions and perhaps President Trump’s recent remark about Mexico being a Catholic country wasn’t as ignorant and insensitive as it appeared in the press.  Hard to tell with him.



Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series.  All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays.  Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA.  Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkingTours.com, and JosephTooneTours.com.

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