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How “Church” Can Be Joyful and Relevant

My wife, Amparo, and I have been staying in the little town of Barichara, Colombia, for the past three weeks. It bills itself as “the most beautiful town in Colombia,” and I don’t doubt that’s at least close to the truth.

Nuzzled in a valley that suddenly drops into an even deeper one, surrounded by mountains that change hues with the clouds’ varying configurations, it has unique stone streets, colonial houses with red tile roofs, quaint shops and interesting restaurants.

The climate is near perfect. Warm afternoons generate gentle, cooling breezes late in the day and early evening. Exotic trees, plants and birds are everywhere. One bird the size of a hen, called the Guacharaca, makes a deafening morning sound, calling mates in other tall trees. It sounds like the rasping percussion instrument of the same name, but over a loud speaker at maximum volume. If you look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll see a picture of the animal and can listen to a recording of its bizarre call.

So Many Resources

As with many Latin American towns based on the Spanish model, the town has a central plaza dominated by a huge church. (Interesting how people in past generations, both in Europe and Latin America, poured so many resources into churches, which they wanted to be the most beautiful and impressive buildings in town.)

This Barichara church, whose huge main doors open onto a flora-choked park around the central plaza, is no exception. It’s made of huge blocks of rock. Its interior has shiny tiled floors and the main altar, with its statues and crucifixes, is elaborate in the Spanish style.

But the physical attributes are not its main attraction, thanks to the church’s pastor, Antonio Díaz Gómez and the way he celebrates – and that’s the operative word here – Sunday masses. He packs them in to masses that are best described in a single word: joyful.

To me, that’s the measure of a successful liturgy, that people leave feeling happy (and not because they’re LEAVING the church.). People leaving this church after Padre Antonio’s 10 a.m. mass are like people leaving a moving, upbeat film. You get the impression they have heard the “good news” of the gospel, that it made sense and they’ve taken it to heart.

The music is hand-clapping energetic. The mass prayers are understandable and expressive. But Padre Antonio’s homilies are what stand out. Like Jesus, he connects with people, using examples from their everyday lives to relate to the Scripture readings.

“I’m from a family of nine children,” he told people one Sunday. “That’s where I learned the meaning of “church.” He meant, of course, that “church” doesn’t refer principally to a building, a structure or the hierarchy, but is a relationship to God and others. In other words, a family.

On a subsequent Sunday when the gospel reading was about Jesus curing the apostle Peter’s, mother-in-law, Padre Antonio told the congregation that Jesus wasn’t primarily about working miracles but about getting people to change their hearts. (And contrary to a few modern scholars who believe Jesus’ message was political, it’s obvious in every chapter of the gospels that it was profoundly spiritual: search for God and you will find him.)

I understand that many see their departure from religion as definitive. They see the mass, or the services of the tradition in which they grew up, as period pieces of which they no longer wish to be a part. But considering the stakes, wouldn’t it make sense to give it another look?

I believe seeing the church as “family” may be important in any re-consideration of its value in modern life. Much of how we feel about religion is that it’s “out-of-date,” maybe in the way we see our parents or grandparents themselves. But we don’t lose our love and respect for them.

“Modern Today, Archaic Tomorrow”

And people who are rational and mature understand that “modern” is completely relative. What’s modern today is archaic tomorrow. Who cares whether our parents, grandparents or ancestors were out-of-date? Most of us wouldn’t think of disowning them.

Religion’s core values, beliefs and practices are timeless. They apply today – though needing some creativity – just as they did yesterday and will tomorrow.

Sitting in a pew in the church in Barichara, I was struck by the composition of the congregation. There were a few tourists like us there, but the vast majority were simple people from Barichara and vicinity. There appeared to be few wealthy or well-educated people among them, reminding me of what the authors of the first letter to the Corinthians said about the early Christians: “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth….”  

I felt privileged to be among them. It’s hard to explain, but I had the feeling that by being in their presence I was more likely to be accepted and loved by God.

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