Si, hace mucho frio porque el nuevo papa es de Argentina.
- Tienda owner, Bogota.
Sitting in one of our regular almuerzo places on Tuesday, the world was cracking on with what needed doing. Jane and I sit in our usual corner, awaiting our order. The usual chicken, rice, criollas and salad with soup. The chairs are wooden and uncomfortable, the tables suspiciously waxy from the countless rounds of hungry mouths that have passed above them in the preceeding hours. A frustratingly small bowl of aji sits between us in the middle of the table, and we make the eyes at each other to see whose lunch will come first, and who will get first dibs at the chilli before having to surrupticiously sneak another bowl from a neighbouring table.
The main eating hall sits just over Jane´s shoulder. A small collection of gaping faces stare, arms folded, up at the television mounted atop of shelf in the corner. It´s just gone 130-ish on Tuesday afternoon, and the first round of voting from inside the Sistine Chapel has produced no result.
A ritual that has remained ingrained in the fabric of the largest following any faith has ever known for more than 2000 years. Shadowed by secrecy and divine intervention, mediation, inspiration – whatever you want to call it – if only poltics in Australia were this intruiging.
Suddenly it hits me. We´re in the heartland of Catholicism. According to wikipedia, 70% of the Latin American population are catholic. In places like Argentina and Colombia, that number is more like 90%. That´s a whole lotta people, hey?
I have, upon reflection, found it rather difficult to explain to my students, especially the Latinos, that I have no religion, and that is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much the norm within my family and friendship circles. Yes my uncle is an Anglican priest, and my grandparents regularly attended church, and Sunday mornings (especially Christmas) were spent to the sounds of carols and hymns, but I do not go to church and very few of my friends do.
So when my students ask me how to say things like bendecir or que Dios le bendiga, to be honest, I´m not entirely sure what to say – it puts me in a tricky situation.
For one, I have no major issue telling them how to say these things in English, but I would never say them. I know there certainly are people who would, even in Australia, and most definitely in Colombia. My taxista, the guy that brings wood (the kind you burn in a fireplace) to our front door, the callejero who asks me for coins when I walk to the Transmilenio station and, clearly, some of my students.
Some of the teachers in the staff room raised an eye brow. Or two (and grunted). Others sat watching over my should on Wednesday afternoon as the new Big Fella shuffled out on to the Balcony in St Peter´s Square. The fascination, for me, was not so much about the possibility of the Catholic Church revamping their leadership and taking conservatism in a new direction – I mean, as the emergent leader of the Catholic world, what are the chances that a liberalist will ever make it out on to that balcony, having survived the gauntlet of votes cast by 115 of some of the most conservative men on the planet?
This should give you some idea of the degree to which the Christian Faith has grasp on the hearts and minds of the Latin Continent – Clearly, I´m one of the odd ones out here in Colombia.
No. This is tradition in the purest sense of the word. A ritual that has captured the imagination of the world since the days of St. Peter. A ritual that has remained ingrained in the fabric of the largest following any faith has ever known for more than 2000 years. Shadowed by secrecy and divine intervention, mediation, inspiration – whatever you want to call it – if only politics in Australia were this intruiging.
The reality is, however, that this is some serious shit in this part of the world. Early 2012, a vial of Pope John Paul II´s blood was put on display at La Catedral Primada next to Plaza Bolivar. The queues were insane, and I didn´t even line up to go in – but this should give you some idea of the degree to which the Christian Faith has grasp on the hearts and minds of the Latin Continent.
I remember once asking a Colombia student of mine, who was a priest, what the difference between a spirit and a soul was. The question came up in a story the students were listening to about a haunted hotel. There were spirits in the room? Asked one of my students. What’s a spirit? Asked another. It is the same as a soul?
All eyes turned to the priest, who promptly asked permission to explain himself in Spanish. His eyes turned torwards the floor, and his cheeks went bright pink, a grave look of concentration came over the man.
A soul is the life force that all living beings have within them and need to live, but a spirit? A spirit is the energy of God that lies within us all. He told us.
Clearly, I´m one of the odd ones out here in Colombia.
The conflict I have as a language teacher, raised on maxims of natural language in the classroom, is that my norms are my norms. They come from my part of the world, and my students, for the large part, will only need to use their English to talk to other non-native English speakers. It´s very easy to make assumptions about other people´s faith – about as easy as it is for me to say that I have no relgion. But it´s much harder to stand by and watch, without a sense of curiosity, people crying in St. Peter´s square, cheering at the sight of chemicals burning white, and people neglecting their humble 5,000-peso almuerzo in the hope that 115 aging men, thousands of miles away, might have just come to a concensus as to who is going to give them direction, confidence and, well, faith.
At some level, there´s a little voice inside my head telling me I might be missing out on the party. On another, I recognise that the election of el nuevo papa bears very little significance upon my spiritual well-being – a sure sign I could easily excuse myself from wanting to know what all the fuss is about. But I do, from a distant position, recognise that this week impacts the spiritual well-being of more than 1 billion people, the vast majority of them living next door to me, putting food in front of me every day at my almuerzo joint, making sure my payslips are processed and walking into my classroom thus giving me a source of income.
And for that reason alone, out of courtesy to my host-home, and to nearly 20% of the world´s population, watching a man, who in a former life could well have been my granfather, walk out on to a balcony and make women (and men) all around the world cry (rather than update my facebook status instead of rewrite progress tests for elementary students, for once) is probably the least I could do.