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Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the center of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings.
Pope Francis, 29 September 2013
This new line of the Catholic Church, breaking with the tradition of dealing with indulgences and of preaching water while drinking wine, doesn’t seem to have reached Bolivia yet. Because on a normal Friday afternoon, hundreds of cars, minibuses and trucks line up in front of the cathedral in Copacabana. They are neatly festooned with colorful ribbons, adorned with kitschy knick-knack, and many of the cars wear a cute Andean hat.
“That’s a huge wedding,” you may think, but it ain’t. People bring their cars to have them blessed. The exact procedure as prescribed by psalm 68:17 works like this: You wait until the cars in front of you are finished, then you drive up to the square before the cathedral.
There, you open the hood of your car, adorn it with garlands, confetti, flowers, wallets, icons, statues of the Virgin Mary and plastic models of cars. I didn’t quite understand if you are supposed to use a model of your own car or of the car that you want to upgrade to.
So far, you may have been thinking “These people don’t understand what Jesus is about. They misinterpret the Bible. This has nothing to do with the Catholic Church”.
Because then the priests show up. The priests – and there are several of them because they have a whole convoy of Christian truckers to deal with – not only silently tolerate this spectacle, but they bow in front of the open hood, make the sign of the cross as if standing before an altar, spray water on it (Christians believe that water can be holy), say some prayers and walk around the car, spraying water into all its doors.
Then they pose for a photo with the happy family.
Next, the owner of the car opens a bottle of beer or other alcohol, walks around his car once and disperses the alcohol like the priest did with the holy water before. And then, this is South America after all, where noise is good, some firecrackers are lit.
Because I had seen this ritual once before when I had been in Copacabana, also on a Friday, I ask the owner of a restaurant if this takes place every week. “Nooo,” he exclaims, as if my question was an insult to the local level of activity, “every day! From 11 a.m. to 2 o’clock in the afternoon.” Friday only seems to be the most popular day because many of the cars are actually from neighboring Peru. The devout families like to come for this Christian procession and then spend a few days on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Funnily enough, there I saw many families hire an Inca priest who will perform a second ceremony on the already baptized car, which involves the burning of coal and coca leaves, some singing and dancing and of course another bottle of alcohol being sprayed over the car.
Further down the shore, car washers offer their services in Lake Titicaca. This may be the only lake in the world with a higher content of alcohol than of salt. The trout is particularly tasty here.
Perhaps you deem all of this to be rather materialistic. But the Catholic Church in South America always had a heart for the poor (liberation theology). Thus, there is also an option for car-less Christians. You need to climb the mountain on the left with me to discover it.
Because this place is all about Jesus, the mountain is Mount Calvary and the way up is a way of the cross. It’s a steep climb and because of the altitude (the top is at 3,973 meters – maybe the highest way of the cross in the world), you are really forced to stop at every station and
pray catch your breath, allowing you to enjoy the views of Copacabana and then of Lake Titicaca.
Halfway up, there is a statue of Jesus, with an open door underneath.
In case you don’t get it, there is a helpful sign, explaining that this is where you should leave your donations. As everyone knows from Bible study, it works like this: You have to leave a little bit of money, pray, and then Mr Jesus, Mr God or Mr Ponzi (the holy trinity) will send you more money. The sign helpfully suggests “cars, houses and dollars” as donations, which is particularly strange because dollars are not the currency of Bolivia. Apparently, this Mr Jesus is very picky.
Exactly behind the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” are many Aymara priests offering their services, some of them unproblematically combining Christian with Inca symbols.
At this point, you are honestly better off to enjoy the view. But that’s the subject of another article, which – God willing – will be forthcoming if you pray and pay enough.
In the interest of receiving divine salvation, I continue the climb. At the top, I am rewarded with a whole lot of crosses, candles and people in funny costumes posing for photos.
But now to the most important part. After all, you don’t pilgrimage the whole way for nothing. As a proper Christian, you want stuff! You want a car, a house, maybe a bigger house or even an apartment complex. And lots of dollars, apparently. In order to achieve these sacred goals, you can buy miniature models of whatever it is that you desire. Then you buy a few candles, you light them and leave them on one of the altars and – swoosh – you will receive cars, houses and more dollars. It really works! Only this can explain Bolivia’s economic boom.
The suitcases are for those who want to travel and haven’t read my article on how affordable it actually is to travel the world.
Funniest of all, you can also purchase university diplomas, health certificates, driving licences and even a Bolivian passport. Maybe I should have tried that to avoid my visa problems.
What happened in South America is that the Catholic Church took over the pre-existing idea of human and animal sacrifices, but because they didn’t know what to do with all the virgins (how could the Incas have known that Catholic priests prefer boys?) and llamas, they accept money instead.
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In case the subtle message didn’t get across:
Most of my readers live in countries that you would consider as overwhelmingly influenced by Christianity. So when you read that 90% of Bolivians are Christian, you think that you know something about the country. In reality you don’t know much if you never leave the house and get to know the world yourself. (Or read this blog.)
If even terms like “Christian” or “Catholic” , with which you grew up and which you believe to know, are interpreted so differently in the country next door, just imagine how wrong you are with your prejudices about Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
- More articles from Bolivia.
- More theology. It’s actually quite funny.
This is a great article. It is probably going to lose you about 10% of your readership. It is so accurate in its depiction of the transparent yet very seldom commented on way that the Catholic Church absorbs older traditions. First it was the Roman ones, then the Celtic and wider “Paganism” moving on to African & finally Asian and South American (as the brand went global through the traditional marketing concepts of conquest, destruction of culture, torture, disenfranchising the natives and then offering them a bullet (sword) proof solution to their woes through Christ). They wrap a Catholic feast day, “saint” or ritual around them – and then charges the devout to participate. It really is quite clever – even inspired – divinely inspired.
Thank you very much! And yes, some of my South-American friends have already stopped speaking with me after this article.
The issue of syncretism is indeed very interesting and worthy of a more serious article. I first noticed it in South America where it’s too obvious and where it was easy for pantheistic natives to accept just one more god/prophet. I have seen photos of Christian processions in some of the Jesuit reductions that would look pagan to any European Christian.
Excellent writing and photography. I had no idea about the church in S. America. Thank you! BTW – when I was married in Schleswig-Holstein, it was at the Rathaus and almost no formality. My brother-in-law wore a t-shirt. But…I did have to post my name at the Rathaus for at least two weeks to indicate my intentions and that I was not a sailor with wives in other ports. I wonder if this custom still exists?
Thank you very much!
I think you would have the same sensation if you visit the Mennonites in Bolivia. They live so differently that you could hardly believe that you have anything in common. Probably religion is really overrated as an identifying factor.
The “Aufgebot” is no longer necessary for getting married in Germany.
I guess getting rid of the Aufgebot is progress. But there are times you think someone should really speak up.
Maybe there should be a trial period of 6 months during which you can walk away without consequences. Like with employment contracts.
The article Is not bad. However, there is nothing good about mocking a culture
Superstitions should be mocked. They are dangerous and they prevent people from doing what they really need to do in order to achieve their goals.
As a fellow Bolivian I will like to first point out that in the place where the Jesus cross is. What the signs means is that you can “challar” or to bless everything that you want there in this case the sign also recommends some of the classic desires from Bolivian people (cars, money, etc). The sign doesn’t says that you have to leave donation for Jesus in there. Well you have to pay the amautas(the aymaras priests) in order to have the blessing but this in another history.
I think that the article is interesting as the point of view of a foreign in the lands of Bolivia. As you mentioned in Bolivia there is a mix between the catholic church costumes and the ones from aymaras and quechuas culture. Some time is really hard to differentiate them even for people from Bolivia. I do agree with the fact that this love for the material is really bad for any culture in the world and that all this energy could be better use in some other part.
I don’t know if you have seen or heard about the carnival of oruro? I will say is the maximum expressions of the union of both cultures.
Thank you very much for this clarification/correction!
I have not attended the carnival in Oruro yet, but I generally find this mixing of religions very interesting. Particularly because, although I am atheist myself, I am from a Catholic family. So I thought I knew everything about Catholicism, but in Bolivia it was completely different. Honestly, the German version is rather boring in comparison.
I loved this article, as it describes a cultural/religious practice from the perspective of a person of neither. I did not think it was at all mocking. I live half of my life in Oaxaca, Mexico, and one of the first things I realized about the Catholic Church there was how different it is from anything I have ever seen in the US (I am not Catholic nor any other religion). In learning their history, it seems the church had to adapt to the culture, and the people made the church work for them.
I forwarded this to my sister who lives in Ecuador, and she enjoyed it also. We have fun learning about and comparing the similarities and differences among food, customs, and events in the various Latin American countries.
Thanks for all your great posts!
Thank you very much!
I also find this one of the most interesting aspects of Latin America, this mixing of different beliefs and religions. Almost like people of different faiths get together and in the end they don’t care what it’s called.
Maybe even not a bad idea for other continents either.
Hi Andreas! Nice quote from the Pope at the start of the article, I really resonate with that.
For you. Matthew 21:14.
It should be “you’re” not “your”.
That’s what you get from focusing on a bible and ignoring real education.
Sorry, I’m little bit busy while reading your article. and There’s no edit post here. Btw, I thought u will like my message. Kindly show some appreciation and gratitude.
“ignoring real education. ” Lol. You are funny one.
and FYI, I like this post of you. It’s the reality and trust me.. I don’t need real education to understand and see this. but how you perceive about Jesus, its biased and one sided.
You can’t blame human’s ignorance and actions to God.
Fun facts: I “was” a Catholic and I don’t tolerate their practices.
PS. Thanks for exposing the truth.
I’m reading your blog about Travels. I hope you don’t require me to have real education by following your posts. Good day, Sir!
There are no gods.
But thank you for enjoying my articles! I will keep them coming them.
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Me he divertido un montón leyendo el artículo, es interesante como nos miran las otras personas que no son de aquí, incluso para mi que soy Paceña tanto en cultura como en religión, no es fácil de comprender, porque hablar de sentimientos y de fe es subjetivo, se puede opinar mucho pero no se puede tener la verdad del corazón o sentimientos de las personas.
Primero Copacabana es un santuario por lo cual las personas viajan en Enero inició de año a pedir una bendición por lo cual no es así el restó del año, como lo describes además me imagino q estuviste a finales de enero cerca a la fiesta de alasita.(donde encuentras objetos en miniatura, donde compras simbólicamente lo que quieres obtener) algo así como soñar.
Segundo, la Iglesia a través de los sacerdotes bendice no la ambición, si no el deseo de querer ser mejor. Ahora en Bolivia y en el mundo cada persona es responsable de lo q desea sea católico o no.
Tercero, creo que alguien ya comentó sobre el sagrado corazón que no pide nada, creo que te informaron mal o no fue buena tu interpretación al respecto. Es una propaganda que indica que se realiza esos servicio, finalmente la coca no es cocaína 😜jajjaja … Cierto!!! ese es otro artículo.