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 which you would consider as overwhelmingly influenced by Christianity. So when you read that 93% 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.