Cross-Cultural Catholicism

My family has always made a point of going to church no matter where we are, no matter what language the mass is in. We did this for multiple reasons, one being the obvious and somewhat redundant ‘we go to church because we need to go to church.’ But we also do this because Catholicism is a global religion and, while there is a standard which masses must follow, this results in some rather unique church experiences. We’ve been to mass in Spain, Mexico, France, even the Vatican. We went to mass on Maui and they had hula dancers who participated in the liturgy, another church had a rock group singing instead of the traditional organ and classical singer. At a church in Boston, during the Sharing of the Peace, we not only said peace and shook hands, but we introduced ourselves to each other. Even my home church and the church at my university have differences which communicate something about the people who are a part of that parish.

I was somewhat nervous about being able to find a Catholic church in Almaty. I was prepared to go to Russian Orthodox services because I honestly didn’t think I would find one. To my luck, there is a parish and I’ve been able to go every Sunday. It is quite a young parish, having only opened in 2006. What is interesting about this parish is that, despite its young age, it has quite an old character. Many changes were made to the Catholic Church and the services at Vatican II (1962-5). This included no longer requiring women to cover their hair during mass and changing the way the communion procession occurred. However, I noticed that these particular changes weren’t entirely embraced by the parish in Almaty. Some, though not many, women still chose to cover their hair with veils or scarfs. This is something I myself did for a time as part of Lent, and I did find that it enhanced my religious experience.

However, that was something I had found to be unique or rare in Los Angeles. I received stares and questions. However, in this parish, the now uncommon practice of head covering receives little attention. I, personally, wonder if it is a result of influences from Russian Orthodoxy. Another significant difference between masses I have experienced and the masses here in Almaty is the communion procession. In almost every mass I have ever been to, with the exception of a few who reversed the direction, the communion procession progresses from back to front to represent the crowd coming to Jesus and we process in lines up to the Eucharistic minister, priest, or deacon. The body is usually placed in our hands, then we go to a different minister and receive the blood. At this church, we knelt before the alter (something that was changed in Vatican II), the body is dipped in the blood, and then placed directly into our mouths. At other churches, I have seen older members of the church indicate to the Eucharistic minister that they would like to receive the Eucharist directly into their mouth, but it is certainly not the norm. It was quite interesting to experience as mass like this, as I almost felt like I was traveling back in time, which is particularly interesting considering the young age of the church.

Despite these differences, Catholic masses are incredibly consistent across churches and even languages. Despite not recognizing a vast majority of the words of the liturgy, I always knew where we were in the schedule of the mass, because it has the same basic skeleton for almost every Sunday service. I was reading unknown words on the page in front of me, but I could still believe what I was saying, because I knew it was the Lord’s prayer. Even when I couldn’t understand a single word anyone was saying, because biblical language can be so confusing, I wasn’t in the slightest bit lost. The hymn for the Amen was even the exact same thing we sing at my church in California. I have been to masses in Spanish, French, Italian, and now Russian, and even in the masses where I had never studied a single word of the language, it’s a familiar rhythm, and familiar setting, and you can still get the God out of it even if you can’t understand anyone. Going to mass here in Almaty has been a fascinating experience because the culture it’s immersed in is so different from the American, Hispanic, or Western European cultures I’m used to. This has been by far the most interesting and enlightening global church experience I’ve had.

By: Brittany Minnis-Lemley

Program: Advanced Russian Langauge and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2017

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