Published in The Atlantic on May 27, 2013
BELFAST, Northern Ireland– “For the longest time, my granddaughter believed my scar was from an alligator bite,” Danny Devenny says with a smile.
But the true origin of the long, linear scar on his forearm is darker, a symbol of a country in which such wounds — physical, emotional, historical — are an undeniable part of life.
On an especially chilly afternoon, the renowned muralist is sitting in front of a small space heater in his studio when he recalls the day he was wounded. His fingers, cracked from the cold, deftly roll a cigarette.
“The first thing you’d be told when you join the IRA is that you’re going to die or go to prison,” Devenny said.
During the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, Devenny was shot while trying to rob a bank for the IRA. He was hit three times in the arm by an automatic rifle, and the doctors cut a single long incision to remove the bullets. He was then sentenced to eight years in prison for the attempted robbery. Since that chapter of his life, Devenny has worked as a designer for Republican publications and as a poster artist for Sinn Fein. Now, 40 years later, he is one of Northern Ireland’s most prolific muralists.
He has also been one of the most vocal critics of the Re-Imaging Communities project, a program by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland that supports communities across the region that want to tackle sectarianism in their neighborhood.
The city calls the program a chance for community members to reclaim their identity by using grant money to install new art pieces in the neighborhood, which includes replacing murals from past decades that commemorate paramilitary groups.
Locals such as Devenny and others who have a more intimate connection with the city’s murals, however, see no benefit to what they call the whitewashing of Belfast’s history.
One of the most common sights in the city of Belfast is the masked gunman. He patrols the walls of Protestant unionist-loyalist (PUL) neighborhoods, such as Newtonards Road in East Belfast, decorating murals that celebrate the legacy of paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, and the Ulster Defense Association.
These vigilante organizations formed as a response to the IRA and were active in the years of the Troubles from the 1960s to the 1990s. They were behind numerous shootings and bombings targeting Catholic nationalists and those who wanted Northern Ireland to separate from the U.K. and join the Republic of Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to much of the violence, but it’s still a long road to true integration and reconciliation between the Catholic nationalists and PUL community. In this post-conflict climate, the legacy of the paramilitaries remains strong; locals still remember the violence, the ones who fought, and the ones who were lost. Much of that remembrance is written on the walls in the form of memorial murals.
According to Program Manager Sean Keenan, the goal of the arts council is to support community members who decide they want to change the art in their neighborhood. To receive funding from the Re-Imaging project, communities are required to submit proposals of what they want to see in their neighborhood and how those changes would decrease sectarianism.
The project initially ran from July 2007 to July 2009 and was so popular that it blew through millions of pounds in funding. Now it’s back, with money from the European Union.
Keenan says the program is entirely uninfluenced by local politicians. Program coordinators do not belong to any political party. Instead, Keenan says their political agenda is simply to diminish signs of sectarianism in the city.
An example of what the Art Council considers a victory for the program was the replacement of the Grim Reaper mural. Painted on a gable wall in a PUL neighborhood, the mural depicted a death-like gunman standing over the marked graves of IRA members who are still alive, under the banner of the paramilitary group the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
As part of Re-Imaging, the wall was painted over by a portrait of King William of Orange, an earlier and less sinister symbol of loyalism.
“That took years of negotiations with paramilitaries,” said Ann Ward, who led the Re-Imaging program when the Grim Reaper was painted over.
In its new phase, the project aims to promote more non-mural art installations in areas outside of Belfast. But with tensions up from recent protests over the city of Belfast’s decision to reduce the number of days the British flag flies over City Hall, sectarianism is at a dangerous boiling point.
“We’re trying to get people to see their identity beyond the flag, beyond these images,” Ward said. “Because right now it’s all about fear.”
Belfast neighborhoods are divided religiously and politically — indeed, in this country, religion and politics are for all practical purposes the same thing. Catholic-Nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and become part of the Republic of Ireland, occupy their own pockets of the city; Protestant-Unionists, who consider themselves British and desire to stay with the British Commonwealth, have their own neighborhoods. Everyone in the city knows where the dividing lines are.
The best way to get a sense of which way a neighborhood leans is to just look at the walls.
Protestant-Unionist areas are defined by fluttering Union Jacks; red, white and blue curbs; and the omnipresent paramilitary gunmen of the UFF, the UFV and the UDA standing tall under the symbolic Red Hand of Ulster. The tradition of murals was born out of the ornate banners once carried by the supporters of King William of Orange. They became a chief medium of propaganda when the walls were taken over by the unionist paramilitary organizations.
Catholic-Nationalist neighborhoods lack the same militant vibe. After the Good Friday Agreement, Republican muralists decided not to paint any more guns. In other words, they began to reimage themselves.
It’s harder for the unionists, whose imagery has been defined by gunmen patrolling the borders of PUL territory, according to Professor Bill Rolston, director of the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster.
“Loyalist paramilitary groups will not give up their space,” Rolston said. “They might give up some of it, but they will maintain elements of their space to say, “We’re here. We’re still defending the community. We defended the community for years. Don’t forget what we did, and here are pictures to remind you.’”
The history of the Belfast murals is rooted in territorialism and propaganda, but Rolston warns that “there is a tendency in Re-imaging to throw out the baby with the bath water.”
“What’s potentially lost is politics, because even the most offensive murals were undeniably political. People were stating a political position on the wall. But now there’s a sort of fear of politics, a fear of mentioning the war,” Rolston said. “The trick of Re-imaging is to persuade people in these areas to still make political statements about who they are, what they believe in, what they hope for and what they fear — without being offensive.”
The decision on what is offensive, however, is tricky. Anne Ward, the Community Development Officer at the Arts Council, asserts that communities lead the projects and make the requests to remove offensive images from their walls.
“Young children walking past masked gunmen has an impact on the local community. So, the program is all about the community wanting to transform … and creating a new Northern Ireland, ” said Ward.
Community agreement means cross-party, cross-religion agreement, and the Arts Council has had successes in getting remnant paramilitary leaders to agree to paint over their militant murals.
But to Danny Devenny, it was the money the Arts Council has to give to communities willing to participate in the Re-Imaging program that’s objectionable.
“Those communities need funding — it’s a carrot to bring the community along,” Devenny said. “We want money to create art, to invest in our community, to allow our local artists to express themselves, but not on the basis of that we have to fill in your criteria, that it has to take out a so-called paramilitary mural. I believe the project was set up not to create peace and reconciliation between the two communities here, but to clean up the public view of unionism.”
On the other side of the political spectrum is Raymond Laverty, a spokesperson for the Progressive Unionist Party, and a charismatic local leader in the PUL neighborhood of East Belfast. He doesn’t deny that the militant unionist murals are more sinister than the quiet neighborhood would like, but he maintains that the Arts Council’s approach trivializes the legacy of the city and replaces it with sweet nothings.
“You can’t sweep 40 years of conflict under the carpet,” Laverty said. “The Re-imaging program is whittling away at the historical aspects of the murals, and replacing it with what, Mickey Mouse?”
Most of the painted gunmen in Belfast are remnants from the Troubles, when those images reflected what was happening in the streets. But in 2011 yet another militant unionist mural went up in East Belfast, depicting two armed and masked men alongside the stark words “We seek nothing but the elementary right implanted in every man: the right if you are attacked to defend yourself.”
“I thought that was really inappropriate,” said a clerk who works in a post office directly across from where the mural stands along Newtonards Road.
Between the return of such images and the violence of the flag protests, it is clear that sectarian issues are still at the forefront of the city’s consciousness.
But Laverty and Devenny both agree that the path to reconciliation in Northern Ireland is in reeducation, not re-imaging.
“To say that these images create a desire within young people to join paramilitaries,
it’s nonsense. People don’t join paramilitaries because of pictures on a wall,” Devenny said. “They do it because of what’s happening around them.”
Devenny regularly paints with groups of children, creating murals about international issues such as racism. Laverty is a team leader at the Inner East Belfast Youth Project, where he organizes community programs for working class kids. They say investment in this type of interaction is a far more meaningful way toward reconciliation that repainting murals.
“Our young people don’t understand conflict,” Laverty said. “When we were young there was a killing every day. They need to talk to their elders about their history.”
History is the overbearing theme in the city, one that presses on a population trying to go about their lives in a post-Troubles world. But it’s that history, the nearness of it and the violence of it, that draws curious visitors to the dozens of different mural tours that run daily.
“I get so many people wanting to see the murals,” said Patrick Maguire, a cab driver for the Belfast Taxi Company. “If the murals were gone, where would I take them? What would I show them in our city?”
Maguire, a Catholic republican, says he is not bothered by the militant images of unionists who are theoretically his political enemies. Similarly, Devenny holds no grudges against the images of UFF gunmen around his neighborhood, the same gunmen who once shot at him during his IRA years.
“The reason there’s interest in the murals is because people come here to learn about conflict and how to create peace from hundreds of years of struggle and opposing political positions,” Devenny said. “It’s not the walls out there that are the problem, it’s the walls in people’s minds that need to come down.”
An original documentary published and aired on Impact on March 25, 2013. Produced, shot, edited by Shweta Saraswat.
In the shadow of the Khmer Rouge genocide, a group of Cambodian-American youth in Long Beach are reviving and rebuilding classical Cambodian culture through dance.
Published in On Being on May 10, 2013. Reported with Tricia Tongco.
Photo by Shweta Saraswat
It’s Friday night at The Magic Glass, a medium sized bar tucked inside the O’Callaghan Hotel in the center of Dublin. At first glance, the 40-odd people lounging inside seem like average Irish, glowing from the orange of the lamps and the heat of their drink. But they’ve rejected one of the key elements of what it means to be Irish: Catholicism and indeed Christianity.
A group of fit young men compare Celtic tattoos in one corner, a Wiccan crochets a snake doll in another, and a couple at the bar discusses an upcoming handfasting. This is a pagan moot, a regular meeting of the local pagan community including shamans, Wiccans, and Druids.
While such terms may conjure up images of people dancing naked by fire under the moonlight, contemporary paganism is simply the restoration of indigenous religions, especially that of ancient Europe. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has faced a steady decline in levels of practice and a cultural crisis, according to Olivia Cosgrove, co-editor of Ireland’s New Religious Movements. Consequently, non-religious or alternative spiritualities have become more widespread. Read more
In the ethnographic study “Neo-Paganism in Ireland,” Jenny Butler writes that the spiritual movement encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices. But a common thread throughout contemporary paganism is the neo-pagan ritual. It usually involves the articulation of meaning about the nature of reality and is also a way to engage with certain energies believed to exist in the world.
But tonight, the only ritual happening is the social imbibing of alcohol. More of a laidback party than any sort of organized meeting with an agenda, the pagan moot is a chance for men and women on the spiritual margins to be with others like themselves.
Photo by Shweta Saraswat
And they need each other. In a country where 84 percent of the people call themselves Catholic, non-Christian residents in Ireland live in a world where laws and social norms still have the distinct tang of Catholic morality. Pagan weddings were not considered legal unions by the Irish government until 2009.
Raymond Sweeney, the national coordinator for Pagan Federation Ireland, has been one of the loudest voices demanding the legalization of pagan weddings. If it weren’t for the jovial look on his cherubic face as he gulps down his drink, his mammoth size and black leather vest would be intimidating.
“It’s not the message of Christianity, but the hardness of the Catholic churches and their interpretation of the Bible that was an issue for me.”
Raised Catholic, the 40-year-old proudly recalls when he was a bored 11-year-old sitting in a wooden pew during Mass. He triggered the fire alarm to get out, and his spontaneous act of rebellion worked better than he could have imagined. His parents never brought him back to church, wanting to avoid the trouble of any more of his sacrilegious shenanigans.
The young rebel’s curiosity led him to explore a range of pagan traditions, which has helped him in his role as a registered solemnizer of pagan weddings. When he’s not overseeing a handfasting — a ritual in which a couple literally “ties the knot” — he works as an electric engineer. His scientific side comes out when he uses physics as a metaphor to explain his own spirituality.
“If you shine a light through a prism, then put another prism next to it, it doesn’t change the light. You don’t see it through somebody else’s interpretation — you see it directly,” says Mr. Sweeney, describing the unmediated appeal of paganism over the hierarchical nature of Catholicism.
Paganism is open to a range of interpretations and traditions, but Mr. Sweeney lists three basic principles that unite them. The first is love and kinship with nature, followed by a positive morality expressed as, “Do what you will, as long as it harms none.” The last tenet is recognition of the divine, acknowledging both its female and male aspects.
While easy to dismiss as an eccentric outlier, Mr. Sweeney is just one example of the many Irish who are leaving the Church. The Irish-Catholic population is steadily diminishing, and a recent survey shows that religion ranks as the least important thing in people’s lives.
Photo by Shweta Saraswat
Disenchantment with the Catholic Church is a common sentiment at the pagan moot. Al Cowan, the founding organizer of the moot, strongly believes that the country’s identity and its relationship to religion is changing.
“There’ve been so many scandals about child-abusing priests that the Church has lost its hold. A new generation of people who are better educated and more savvy have the opinion — if you want to be a good Catholic that’s fine, but don’t impose it on me.”
Mr. Cowan didn’t grow up in a religious household, but his wife Mercedes Goncalves was raised Catholic in her native country of Portugal. She came to Ireland on a spiritual search and found love in the process when, five years ago, she and Mr. Cowan met at a pagan moot.
The Wiccan couple appreciates that they can share their beliefs with each other, but for Ms. Goncalves that meant leaving behind Catholicism. Her mother, though supportive now, initially felt that she had failed Ms. Goncalves by not passing on her religion.
“But I told her, ‘You gave us something much better — you gave us the ability to think for ourselves.”
Fluid Religion, Solid Heritage
Statistics on practitioners of pre-Christian Irish spirituality are few and far between. The community is unstructured in belief and body. But if the Mind, Body, Spirit International Festival in Dublin is any indication, interest in unorganized, non-Christian spirituality is thriving.
Inside the venue at the Royal Dublin Society, a long-haired man gives out animal psychic readings. A ‘modern’ bellydancer undulates on stage to the haunting tones of a didgeridoo. Then, there’s Martin Duffy.
Photo by Shweta Saraswat
In his modest tweed jacket, slim green tie and softly faded jeans, the established pyschotherapist looks like your average Dubliner on Grafton Street. Until he picks up his drum.
Beating his small drum at a quick, regular rhythm, Mr. Duffy attempts to tune into the tempo of the theta brainwave state, a deep meditative trance. Shamans believe that in this trance state they can access or “journey” to the spirit world. Techniques like these help shamans to reconnect with their inner emotional state as well as connect to other human beings, the Earth, and the greater mystery of existence.
According to Mr. Duffy, there are thousands of people in Ireland who dabble in shamanism, seeking what he calls “spiritual democracy.”
“In Ireland we’ve had all sorts of problems and scandals. So what Irish people are finding is that shamanism connects them directly to the source of their own divinity, and they don’t have to have it mediated through a priest or a rabbi or another person. They can go and find that out for themselves.”
Mr. Duffy also grew up Roman Catholic, but was raised by a mother and grandfather who were traditional folk healers. When he explored for a deeper meaning in Christianity, he found that Jesus Christ himself was a healer.
“That was the aspect of Christ that attracted me the most. Laying on of hands, casting out of demons, rising from dead and all of that. So I realized that Christ was a shaman, meaning one who sees beyond the everyday consciousness and is able to commune with the Holy Spirit.”
Mr. Duffy still goes to church periodically, just as he goes to Buddhist temples and pagan gatherings on the equinox. His religion is not a religion at all — it’s a worldview that is fluid, non-dogmatic and self-oriented. In other words, it’s far removed from Roman Catholicism.
As for his daily shamanic practice, Mr. Duffy describes it as “stalking awareness,” which means being simultaneously alert to the outside world and his internal emotional state. Unlike a church, his place of worship is not bound by walls.
“We do rituals on the land, because Shamanism and Druidism is an earth-based spirituality. Our cathedrals and our churches are the sky and the trees and nature.”
Photo by Shweta Saraswat
Sharing Mr. Duffy’s stall at the festival is Ann Peard, a bright 67-year-old woman dressed in a long white tunic and green mantle. She was raised in a Catholic-Anglican household, a one-time taboo mix. Discovering an alternative spiritual path 16 years ago, she practices a combination of Druidism and shamanism that celebrates the cycles of life, the seasons, and the power of natural healing.
“It comes from the heart,” says Ms. Peard, who lives on the sacred Hill of Tara among the monuments of indigenous Irish from thousands of years ago. “Ceremonies can be as simple or fancy as you like. You don’t need all the paraphernalia or a fancy altar. It’s intention-based.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, Ms. Peard happily sported a tuft of shamrock alongside her Druid brooches. Her practice of Celtic spirituality is as much a display of Irish pride.
“Shamanism changed my life. It’s in my DNA, in the land here in Ireland, and it’s coming up through me.”
Even as the Catholic population shrinks, even as non-Christian immigrants pour into the city, even as the pagan community stakes its claim beyond the margins of religious life, Ireland is still a country of faith. “There is an innate sense of spirituality in Ireland that you don’t find in other countries,” Mr. Duffy says. “I don’t believe one religion is better than the other, as long as you connect to the divine.”
Paganism can seem like an attractive alternative to the crush of mainstream religious thought, but pagan leader Raymond Sweeney fears that Celtic spirituality will be trivialized as a temporary fling for lost souls.
“Unfortunately, people attracted to paganism want the exotic. My goal is to remove ‘pagan’ from being a pejorative term. I want normality.”
It’s a steep hill to climb, but Mr. Sweeney believes that the key to normalizing pagan traditions is to simply leave it alone.
“It’s something you feel. You either feel it or you don’t. How do you know you’re pagan? How do you know when you’re in love?”
Published in On Being on April 9, 2013.
All photos by Shweta Saraswat
“What we’re doing is praying with our feet, with our bodies.”
Centzi Millia, a 31-year-old Aztec dance instructor prepares for an afternoon class, wrapping her long blonde dreads into a bun and gathering small children into a circle. “We honor the Mother Earth with our bare feet, and the vibrations we create — the Mother Earth as a living being feels those vibrations.”
The dance starts in a flurry of drum beats and the bass jangling of Ms. Millia’s chachayotl, the thick anklets of Aztec danzantes made of rattling seed pods.
“It was actually at Knott’s Berry Farm, of all places, that I discovered the danza,” Ms. Millia says after class, sitting in the sunlight of Kuruvunga Springs, a remnant site of the ancient Tongva people nestled between Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire. “My parents would say those were the dances our people used to do, but that’s as far as they would tell me.”
Eighteen years later, Ms. Millia is one of several Aztec dance teachers in Southern California. A child of Mexican immigrants, she represents part of a trend among Latinos in the U.S. who are shifting away from the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Church still holds sway among new immigrants from Latin America, the children of these immigrants have been turning toward forms of Protestantism or are choosing not to affiliate with any type of religion. Read more
However, Ms. Millia and some of her second- and third-generation peers raised in traditional Catholic households have left the Church not to follow any alternate form of Christianity or atheism, but to pursue the spiritual paths of their pre-Christian ancestors. As she pursued dance, Ms. Millia’s elders taught her how it was reshaped and used as a tool by Spanish conquerors to lure the local people away from their native, or indigenous, beliefs and toward Catholicism.
Instead of dancing for Mother Earth, Ms. Millia says that dances became offerings to the Virgin Mary. The special days of celebration for the native people became Catholic holidays. These kinds of revelations pushed her away from the church.
Renouncing Catholicism, however, is not a precondition for those who take part in the ritual of Aztec dance. Sixteen-year-old Valerina Cispuentes can be found organizing for her church’s youth groups on Thursdays and dancing with Ms. Millia’s Aztec circle on Saturdays, epitomizing what Ms. Millia refers to as the modern mestizo, or mixed, culture of Latinos in America.
“I never really thought of them as being separate cultures,” Ms. Cispuentes says. “I just want to honor my ancestors.”
Her mother, Gina de Vaca, organizes the dance circle and other community events with the purpose of remembering ancient traditions and beliefs in Los Angeles, such as the annual Four Corners Spirit Run. Still, she calls herself Catholic.
“It’s hard to shake. It’s instilled in you. It’s a battle, but we still need to get back to our roots,” Ms. de Vaca says. “And people (in the Catholic community) have respect for it.”
The response of the Catholic Church to the defection of some of its members as well as the close intermingling of Catholicism and indigenous customs has been minimal. Raul Molina serves as deacon to a largely Hispanic congregation at St. Anne’s Parish in Santa Monica. He says that the mestizo way of life is just the reality of living in a colonized world.
“The diocese of Los Angeles is very multicultural and diverse. Different cultures have their own customs, their own traditions in their blood. So they don’t distinguish. We’re mixed in both blood and beliefs.”
The years following confirmation are the critical turning points for most Catholics, Mr. Molina says. This is the case for Elias Serna, a 44-year-old film and business professor at CSU Dominguez Hills who routinely brings his seven-year-old daughter Alise Xitlani to Aztec dance practice. The UC Berkeley graduate was brought up Catholic by his immigrant mother and attended St. Anne’s Catholic School in Santa Monica, but left the church in his college years.
“I was an altar boy. I grew up praying every morning and every night. My first year of college I was still Catholic, but I was becoming increasingly politicized in Chicano activism. I went through a period of critiquing colonialism, and saw the church as an instrument of that colonialism, and I rebelled against that. So I naturally gravitated toward the repressed forms of spirituality.”
Exposure to Chicano politics and history played a key role in Mr. Serna’s shift away from the Church, but that knowledge didn’t come until he hit college.
“We grow up without that cultural and historical introspection. Once there is an introduction to things like Chicano studies and Aztec dance communities, there’s a natural tendency to rescue that submerged part of you.”
Deacon Molina acknowledges that the Church has not made direct efforts to maintain the faith of Catholics who are moving out of the sphere of influence of their home, community, and upbringing. His solution is educational programs targeted at the young adults most at risk of abandoning the Church.
“There is a big gap after confirmation at 17 or 18 years old, and there’s nothing for them to continue engaging in unless they choose to come to services. So we need to create new programs for the youth in college in order to understand what questions they have and what is going on in their lives.”
Miguel Bravo, 38, turned toward his indigenous heritage after an entire youth spent in Catholic school going through the motions of confirmation, Mass, and Bible study for years. After high school he joined a grassroots Chicano group in East L.A. called The Harmony Keepers and reeducated himself “physically, mentally, and spiritually” under the teachings of his ancestors.
“Within the last ten years, more and more people are embracing the native truths, coming down to the roots layer by layer and going forward with the indigenous ways. It’s more of a way of living that puts more responsibility on your relationship with all creation, all life, another person, the food you eat, the tree that you walk by, the squirrel you see walking by. It’s about the way that you acknowledge and respect the world around you and your place in the world.”
The place for the newly indigenized Latinos in the U.S., according to Mr. Serna, continues to be one with fluid borders.
“I think most people are aware of the hybridization of Mexican Catholicism. Saints are melded with indigenous deities — even Guadalupe is basically a reincarnation of Tonanzin, the earth goddess. I have friends who are Catholic who allow their kids to learn about Aztec dances and other cultural things.”
The reaction from the local Catholic community toward the revival of ancient traditions such as Aztec dance has been mild, perhaps because of a general understanding of the reality of mestizo life. Or perhaps it’s because, as Ms. de Vaca puts it, dance cannot be argued with.
“Dance is such a beautiful form of expression for everyone, no matter what religion or nationality or culture you are. You have to be a pretty narrow-minded person to say something bad about dance.”
Published in the National Catholic Reporter on April 4, 2013. Reported with Paige Brettingen.
DUBLIN– Reform-minded Irish Catholics say Pope Francis is unlikely to improve the reputation of the Roman Catholic church as inflexible and out of touch, especially among the young.
“The majority of young people would say they don’t hate the church,” said Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. “It’s just that the church is irrelevant to them.”
Shortly after Francis’ election last month, Martin spoke with U.S. student journalists in Ireland on a reporting trip.
Though still a bastion of European Catholicism, Ireland has seen a significant decrease in the percentage of residents who identify as Catholic. In 1920, nearly 93 percent of the Irish population described themselves as Catholic, according to census data. By 2011, that number had dropped to 84 percent.
Leaders of local church reform groups attribute the decline to clergy sex abuse scandals, rigid policies on social issues, and a refusal to support open discussion on controversial topics such as gay marriage and celibacy. Read more
Martin, who toes the line between defending the church and hoping to change it, admits that the Irish Catholic community is in crisis but is optimistic about the new pope’s role in addressing that.
Martin said that he has met Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis March 13, a few times and “I remember he was very interested in Ireland.”
“His experience is that in Argentina, 75 percent of the population are considered Catholic, [but] 10 percent of the population practices. So he knows the challenges we’re facing.”
Martin said the key element in returning Catholics to the church is fostering change on an individual level, which Francis may inspire through his simple living and subtle gestures of humility. Francis has already refused certain papal accoutrements that accompany his new status, such as wearing lavish vestments.
Catholic reformers, however, say that these gestures will make little real impact on Ireland’s laity. They’re calling for an overhaul of church culture and policy.
Brendan Butler, co-convener of the reform group We Are Church Ireland, said that Francis’ rejection of Vatican opulence is a step in the right direction but that the new pope will bring “absolutely no change” in the culture or policies of the church.
“We need a radical pope,” said Butler, whose group represents several hundred Irish laypeople. He said Francis is a doctrinal conservative and he won’t make major changes.
“There’s an awful lot that has to be undone, but no pope will undo what another pope has done,” Butler said. “This infallibility thing is the worst curse on the Catholic church.”
We Are Church considers the ordination of married priests and female priests, as well as the inclusion of divorced and gay lay members, to be key issues. According to Butler, a refusal to confront such issues has cost the church “a generation of Catholics.”
Jane Fallon Griffin is one young Catholic who has walked away from the church. Griffin was baptized, confirmed and even became a trained eucharistic minister at her parish. But her personal beliefs began to collide with the church’s position on gay marriage.
“One of my best friends is gay and I’d like for him to be happy and have the same opportunities I’m going to have in the future,” she said. “I don’t think the Catholic church is a church for everyone if [the church is] discriminating.”
The appointment of Francis will not likely lure Griffin back to the church, she said. His antigay stances in Argentina reconfirm her opinion that he won’t accept gay marriage.
Columban Fr. Sean McDonagh, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, says that opposition to gay marriage is just one issue that has alienated laypeople from the church. He wants to see a restructuring of church priorities, starting with teachings on sexuality.
“Catholicism is generally known for its positions on sexuality, abortion, same-sex relations, rather than its concerns about social justice,” said McDonagh, whose group seeks change in the priesthood. “If you read the New Testament, what Jesus had to say on sexuality is miniscule compared to what he has to say about power, money, corruption.”
McDonagh said he wants the church to focus on “the issues Jesus would be involved in,” such as poverty and financial inequality. He hopes Francis’ concern with the poor will influence him to redirect the church’s priorities.
There’s a danger in being too outspoken as a progressive priest. Nearly half of Ireland’s approximately 3,000 clergymen are members of the Association of Catholic Priests, but Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, another of the group’s co-founders, made headlines earlier this year for refusing to allow the Vatican to silence him. After Flannery published reformist opinions on controversial issues like the ordination of women, the Vatican threatened him with excommunication (NCR, Feb. 1-14).
The double standard between the church’s disciplinary actions toward Flannery and the cover-ups of pedophile priests has not gone unnoticed by the Catholic reformers.
“There is a great fear, especially among priests,” Butler said. “And we’re tired of fighting.”
One reform that tops both McDonagh’s and Butler’s lists is the overhaul of the priesthood, including the ordination of female priests and the acceptance of married priests.
Other priests doubt the likelihood of achieving these goals. Female ordination, for example, falls under a stricter doctrine than married clergy.
“We have definitive teachings [including one on female ordination] that have an element of infallibility attached,” said Fr. Edward McGee of St. Mary’s University College in Belfast. “But then there are some that are fallible and could undergo change, such as married clergy or the age of confirmation.”
Even if change never comes, Butler says he will always call himself Catholic — it’s a part of his identity. But the struggle to maintain the relationship isn’t always easy.
“We’re holding on by our fingernails,” Butler said of himself and his fellow reformists. “It’s like throwing pebbles at a wall. If enough people throw enough pebbles, maybe it’ll break down.”
Published in Global Post on March 25, 2013. Reported with Paige Brettingen.
DUBLIN — Pope Francis received a resounding welcome on Wednesday evening as the first non-European pope, but some college students at Dublin’s Trinity College saw the conservative choice as one that would push them further away from their Catholic ties.
The College of Cardinals chose 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to succeed Pope Benedict XVI and to represent the burgeoning Catholic population outside of Europe. But they did so at the risk of alienating another essential demographic group: young adults.
Some young people in Ireland are drifting away from the Catholic Church because they are disillusioned with the church’s stance on issues like gay marriage, priests’ celibacy, and the handling of the child sex abuse scandal. In particular, Pope Francis’ history of anti-gay marriage activism reinforces the notion among many Irish youths that the Catholic Church is out of touch and out of date. Read more
“I don’t think the Catholic Church is a church for everyone if they’re discriminating,” said Jane Fallon Griffin, a second-year student at Trinity College in Dublin.
Griffin isn’t just a bystander in the drama of the Catholic Church’s future—she is a proxy for the lost generation. Born into a Catholic family, Griffin was baptized and confirmed, and she was even trained as a Eucharistic minister at her church.
Within the last year, however, Griffin left the church and the Catholic faith altogether. The self-described atheist said the mismanagement of the priest sex abuse scandal was what first caused her to reconsider her Catholicism.
Though she feels distant from the church now, Griffin said she was still disappointed by the selection of the Argentine cardinal as pope, mainly because Francis, like so many others in the higher ranks of the Vatican, is staunchly against gay marriage.
“One of my best friends I’ve known since I was little is gay and I’d like for him to be happy and have the same opportunities I’m going to have in the future,” she said.
Gay marriage is also a main concern for Iseult Ward, a 22-year-old Trinity College student who was raised Catholic but whose connection to the church diminished when her grandfather, the anchor of Catholicism in the family, passed away.
For Ward to re-involve herself with Catholicism, both the pope and the church would have to demonstrate a genuine interest in wanting to solve social issues, she said. Despite Pope Francis’ advocacy on behalf of the poor, Ward believes it will take a lot more to get her– and other former Catholics like her– to return to the church.
“I think you’d have to do something really extreme and radical to change people’s minds,” she said. “I think so many people are so cynical about the church now that any efforts they do will be seen as them doing it for their own marketing rather than genuinely doing it.”
Beyond a disagreement with the new pope’s stance on progressive issues like gay marriage, the use of contraception, and the ordination of female and married priests, some young adults find the Catholic Church to be out of touch with their daily lives.
Manus Lenihan, a fourth-year student at Trinity, slowly distanced himself from the church as it became less relevant to him. The 22-year-old was baptized Catholic, went through communion and confirmation, but he eventually realized he had lost the desire to practice his faith.
“The Catholic Church just seemed like an utterly corrupt institution,” he said, “so I remained religious in a non-denominational sense for many years before deciding that, in my opinion, there wasn’t any religious content to it and giving it up.”
While Lenihan said he did follow news about the papal conclave and the election of Pope Francis, the pageantry was what intrigued him most.
“I was interested to hear who it was in a celebrity-watching kind of a way,” he said. “It’s wonderful to have these traditions, but there’s not really a relevance, at least not for me and a lot of people I know.”
For Pope Francis to live up to his namesake and truly rebuild a Catholic Church that has the support of the younger generation, he faces an uphill battle against the church’s diminished reputation and resistance to change, said Griffin.
“I think getting people back to the church is going to be a slow process. It’s not going to be instant,” she said. “Pope Francis can’t just do one thing after too many years of mistakes.”
Published in On Being on February 27, 2013.
Her sightless eyes, bony face, and glinting scythe preside over narcotics headquarters large and small. Law enforcement officials in Mexico and the U.S. know her well — she’s a regular at drug busts on both sides of the border.
She is Santa Muerte, the “Saint of Death,” and her popularity outside of the drug world is growing. A folk saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, Santa Muerte is inspiring a diverse following in the U.S. Latino community that has become disenchanted with the Church, a following that could be the key to reshaping her notorious identity. Read more
An image born of European ideas intermingling with the Aztec spiritual pantheon, Santa Muerte is “new age Grim Reaper-type goddess, a bad-girl counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe,” according to the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Most commonly depicted with a globe in one hand and a scythe in the other, she is considered a nonjudgmental — even amoral — angel of unique efficacy and speed in bringing about miracles.
“If you have faith in her, she will grant you wishes,” says Padre Sisyphus Garcia, founder and pastor of Templo Santa Muerte in Los Angeles. “Not what you want, but what you need.”
The Templo, a modest one-room establishment on Melrose Avenue with an attached bótanica, sells all manner of candles, amulets, rosaries, and spell books for those wishing to test Santa Muerte’s powers. It is one of many sites dedicated to the saint that have cropped up in the last few decades.
According to Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, more than five million Mexicans worship the saint, and that number is growing. Charting exact numbers in this area is difficult, he writes, because some devotees worship in secret out of fear of being condemned by the Church.
But a large number of the regulars at Templo Santa Muerte are what Padre Garcia calls “born Catholics,” people who were raised Catholic but have become disillusioned with the Church.
“Most of the devotees here, they had experience with the Catholic Church and said they don’t want to go there anymore,” said Mr. Garcia, a born Catholic himself. “They are questioning. Like with the pope thing [the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI] — you’re an emissary of God, and all of the sudden you don’t want to work for him anymore? No, no, there’s something going on.”
Mr. Garcia says the growing number of Santa Muerte devotees look to the “Bony Lady” for help with everything varying from illness and disease to relationships and money. With that comes the rare incidents of the macabre on the extreme fringe of the devotee community that soil the saint’s reputation. Human remains have been found this year in homes in Oxnard and Pasadena as part of altars to the saint, and eight men were arrested in northern Mexico last year for allegedly killing two boys and a woman as part of a ritualistic offering to Santa Muerte.
Still, the strongest contributing factor to the stigma against the folk saint is her constant association with drug traffickers and the dark spirituality of narcocultura, or drug culture. With the high stakes of the drug trade, the offerings by cartel members to Santa Muerte can surpass the normal tokens of food and drink, and dip into the realm of human sacrifice.
Though Mr. Chesnut’s research has found a comparable, though less violent, level of veneration of the saint among law enforcement officials themselves, the Drug Enforcement Agency confirms that educating officers about Santa Muerte is indeed a relevant part of training.
“Here in L.A. you become very much aware of it as soon as you start working in investigations,” says Sarah Pullen, Public Information Officer for the Los Angeles DEA division. “Investigators know about it, and it’s covered in a number of continuing education classes.”
Last year the National Latino Peace Officers Association even hosted a special seminar for law enforcement officers from across the country to learn about Santa Muerte. Part of such education involves realizing that the saint is not canonized and not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, she is an unofficial folk saint whose congregation is presided over by self-proclaimed priests and bishops.
One such high priest is David Romo, founder of the first Santa Muerte church in Mexico. He was imprisoned in 2011 for being part of a kidnapping ring. Couple that with the Mexican government’s official denunciation of Santa Muerte, the destruction of Santa Muerte shrines by the Mexican army, and the saint’s unshakable presence in countless prison cells in Mexico and the U.S., Santa Muerte’s future seems dark. But according to Mr. Garcia, those with need and faith will continue to see her value beyond the stereotype of narcocultura.
“Some temples of Santa Muerte work on the dark side, yes” Mr. Garcia says. “Santa Muerte works everywhere. That’s why people get confused. She’s a being of light. She is a shield to those with faith.”
If you’re sick of museums and landmarks, but don’t have the energy to drag yourself out of the city, London’s markets are a great place to spend part of the weekend. As a thrifty traveling student, I found the markets to be great places to window shop, people watch and, most importantly, graze.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most famous markets in town:
Spitafields and Brick Lane:
I lump these two together because they’re easy to hit in the same afternoon. Located just east of central London, Spitafields features independent clothing and jewelry designers, artists, music vendors and more.
Most conveniently, it’s covered to protect against that unpredictable London weather. Check out some of the local designers—their products are always on the pricier side, but even if you’re not looking to buy it’s fun to play the tourist card and pick their brains a bit. You may even get an invitation to model (like a certain someone, ahem ahem).
To get to Brick Lane from Spitafields, just follow the crowd. The young, fashionable crowd. And by fashionable I mean in a hipster, grungy-lovely way.
I wish I could’ve taken more photos of some of the stylish, inventive and inspiring outfits I saw lurking around the vintage stores and second-hand stalls at Brick Lane. Unfortunately, my cell phone camera read less The Sartorialist and more The Creeper from the Valley and I was getting dirty looks. Let’s just say for the creative, flexible dressers out there who don’t mind donning something a pot-smoking drop-out might’ve worn thirty years ago (literally), vintage Brick Lane is a great alternative to the cheap-chic chain stores of Oxford Circus and the dull labels of Knightsbridge.
Located on the west side just off of Notting Hill Gate, this market has a lot of the same types of stalls as Spitafields and Brick Lane—second-hand clothes, original crafts and street food. But the area is known for its antique dealers, specializing in clocks to books to furniture and everything in between.
I had a great lesson in haggling here.
Visiting the market with my friend and her aunt, we stopped at a used book vendor. Aunty found a very proper (and very wry) book from the 1800s about how to write letters for every occasion (for example, if you don’t want to marry someone, let them down lightly. The book calls for phrases like “I do not dislike you but…”). Here is the exchange that happened between her and the vendor:
“How much is this book sir?”
“Ok. Could I have it for 12?”
So apparently haggling here is amazingly civil and totally expected. I’m excited to get my haggle on next time I’m in the markets now that I know it’s not rude—good prep for my trip to India in a few weeks.
Camden Lock Market:
Camden features the ‘alternative’ side of London—to sum it up, it’s a bit like Venice, California, minus the beach. A lot of independent musicians, vegan cafes and clothing designers on the colorful and macabre side to be found here.
To get to the good shopping, go closer towards the canal. The area near the Tube stop is dominated by the kind of boring, mass-produced stuff you can find and Hot Topic or Spencer’s in the states. Move deeper in, and you’ll get to the original artisans.
Finally, the famous Borough food market of London. Located on the south side near London Bridge,
this partially covered market will meet any food need, including my need to be constantly looking at, smelling and touching food.
The market is sprawling, but conveniently divided into sections: dairy, fish, meat, artisans, produce, etc. I wandered through produce section (or rather, I squeezed through—the place was so packed you’d think they were handing out stuff for free), which was the picture of color and bounty.
This was on my way to one end of the market, the most indulgent and rewarding section: Bakery, Patisserie and Confectionery. Let’s just say I made two rounds of that place sampling and eyeing before deciding on the rosemary focaccia and fudge brownies to take home. If you’re like me, it is very important to go to a place like this with a set budget, otherwise you’ll suddenly have no cash and more baklava than you know what to do with.
I’m looking forward to visiting all these markets again during my last weekend to unload my remaining pounds on gifts and off-beat souvenirs!
Posters with the above phrase were splashed in tube stations across London (they were for some local event or the other, but there’s never time to read these things carefully while trying to escape the crush of people in the tunnels). I felt like it pretty much summed up my experience with the massive buildup, small moments of spectacle and inconvenient aftermath involved with the Jubilee festivities.
The first big event was the river pageant on Saturday afternoon. It was touted as the event to see, and I was stoked for what I expected would be the Rose Parade on water.
My roommate and I had a leisurely 15 minute walk from our apartment to the river, where we found an extremely tight spot on Waterloo Bridge to settle down in. The bridge was packed with, from I could tell, mostly locals, waving flags and wearing very creepy masks of the Queen. There were lawn chairs, thermoses full of tea and trench coats everywhere.
We had an hour to wait before the flotilla was to pass by, and by the time it arrived my body was chilled stiff and the rain had started. So after the first gilded, royal-looking, albeit tiny ship passed, my roommate and I figured we had seen enough and squeezed our way out of the river area and dove into the first warm coffee shop we spotted. Read more
We read later that a million people attended the pageant, and some had even camped out overnight to secure the perfect viewing spot. The last thing I camped out for was a midnight showing of Star Wars Episode III—and I guess for Britons the historic parade and the chance to see one of the longest-serving monarchs in the country’s history was an event of comparable magnitude. I guess.
It’s hard for an American to understand the relationship the royal family has with the people of the UK. How can a modern country like Britain still be bending knee to a monarch, still be honoring a bloodline with all the privileges of royalty? There are of course dissenters; representatives from the anti-monarchy organization Republic were in full force at the pageant, waving signs reading “Votes not Boats” and the like.
I’m sure this is something discussed in classrooms, pubs and homes across the UK on a daily basis. But when a little boy scrambles on a fence, waving his binoculars and screaming “The Queen is coming, the Queen is coming!”, no one seems to remember any of that. After all, it was a day off and a chance to rub shoulders with others taken by patriotic fever. I’m just sad that I won’t be home to do the same on the 4thof July.
Monday night, day one of the two-day bank holiday, was the concert at Buckingham Palace featuring Paul McCartney and Elton John (sidebar: as I make my way through Game of Thrones and recall one of my favorite books, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, both of which feature knights in shining armor, the idea that these guys are knights seems…an interesting statement on what it means to be a knight). With tickets booked months in advanced there was no chance of getting in the concert, but I figured I might as well check out what’s happening on The Mall in front of Buckingham. Giant screens were set up for the thousands milling around in the area surrounding the palace. I watched half a Paul McCartney song and left. This wasn’t my scene, and, again, it was freezing. Apparently it’s a tradition that every bank holiday in Britain has miserable weather.
And then there was Tuesday. More Jubilee events, including a carriage processional and balcony appearance by the royal family. My last chance to see the queen. Instead, I took the tube in the opposite direction to get ready-made falafel at my favorite Mediterranean store (falafel in London deserves a blog post of its own) and then hid out the rest of the afternoon in the National Gallery. More rain. More cold.
So I didn’t see the Queen, and I did a lot of standing in the rain, but the five-day weekend did feature some non-Jubilee fun. This included a ridiculously indulgent sundae at Harrods’ Ice Cream Parlor, afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones, jasmine tea and clotted cream (obsessed with that stuff), an exhibit of ballgowns at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a gorgeous falconer pin bought at the Portobello antique market, and the highlight of it all, Thriller Live, a Michael Jackson tribute show at the Lyric Theater that made me fall in love with MJ all over again.
I think I’ll go an try to moonwalk in the kitchen now.