The Rances: Holy Week & Roman Catholicism in LAC

DeLonn and Valerie Rance have been Assemblies of God missionaries since 1984. They served for 20 years in El Salvador and since 2005 have been training young people for missions at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary as the chair of the Global Missions Department and founder and director of Intercultural Doctoral Studies.

A missionary colleague and I compared notes on our feelings on entering a Roman Catholic cathedral in a Latin American context. In the quiet of that “sacred space” and beautiful architecture, she experienced a sense of the holy and the divine. I, on the other hand, sensed emptiness, oppression, bondage, and hopelessness as I looked at the empty pews, the altar with a casket containing a mannequin of Jesus, and the multiple images covered in soot from the burning candles. How could our feelings be so different in the same place?

My colleague grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition in the United States. While she came to personal faith in Jesus Christ through the Assemblies of God, her positive memories of her childhood experiences in Roman Catholic churches surfaced even in the religious environment she encountered in Latin America. 

As a third generation AG Pentecostal and a missionary kid, my encounters with Roman Catholicism varied greatly from hers. Roman Catholics persecuted Pentecostals in the city where I grew up in Guatemala. My “brothers and sisters” that attended the local AG church wanted nothing to do with the Roman Catholic religion out of which they were “saved.” Their testimonies spoke of the power of the gospel to release them from the bondage and sin they experienced as “catolicos” (Catholics).

You see, the history of Roman Catholicism in Guatemala is quite different from Roman Catholicism in the United States. When the Spanish under the symbol of the cross conquered Latin America with the sword, it carried the backing and authority of the Roman Pope. At the entrance of the city where I grew up, stood a statue of an indigenous warrior chief who had died in battle defending his people against the Spanish “conquistadores” (conquerors). When subjugated, the people were marched down to the river to be “baptized” by the holy fathers as Catholic Christians, or the sword would separate their heads from their bodies. The local tradition held that the river ran red with the blood of those who died.

Those that survived, enslaved under the sign of the cross, were Christians in name only. They incorporated new worship forms of Christianity, like prayer to the saints and Mary, the sign of the cross, the Eucharist, and even the events of holy week, into their former animistic tribal religions. Instead of sacrificing a chicken on an altar to the god of corn for an abundant crop, the chicken bled out before an idol of a “saint.” The resulting combination of ancient Mayan religion and Christianity is described as “Christo-paganism.”

At age 15 I remember going to the town of Chichicastengo with a group of North American tourists as all things typical are sold in the open market in the central plaza that sits between two Roman Catholic churches. While others shopped, I entered one of the churches filled with the smell of cut flowers, burning candles and incense. I watched as the local priest celebrated the Eucharist. A few minutes later, “curanderos” local witchdoctors, entered the same church to conduct ancient animistic ceremonies of blessings, “healing” and exorcism. Then the priest returned to baptize a new born child at the baptismal fount. From where I sat, the entire scene seemed hopeless and dark. People desperately sought the blessing and favor of the divine, but had no direct access to supernatural power or to the living God.

This quest for divine favor is particularly intense during “Holy Week” celebrations. Participating in a processional, to be able to carry the statue of Mary or Jesus on the cross, or any other “sacrifice” may merit the miracle or blessing so passionately sought. During “Holy Week” the entire passion of Christ is dramatized in each local community, but especially elaborate in the city cathedrals. Culturally, participants in the Passion re-enactments believe that they are actually participating in the original event as time and history are compressed into the present in the retelling of the story. However, for most Latin American Roman Catholics, the story ends on Friday with Jesus’ death on the cross.

It’s not that Roman Catholic doctrine doesn’t affirm the resurrection; it does, but since suffering and oppression came with Christianity to Latin America, Latin Americans most intensely identify with the suffering Jesus, not the Jesus who triumphed over Satan, sin, and death. Many Latin Americans continue to suffer… poverty, hunger, wars, gang violence, disease, rape, domestic violence, brokenness… and hopelessness.

During this week in the country of Costa Rica, hundreds of Roman Catholics will crawl on their hands and knees for miles to the cathedral in Cartago, in the hope that their sacrifice will move Mary or one of the Saints with compassion. Those with merit can beseech God on their behalf to bring about the miracle or blessing they need or desire. Some drink of the holy water that pours from a fountain behind the cathedral, believing the water has power to heal. Others will fashion a “charm” out of silver or gold in the shape of an arm, leg, or whatever body part needs healing and give it to the church believing for a miracle. These charms fill bookshelf after bookshelf in the cathedral testifying to great need and great suffering.

Even Roman Catholic bumper stickers reveal the perspective that the average person cannot have direct access to God, but must seek supernatural power from those that have spiritual merit and can mediate on behalf of others. One popular sticker states: “Would you say ‘no’ to your mother? To Jesus through Mary.” St. Christopher rides on the dash of the taxi to bring protection to the taxi driver. A statue of Mary sits in an alcove at the entrance of one’s home to protect from the Evil One. Yet, fear and hopelessness remain. 

I know that there are “evangelical” and charismatic Roman Catholics living and serving in the kingdom of God around the world, but in Latin America, just because one was born and baptized a Roman Catholic, doesn’t mean that they do not need to hear the message of the empty tomb and the love of Jesus. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the veil between God and humankind was ripped from top to bottom. In Christ, those who believe have hope, hope for the future and hope for the present. Not only do we have direct access to God through Christ, we are temples of the Holy Spirit. A person may or may not experience the manifest presence of the living God in a cathedral or Assemblies of God church building, but if we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, no matter where we are, we can experience the exhilarating presence of Jesus Christ, the King, in the power of the resurrection. The tomb is empty. Glory be to God!

Please, pray for the lost people of Latin America and the Caribbean, who have heard of Jesus, but have not received him as Savior and Lord, Pray for missionaries, Assemblies of God churches and the entire evangelical body throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Pray that they might give faithful witness to Jesus, God incarnate, who lived, died on a cross, but in power, rose from the grave so that all who call on his Name might be saved, have eternal life and experience His empowering presence.

Follow the Rances at delonnandvalerierance.com.