Yessenia Gutierrez | The secret life of a cultural Catholic


Yessi Can | What it’s like being the only closet agnostic at Sunday services


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Yessenia Gutierrez
Yessi Can

Photo by Yessenia Gutierrez


When it comes to religion, my life mirrors a line from Meg and Dia’s “Hug Me” — “I’m just a girl learning to act as planned, I was programmed to be Catholic but I ran.” I like to say I was born Catholic, having been raised in a predominantly Catholic household.

Growing up, my family went to Sunday Mass off and on, but always on religious holidays. I completed three of the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation and Holy Communion. Confession wasn’t a consistent part of my life, but it was encouraged.

Halfway through high school, I realized I didn’t share my family’s faith. Now, after years of vacillating between atheism and agnosticism, I tentatively call myself an agnostic.

I do not wish to be part of an organized religion and I reject the idea that there is any one path to fulfillment, enlightenment or ultimate happiness.

Even though I no longer strictly adhere to a religion, my Catholic upbringing has left me with many cultural traditions. I still go to church whenever I visit family. I celebrate Christmas and Easter and will join my family in performing a novena — a nine-day ritual of prayer — after a loved one’s death.

I love religious symbolism, occasionally visit church while away from home and I even joined a Bible study group here at Penn. I still find myself praying when I get overwhelmed and thanking the universe (which is what I have settled on addressing when praying) when something positive happens in my life.

This type of behavior seems odd to religious eyes. Whenever I meet a Christian at Penn, I am greeted with their natural desire to share their faith and welcome me back into the fold. While the Christian community I’ve encountered has been extremely friendly and willing to provide support, I always struggle to explain that I don’t belong to the faith.

Whenever I attend Mass, I experience the tranquility that accompanies quiet prayer, a stirring sermon and the interconnectedness of group activities.

Every act performed during service is symbolic and serves a purpose. Take the sign of peace, an act of unity and forgiveness, for example: this gesture usually occurs toward the end of Mass, before receiving Eucharist and involves shaking hands with or hugging those around you. It not only serves to purify our hearts from resentments before approaching the altar, but also fosters a sense of community within the Church.

I’ve found it hard to let go of this community, even though I don’t agree with several fundamental tenets it upholds.

Now, I see religion as an academic interest, although obviously not one divorced from personal emotions. Even as I remain adamant in my lack of faith, I continue to research and learn more about the religion I was handed as a child. The Catholic faith is an inseparable part of my upbringing, my memories and my culture.

Religious conversations with family will always be tricky. I struggle to decide whether to explain my lack of faith or brush their questions away to save us from an upsetting conversation. Either way, a part of me will remain hidden from them.

I will continue to attend Mass and will probably introduce my children to the faith. However, I doubt I will ever call myself a Catholic or a Christian again.

In truth, I’ve realized that I experience similar calm when I meditate or take time to simply zone out and stare at squirrels on College Green.

As with many things in my life, I hold a sense of in-betweenness, of being both a part of the community and set apart from it. I have learned to band together with others in limbo — those who are drawn to the religious community, yet unable to integrate back into it.

After all, if you feel ill at ease in a community, you have no choice but to create your own.

Yessenia Gutierrez is a College junior from Hollywood, Fla. Her email address is gutierrez_y@hotmail.com. “Yessi Can” appears every Monday. Follow her @yessiwrites.

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