This essay opens with a handful of memories from the childhoods of Rodriguez’s mother and father. Rodriguez emphasizes that his parents recall growing up in Mexican towns “where everyone was a Catholic.” Rodriguez, on the other hand, knew of non-Catholics growing up—yet, both at home and at school, he was surrounded by Catholics. (He emphasizes, however, that his Catholic schoolteachers gave him an excellent public education and that he was not “a ghetto Catholic.”) Rodriguez says his experience of religion as a boy was unlike anything he experienced afterwards. Since college, he has identified as “a Catholic defined by a non-Catholic world.” In contrast, when he was a child, he experienced Catholicism “continuously in public and private.”
This passage provides a rare glimpse of Rodriguez working as a biographer rather than an autobiographer. However, his parents’ memories are not very detailed and seem to be included mostly to provide a point of contrast for Rodriguez’s own. Furthermore, a sense of Rodriguez’s condescension emerges in his use of the phrase “ghetto Catholic.” In his determination to assert his identity as a middle-class person, Rodriguez can be seen slipping into harsh and sometimes unfair language about the lower classes of American society. He sometimes takes a similar tone toward his parents.
Rodriguez writes, “I was un católico before I was a Catholic.” As a child he didn’t notice the many differences between “home Catholicism” and “school Catholicism.” Instead, he embraced the fact that “when all else was different for [him] (as a scholarship boy) between the two worlds of [his] life, the Church provided an essential link.” As an adult, however, Rodriguez is aware of the many differences between the gringo Church and his parents’ Mexican Catholicism—and he goes on to detail some of them. One striking example is the different depictions of the Virgin Mary. In the gringo Church, she was depicted as a “serene white lady”; at home, she was “dark like [Rodriguez]” and Rodriguez’s mother proudly reminded him that the Virgin “could have appeared to anyone in the world, but she appeared to a Mexican.” After reflecting on some of these differences, Rodriguez notes that his Catholic schooling is also different from today’s Catholic schools—his education (which emphasized memorization and submission to the authority of the Church) “belonged to another time.”
Though Rodriguez insists that his Mexican background does not define him, this passage clearly indicates that his experience growing up in the tradition of Mexican Catholicism has made him a different person than he would have been had he been raised in a different Catholic tradition. It is also important to note that Rodriguez praises the Catholic Church for serving as a bridge between his private and public life—in effect, as a force that helped blur the distinction between the two. This seems to contradict some of Rodriguez’s earlier statements about how private and public life should not be conflated.
Rodriguez outlines some key lessons from various stages of his education. He goes on to recall differences in the religious calendar, which governed his school year, and the secular calendar, which governed the city of Sacramento at large. He continues to compile assorted memories of his childhood in the Church (most notably, the enjoyable experience of serving as an altar boy), reflecting particularly on his love for the liturgical elements of the Church. He focuses specifically on the ritual of Mass, which he loved because it exemplified his feeling toward other Catholics: “We were close—somehow related—while also distanced by careful reserve.”
Though he does not describe many specific memories, the fact that Rodriguez collects so many details from his childhood in the Catholic Church demonstrates his dedication to painting a holistic picture of this experience. The abundance of detail in this passage thus underscores how formative Rodriguez’s time in the Catholic Church was.
Rodriguez shifts to detailing some of the changes he has noticed in the Church over time (he particularly dislikes the shift from Latin to English Mass). However, Rodriguez recognizes that, just as the Church has changed, so has he. He marks this change has having begun when he entered high school and began to receive a more Protestant-based education. The change was solidified during his time at Stanford, where he became “a Catholic who lived most of his week without a sense of communal Catholicism”; as a result, he writes, he began to rely more heavily on conscience. Though he lambastes changes to the Catholic liturgy, Rodriguez recognizes that these changes are aimed at his demographic: Catholics living in a secular world. He even admits that he has come to embrace cosmopolitan values. Despite the reforms that have occurred within the Church, Rodriguez writes that he clings to his religion. If he were to abandon it, he writes, he doubts there is anywhere else he could he go to have the experience of feeling himself alone with others. “If I should lose my faith in God,” he writes, “I would have no place to go where I could feel myself a man.”
Though Rodriguez generally condemns the impulse to blend private with public life as vulgar, he seems to grant the Catholic Church special status, celebrating its ability to bridge the personal and the public. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Rodriguez seems to more openly express pain at the loss of his Catholic community than at his perceived loss of family intimacy. This is connected to the vital role Rodriguez ascribes to the Church in making him feel like a man (by which he seems to mean “human” rather than, specifically, a male human). The deep need Rodriguez expresses in this passage for an institution like the Catholic Church complicates his dismissal of other people’s desire to merge their private and public experiences.
Rodriguez admits that, when he was younger, he would never have discussed his spirituality openly. He recalls reading the diaries of seventeenth-century Puritans some time after graduating from college, and he remembers his realization that “Protestants were so public because they were otherwise alone in their faith.” Writing about his spirituality, Rodriguez argues, thus makes him like a Protestant, because he is addressing his religious concerns to readers he assumes are non-religious themselves. He concludes that this is the only “appropriate” setting (surrounded by people who do not share his religious beliefs) in which he can attempt to resolve his “spiritual dilemma.”
The value Rodriguez places on being amongst those who do not share his religious beliefs contradicts the intense nostalgia he has expressed elsewhere in this essay for a sense of Catholic community. It seems possible that this final segment of the essay is less Rodriguez expressing a genuine argument and more an apology for having written about what he cannot help feeling is an intensely personal topic.