Guarded by Two Jaguars
A Catholic Parish Divided by Language and Faith
- ISBN: 9780816547029
- Published By: University of Arizona Press
- Published: November 2022
Figuring it could be a day off from research, Eric Hones del Pinal agreed to participate in the Good Friday Procession in Cobán, Guatemala, in 2005. His fieldwork entailed examining (and sometimes partaking in) the Catholic life of the parish of San Felipe in Cobán. This research normally included observing rituals and talking to parish members who often divided themselves into mainstream and charismatic Catholics. While not considering himself a Christian, he chose Cobán because he had spent his childhood in the town before moving to the US (he would also periodically return to Cobán for family visits). In Guarded by Two Jaguars: A Catholic Parish Divided by Language and Faith, Hoenes del Pinal’s insider/outsider perspective and his proficiency in the local Spanish dialect and competency in the Maya Q’eqchi’ language create insightful narrative windows into the religious lives, frustrations, and hopes of Cobán’s mainstream and charismatic Catholics. Referring to the theories of literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Hoenes del Pinal is interested in highlighting “Catholicism’s heteroglossia—namely the extent to which its doctrines and policies themselves evidence the dialogic tensions of disparate subject positions within the larger whole” (56). In other words, while the Catholic Church traditionally has promoted itself as universal and as the same church everywhere, variations, distinctions, and shades co-exist, sometimes with tension, as Hoenes del Pinal observed.
As he also learned that hot Good Friday afternoon in 2005, carrying the heavy anda (platform) on top of which was a santo, an image of Jesus, some of the best fieldwork and research can be through “the ethnographer’s own bodily experiences” (213), even if sometimes painful and gruelling. What results overall, though, is an insightful and fascinating ethnographic religious study of an often-divided Catholic parish and community among Cobán’s mainstream and charismatic Catholics from 2004 to 2006. Both were affiliated with the same Catholic parish, but practiced and embodied what it meant to be Catholic through distinctive songs, dances, gestures, structure, and ritual participation. For example, masses and religious sessions for mainstream Catholics was in Q’eqchi, with the priest as a clear head who appoints various lay leaders to help teach and train biblical study sessions, while the charismatic Catholics tended to sing exuberant songs with much hand-clapping and dancing, with the priest playing a peripheral role at best.
Following the introduction are seven chapters. Each chapter begins with a keenly observed narrative or anecdote that immediately draws the reader in. For example, the introduction opens with a letter written by representatives of Cobán’s mainstream Catholic community expressing their frustrations and complaints against the local charismatic Catholics. They hoped the priest, Padre Agustino (originally from Zaire), would intervene in their favor. The first chapter describes the history, geography, and cultural and social make-up of the city of Cobán and the San Felipe Parish. It opens with a narrative picture of the celebration of the city’s patron saint, St. Dominic de Osma. “At noon church bells ring and fireworks explode, announcing that Santo Domingo is ready to exit the city’s main church” (34).
While this is not a work of theology per se, chapter 2’s overview helpfully outlines various stages and groups of Catholic theology and practice in Guatemala through the centuries. In a country where “Mayas have lived under conditions of internal colonialism since the sixteenth century” (56), and where the recent Guatemalan Civil War of 1960 to 1996 included the genocide committed against the Mayas, group identities, languages, and practices matter. Tracing Guatemalan Catholicism in the 20th century, Hoenes del Pinal highlights four theological movements: Catholic Action, Liberation Theology, the Theology of Inculturation, and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement. As he writes at the end of the chapter: “I have tried to give a sense of how Catholicism can be understood as a field in which a range of actors have mobilized various discursive resources around the intersections of religion and ethnocultural identity in response to changing social conditions and ideological movements” (79). This was the most informative chapter of the book.
Chapter 3 examines the differing structures of authority for mainstream and charismatic Catholic lay leaders, while chapter 4 explains the political, ideological (and for some mainstream Catholics, moral) consequences of the charismatic Catholics using Spanish predominantly in their services. Chapter 5 turns to the communities’ differing musical and singing traditions while chapter 6 dissects how bodily movements and postures can reveal differing tendencies in both groups and in subsequent judgements against each other (some mainstream Catholics found charismatics’ jovial movements a sign of lacking humility, while some charismatics saw mainstream practice as stiff and boring). Chapter 7 returns us to the Good Friday procession as Hoenes del Pinal argues that “the collaborative nature of embodied ritual action served to force intersubjective relations that were the bedrock of producing collective religious sensibilities” (29). Differing songs, hymnals, preferred religious language, body movements, and rituals created and reinforced distinctive group identities, even if under the larger umbrella of Catholicism.
Overall, I came away with a vivid and memorable picture of this small community in Guatemala based on Hoenes de Pinal’s field research. While this micro-picture is valuable in itself, the author rightly contends that it can also serve as a model to view other Catholic communities that also contain distinctive—though not necessarily conflicting—ideologies and identities. Interestingly, he noted that upon a return trip a decade later, the conflicts between the two groups had mostly subsided. For the author, this supports his notion of Catholicism’s “heteroglossic and dynamic system that only appears stable and unified from certain vantage points and at certain times” (26).
I would have liked, though, an examination of how the very different papacies of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis may have contributed to either the tensions observed during his fieldwork and its subsequent easing a decade later. I wonder if the more theologically authoritative, anti-liberation theology policies of Benedict contributed to the hyper-sensitive focus of who was really Catholic in the parish of San Felipe in 2004 to 2006. Likewise, would Francis’ promotion of climate change awareness and his pro-indigenous, pro-nature, and pro-liberation theology policies have helped alleviate the intra-Church battles—or does Rome have little to do with Cobán? I also wonder how and if the child abuse crisis in the global Church factors in at all in Cobán. Such is simply to say I want to learn a lot more, which is only a testament to this engaging and informative work.
Peter Admirand is the deputy head of the School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music, and the director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University.Peter AdmirandDate Of Review:July 27, 2023