My grandma was sitting at dinner with the classic hospital meal on her plate: lukewarm grilled cheese and a cup of tomato soup.

“Grandma?”

She turned and looked at me with the happiest eyes you have ever seen. Taking a seat at the table, I ate dinner with the women in memory care at my grandmother’s nursing home. I told them about the J-Term class I had the privilege to experience in Mexico. I explained the cultural, political and economic aspects of what I had been studying, and how it related to Catholic social doctrine.

Blank stares. I could tell my grandma was not understanding much. She is a simple, faith-filled woman. I was disappointed and wondered what to talk about next. Then I remembered the faces of the grandmothers I encountered in the Neza dump in Mexico and the way the Mexican families I met stayed together. My disposition changed.

What I wanted was not to inform my grandma of a bunch of details – I wanted to be in relationship with her. And at that moment, being in relationship with her meant sitting by her side eating grilled cheese. I was reminded of who I was and felt incredibly free. I remembered that I am a daughter, a granddaughter. This deep understanding of oneself as a child of God, which I saw so prevalent in the Mexican people, was freeing because it allowed me to simply be. It didn’t require me to have some special knowledge, or to be able to say something profound about all I had seen. It was enough to be myself.

I wasn’t expecting that much from a trip to Mexico City. I knew I wanted to go – the class seemed interesting and it fulfilled what I needed for my J-Term credit. However, I wasn’t expecting a class titled Church and Culture to affect my life so deeply and become a moment of conversion and encounter with Christ.

I would find myself thinking, “I can’t believe I get to experience an education like this!” as I immersed myself in class discussion and Mexican culture. The course focused on the political, economic and cultural aspects of Mexican society, with particular emphasis on the influence of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was approved by the Holy See in 1895 as an authentic Marian apparition.

The course offered exposure to many different faces of Mexican society, from the Neza garbage dump, the poorest place in Mexico City, to IPADE, the top business school.

What struck me as a unifying theme in Mexican culture was the value of relationships and the prominence of the family. Whether it was at the orphanage, where every child was legally adopted by orphanage director Mother Iñez, seeing a family walking 10 miles on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or learning about the economy of family businesses, the family was central.

The Catholic Church has long held that the family is the building block of culture (CSDS, 211). In the encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote “the first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’ is the family in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.”

Immersing myself in Mexican culture was an experience of being welcomed into a community that considers a person as more than something to exploit and consume. A person is foremost a son or daughter – to love and be loved. After visiting the U.S., Mother Teresa once said, “We sometimes think that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

Now back in the U.S., I am aware of a desire to stay with the people who are forgotten or deemed “irrelevant.” It is a poverty of relationship that seems to dominate American culture. My start to helping remedy this poverty began the day I visited my grandma and ate grilled cheese with the women in the memory care unit.

CATH 401 Church and Culture: Mexico City is a new J-Term study abroad option through the Department of Catholic Studies that fulfills Catholic studies degree, core and human diversity undergraduate requirements. Center for Catholic Studies director Dr. Michael Naughton and the program manager of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought and the Joseph and Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership, Nancy Sannerud, developed the course as an opportunity for students to experience an on-ground investigation into the ways in which Catholicism is inherently ecclesial and social. The course’s framework is taken from the analysis of society into three spheres of action (culture, politics and economics) in relation to how the Church understands “integral human development” and its contrary of human sin, injustice and suffering.

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