One of the most popular summer assignments is summer of language immersion, where men will go to Spanish speaking countries with the hope of learning both the language and the culture so as to better serve the people of God. This past summer, I was blessed to spend ten weeks studying Spanish in Lima, Peru with three other Mundelein seminarians. During this time, we had many incredible experiences. We went to an outdoor Corpus Christi Mass and procession with Cardinal Cipriani, the Archbishop of Lima. We adventured in the Andes Mountains on a hiking day-trip. We visited the shrines of St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, two great Dominicans and South America’s most famous saints. We even got to witness a procession of boats to celebrate the feast of St. Peter, the Church’s most noted fisherman. So while my time in Lima was steeped in a beautiful experience of cultural Catholicism, there was one profound religious experience that truly came as a surprise to me.
The country of Peru has a very interesting history. There is a fascinating mix of Incan and Spanish culture due to the conquering and evangelizing techniques employed by the Spaniards. And while the Spanish conquests happened four to five centuries ago, there is still a very noticeable mixing of the Incan and European cultures in the people of Peru today. You can still visit many Incan sites scattered all throughout the country, and at one of these sites, I was able to encounter the Lord in a very unique way.
Now when I just said that I encountered the Lord at an Incan religious site, I am sure that many of you became a bit concerned. Because, when it comes down to it, this site is a place where the Incan’s practiced pagan worship. To be sure, there were many sacrifices offered to different gods of nature, and they were not going to Mass every Sunday. These people had never even heard the name of Jesus Christ! So how can a man who is committing himself to the Catholic Church and participating in Christ’s ongoing mission think that a pagan religion has something to offer?
Well this site was not just your everyday temple. Rather, this experience occurred at one of the most iconic places in the world, Machu Picchu. This is the location pictured above, and to put it simply, it is the coolest place I have ever been in the world. While getting there was an adventure in itself, the sanctuary, as they call it, was simply breathtaking. We were thousands of feet high in the mountains and were just surrounded by natural beauty. To prepare myself for the trip up to Machu Picchu, I read a phenomenal book on the subject called Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. But by reading this before our visit (actually a few times before our visit), I was able to understand what was going on in the sanctuary. These ruins at Machu Picchu were not just some random village high up in the mountains. Rather, the whole site was seen as the end of a religious pilgrimage, a sacred site for the Incan people.
From what we know today, the Incans primarily worshipped the sun and the mountains as their major deities. The site of Machu Picchu is situated on a plateau, right between two huge mountains. And the sun will rise and basically do a field goal as it passes through these two mountains every day. There are also rivers that flow off of these mountains and meet at their bases. The rivers, seen as a sort of offspring of the mountains, were also understood to be holy. This means that in this specific location, everything that is sacred for the Incans comes together. There was even a temple erected in the middle of the site, which we were able to visit, that aligns with the sun perfectly during the summer solstice in June! Everything the Incans built had religious significance, and that was abundantly evident at Machu Picchu.
But what does all of this have to do with Catholicism today? Why do I keep rambling about some pilgrimage site in South America that doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus? Well, during my time at Machu Picchu, it was so easy to see the innate human desire for the divine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:
In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being (CCC 28).
By his nature, man desires union with God. And the Church is the vehicle for this union. As members of Christ’s body, we have been given a command to go out and preach the Good News to all nations. This is because every man, woman, and child on this earth has a deep longing for God and it is through the Church that this longing can best be fulfilled. The Incan people acted on this desire of the heart, and worshipped God in the best way they knew how. They made sacrifices to God, who they instinctively personified as mountains or the sun. They saw Him as something greater than themselves and offered what they could to please Him. We too, are called to seek the divine fulfillment that only God can offer. And for us, it is when we encounter Christ, especially His presence at the Mass, that He is able to satisfy that longing for the divine. It is only in the Lord that our hearts find the fulfillment that we so earnestly desire.