A Better Appreciation Without Affiliation

Center aisle of Alajuela cathedralFrom the moment I stepped in, the air felt different. The cool darkness of the church was a welcome relief from the lethargic humidity of the Costa Rican afternoon. The inside of the church seemed much larger than I expected having seen the church from the outside. The majority of the church was filled with pews that remained mostly empty during the service I attended due to the service being held on a Tuesday instead of Thursday. Other than the five people from our group and Ruth, Bonnie and Marcos’ mom coming from Siempre Verde, only one other young man attended the service.

Expectations? None

I had felt the anticipation of this experience since I had heard that going to church might be a possibility earlier that day. My research, being on the topic of religion, at this point had yet to start so I looked forward to the opportunity to learn from a first-hand experience of Costa Rican religion. Not being affiliated with Catholicism or any other religion, this was a first time experience for me. Going into the church I had little to no expectations regarding the service and what little expectation I had turned out to be wrong. My impression of Catholicism was that of a strict, conservative religion and my concept of a church came from seeing large, European cathedrals with hundred-foot high ceilings, giant stained glass windows, and intricate decorations of gold. Prior to this we had also briefly seen a similar church in Alajuela, just after we had departed the airport. Obviously the church in Mastatal would not have that kind of church as a small rural community of 150 in Central America, yet I still held that image in my head until I entered the church.

The Service Proper

With the service being done in Spanish and me knowing no Spanish, a problem presented itself. However, it was quickly solved when Cesar offered to translate quietly for me. In addition, the priest allowed me to record the Mass, which I planned to translate and subtitle for my research.  As the service started, my attention focused on the intensity of the priest’s singing and preaching. Despite the language barrier, the passion of the priest in his work shone through. Throughout the service, I was kept in the loop through Cesar’s whispered translations and what little I could discern myself. Mostly, I was impressed with how enthusiastically the priest delivered his message despite speaking to eight people. For someone observing only the priest, he might have been in one of those European cathedrals speaking to thousands.


After the service concluded, the priest began listening to confessions while I waited outside for a chance to ask the priest for an interview. Outside, I began conversing with Ruth who was an intern on Marcos’ farm about the service, then religion in general. I found out that while she was a Christian, she was not Catholic, but attended the Catholic Church because it was the only one in town and she was invited by Marcos’ family. Ruth revealed to me how accepted she felt in Mastatal’s church despite the fact that she wasn’t even the same religion as them. Her words began to surprise me as she told me how welcoming the church was to someone of a different religion. 

Priest Jose Leiva is interviewed.
The priest, Jose Esteban Castro Leiva, being interviewed.

Soon after my conversation with Ruth, I was granted an interview with the priest who very luckily was able to speak English. As I prepared to ask him questions, I felt my nervousness surface and thought I saw it reflected in the priest’s face which gave me confidence. With each question, the priest would think deeply then launch into passionate speech. I learned he was once a philosophy teacher and that he traveled to many different communities in his work as a priest, two very surprising facts to me. But his answers regarding religion’s role in people’s lives surprised me most as he expressed his belief that everyone should have the right to choose how to practice religion. Aligning with what Ruth had talked about before, the priest and his church seemed more relaxed than I had expected. While I had been more skeptical regarding religious tolerance within organized religion in general before, this church in Mastatal seemed to challenge my preconceived notions. I could no longer regard organized religion or even Catholicism as a monolith of belief, as the priest clearly demonstrated otherwise.

My hope is that by remembering this experience, I will remember to catch my preconceived notions and challenge them with learning and that anyone reading this would do the same.


Daniel and Guia walk the one road in Mastatal
The road to tolerance is through learning.


Daniel Yee.