I have chosen to concentrate on the of a particular faith-related mannerism practiced by the Catholic Hispanic community in my local area and how this ritual is perceived by people who do not abide by the same custom. The particular activity I decided to observe is the sign of the cross many individuals make while entering or passing in front of a church. In order to properly observe this phenomenon, I parked my car right in front of a Catholic church in my neighborhood.
I chose this setting of observation and this particular topic because it had always intrigued me why they make that sign. I always asked myself what is it that they want to gain or demonstrate with such act. Not that I judge these individuals, but, again, I have always been puzzled by it. This community provides a good illustration for my topic because most Hispanic people profess the Catholic religion and, even when compared with non-Hispanic Catholics, Hispanics seem to attach themselves to these types of acts of faith in a greater degree.
Since most of the members of this Hispanic community are immigrants and are, therefore, still deeply connected to many of the social and religious norms that characterize the countries they come from, the first expectation I had was that while the elderly and older adults would automatically comply with the ritual, this would not be the case with younger adults or teenagers, since the latter tend to be guided by norms and social behavior that are more in accordance with their peers in the United States. My second expectation was that people who where not Catholic would pass by the church and just be indifferent toward this phenomenon.
This indifference, I assumed, would be the result of either apathy itself or respect toward others’ acts of faith. The rationale behind this expectation was certain conversations I have had with a couple of Hispanic friends. One of them recently mentioned something to which I had never given too much thought, that people who reside in large cities, especially in the so called First World, do not seem to care much about what others do. This coldness toward fellow human beings, according to him, is what optimistic people call tolerance.
Thirdly, I expected that most people, if not everyone, entering the church would abide by the norm. This third expectation was based on the assumption that the majority of the individuals who enter a church would do so because they really care about the religion. My forth expectation follows from the second one: those who pass or enter the church would not pay attention to what others do, meaning that they would be unconcerned or unaware if others did or did not make the sign of the cross.
And finally, my fifth expectation had to do with the issue of respect toward religious symbols. Since it seems obvious that in addition to being a social custom that has been passed from generation to generation, this norm is also an act of respect toward certain religious concepts, ideas, or symbols, I expected that most, if not all, of those who performed the sign of the cross would be careful enough not to conduct themselves, at least in front of the church, in a way that would indicate lack of respect for the symbols or ideas they had honored a moment before.
The basis for this expectation was my interaction with two relatives of mine, my aunt and a cousin, who are devotees of the Catholic religion and, as far as I have observed and heard, are very respectful of its norms and principles.
Just as in previous informal observations, I saw people performing the sign of the cross as they passed. The majority of them did so. I took note for several hours and at least six out of ten of those who passed by would comply with such custom. The percentage was higher in the case of those entering the church; at least eight out of ten would perform the sign of the cross.
It is pertinent to mention that I did not count those individuals whom I perceived as non-Hispanic. I also observed that many parents would ask their small children to make the sign of the cross as entering or passing by the church. Many other teenagers, maybe between twelve and sixteen, would also perform the sign of the cross even when they were not accompanied by an adult.
About twenty minutes after I started my observation, I saw two young boys passing by and one of them not only performed the sign of the cross, but also bent one of his knees for about three seconds, and then kept walking. The boy next to him did not abide by the ritual, nor did he seem to notice what his friend did. They just kept walking and talking to each other. Most of those who passed in front of the church without complying with the tradition would not pay attention to those who did.
My observations were, generally speaking, in accordance with what I expected, with the exception of what I projected on how teenagers would conduct themselves. Contrary to my expectations, younger individuals did not vary that much when compared to their adult peers. On the other hand, just as I expected, most people seemed not to pay much or any attention to what others did. This seems to be the case with many other religious mannerisms or rituals. It is quite evident that the world moves toward acceptance or tolerance.
In the United States, it is completely irrelevant to most people if someone performs the sign of the cross at any public place. The media, here in the US, as well as in the majority of the so-called First World countries, consistently denounce any effort by any given public authority to ban or limit public expressions of faith as long as believers do not impose their faith on others.
For instance, there are countless websites, journals, magazines and newspapers that have strongly condemned recent efforts by the French government to ban any manifestation of religious adherence in public buildings, and particularly in schools. Although the majority of the French people supports this ban, media in general does not see it as a desirable or acceptable move. “By a crushing majority – up to 70 per cent in some surveys – the French want the new legislation. Even though ‘ostensive signs of religious affiliation’ in the draft law covers Jewish skullcaps and ‘manifestly excessive’ Christian crosses, few pretend that its real target is anything other than the Muslim headscarf”( Duval Smith, 2004).
This takes me back to something related to one of my expectations. Based on the French example, it appears to be that the indifference I observed in the case of those who passed by the Catholic Church without paying attention to those who made the sign of the cross is highly more desirable than the concern exhibited by the French. The attitude assumed by the media worldwide seems to be a clear indication of where things are heading up: if not acceptance, at least tolerance; if not tolerance, at least apathy, but, in any event, less discrimination.
The first article I found on this topic has to do with the importance that this ritual has for Catholics and other Christians. The article depicts the act of making the sign of the cross as “The Sign of the Cross is not only an action, but a statement of faith itself. In this simple gesture one is not only making a sign of our redemption, the Cross, but is also expressing faith in the Blessed
Trinity. It was with this simple action that the faithful of the early Church fortified themselves despite difficult times” (http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Basics/SignumC.html). Despite this assertion, it seems that most people do not attribute such relevance to the ritual in question.
It seems to me that the majorities of people do this in an automatic manner and do not give much thought to it.
The second article refers to the report on how a soccer player was cautioned by judicial authorities in Scotland for the simple fact of crossing himself in public while playing a game. Although these authorities indicated that the player did more than jus crossing himself in public, the Catholic Church protested what they perceived as a sigh of intolerance. Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church, was quoted as saying that cautioning the player for making the sign of the cross was “a worrying and alarming development, especially since the sign of the cross is globally accepted as a gesture of religious reverence,” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/5288184.stm).
Duval Smith, Alex, France Divided as Headscarf is Set to Become Law, Guardian Unlimited, The Observer International, February 1, 2004. (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1136434,00.html)
Alarm at ‘Cross’ Prayers Caution, BBC News, Saturday, 26 August 2006 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/5288184.stm)
Signum Crucis (Sign of the Cross), Treasury of Latin Prayers, April, MCMXCVIII (http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Basics/SignumC.html)