Ethnographic Research on the Superstitions Shared Among Catholics

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During the mass which I attended in St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church; a local priest brought attention to the churchgoers about their pagan superstitious beliefs which contradict their Catholic faith. The priest in the calm tone rhetorically asked the question: “How many of you have a horseshoe hanging over the front door of your house, or keep a small Buddha statue in your home for luck, or believe in any other superstition?” Many people attending the service were smiling and looking at each other perhaps because they either had their own superstition belief or knew somebody who had one. The priest smiled and continued: “We are Jesus followers. We are not Buddhists”. The pastor sought to be sure that his words reach every person in the church and tried to make his speech entertaining so the crowd could memorize his message on the emotional level.

In case to understand the small example of a large Catholic community, it is necessary to make observations by following Bronislaw Malinowski method of “getting off the veranda” (Zunner-Keating) and dive in the community.

St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church is located in North Hollywood. The place is neatly organized and surrounded but a short fence, which is not designed to intimidate but simply marks the border between people’s and holy worlds. The church has a decent size private parking lot which is extremely important for the convenience of the churchgoers. The main church building is fairly large which possibly makes people feel small in the House of God.

Both exterior and interior of the church filled with Catholic symbols, relics, and statues of Jesus Christ and saints. There is plenty of space for people to be seated during the mass. At the same time, the building is equipped with a sound system and hanging projection screens for audio and visual assistance. Everything is organized to maintain the social status of the church and there is usually nothing not fitting the religious purpose of the place. In Mary Douglas’ words, there are no things out of place which could be considered “pollution” (Stein).

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Fr. Antonio Carlucci, R.C.J. is a pastor in St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church. In the United States, the term pastor is used by Catholics for what in other English-speaking countries is called a parish priest. Fr. Carlucci is a full-time spiritual leader associated with a formal religious institution such as the Roman Catholic Church. As Rebecca Stein confirms: “Priests are full-time religious specialists associated with formalized religious institutions that may be linked with kinship groups, communities, or larger political units and are given religious authority by those units or by formal religious organizations” (Stein).

From my understanding, attending the morning mass every Sunday requires a certain level of dedication which is, in my opinion, is “too costly to fake”, especially for younger people because they have many temptations to stay late on Saturday night and sleep-in on Sunday morning. As Richard Sosis points out at his work: “Although there may be physical or psychological benefits associated with some ritual practices, the significant time, energy and financial costs involved serve as effective deterrents for anyone who does not believe in the teachings of a particular religion” (Sosis). Simultaneously, the churchgoers confirmed in my interviews that they receive psychological benefits by visiting the mass, and they agree that it takes time and commitment.

As I found out from the interviews after the Sunday mass, even devote Catholics share some superstitious beliefs which challenge their religious teachings. At first, when I ask churchgoers about their superstitions many of them would say that they do not have any, but after I enquired them to think about it and provided some examples, most of them could remember and tell their superstitions. For instance, Vanessa, a young churchgoer, told me what I learned is one of the most common superstitions in the community, “Don’t walk under the ladder. It is bad luck.” After a second of thinking she added: “Yes, I believe so.” There is a popular theory that fear of walking under a ladder, born from its similarity to a medieval gallows (Pappas).

Victoria, another worshipper, told me about her very common American (international?) belief: “Oh, a black cat crossing my path is definitely bad luck. I really believe in this one”. Considering how many Americans own cats, it is interesting that only black cats cause a negative response. The possible explanation for this superstition is that old witch stories suggest that witches can take the form of black cats (Pappas).

Another very common superstitious belief among the local Catholics is about a broken mirror. As Nilo, a middle-aged man described to me: “Yeah, breaking a mirror is very bad. People say it is bad luck for seven years”. It is possible, that this superstition is based on the belief that a mirror reflects a part of someone soul and breaking one can be damaging to that person’s well-being (Papas).

My ethnographic research depended on participant observation methods such as involvement in the group’s rituals and conducting interviews. I directed my etic fieldwork to achieve several objectives, such as participating in the ritual of the Sunday mass in the local Catholic church and reviewing some common superstitions of the limited Catholic community, precisely worshipers at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church.

After the serious of interviews, I found that many local Catholics are “guilty” (in the words of their pastor) of various superstitious beliefs which contradict their religious teachings. As George Gmelch points out: “Here magic and religion overlap in addressing the universal human need to minimize uncertainty and insecurity” (Gmelch). Perhaps, both the religious faith and superstitious magic help people to deal with their everyday experiences, and superstitions people learn from their relatives in childhood transit from one generation to another and coexist with their religious beliefs.

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