From the Spanish Inquisition to Now Ethnography of the Subculture of Catholicism in Spain

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Ever since I was a little girl I have been Catholic. From Catholic school as an elementary student, to attending Sunday School classes as I traversed through public high school, I can safely say I have experienced life as an American Catholic. A few months ago I had traveled to Spain as a graduation gift from my dad.

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I was in Spain with my dad, stepmom, and stepsister from May to June. We were lucky enough to spend an entire two weeks traveling all over Spain. Within those first few days, we all met up with an old friend of my stepmom’s that has lived in Spain his whole life. He and his family are all Catholics.

In school I had always been aware that Catholicism played a big role in Spain, which was especially emphasized in my history classes. But being present in Spain, and being surrounded by this subculture that breathes throughout the country is what hammered that fact into my brain: that Spain has a deep-rooted subculture of Catholicism. Ever since coming to this realization, I’ve wanted to explore deeper into this subculture and how it is different from my subculture here in the United States. I know that Catholicism is a religion that celebrates universally throughout the world, but I wanted to discover the subtle differences between how Spanish Catholics celebrate and how American Catholics celebrate Catholicism.

Whenever I think of Catholicism, I think of older, elderly men and women that attend church every single Sunday, as well as families that take their newborn babies to Mass, and how they inevitably leave in the middle of the service to keep them from disturbing the Mass. When I think of Catholicism in Spain, however, it’s different. I think of beautiful cathedrals, and people of all ages attending Mass. I imagine the presence of tradition being heavy on the congregation as everyone lifts their hearts to God. This, of course, is only an idea that I have created in my head from assumptions I have made as a person from another continent. And until this year, I hadn’t experienced anything to change those assumptions. While I was in Spain, I had expected the churches and cathedrals to be absolutely stunning, and not too much different from the cathedrals here in Alabama. I also expected the Masses to either be told in Spanish or Latin, depending on if the cathedral was especially traditional or not. I also expected everything that had to deal with the Mass to be serious, maybe even more strict and serious than in the United States. This thought doesn’t really make sense because the Church is universal so all the practices have to be held pretty much the same way. What I mean by more serious and strict is how the congregation reacts towards the Mass. I feel that the people attending church are more quiet and respectful when it comes to their young children crying. I also feel that the same demographics will be represented in the service. I believe that a lot of the service will be attended by the elderly, especially since as people get closer in age to dying, they are more likely to stick to their religious and moral beliefs alittle closer than they did as a young adult (White). As a result, these elderly people make up the majority of the catholic congregation. Since the elderly are more set in their ways, they are more likely to favor tradition, so I concluded that the Spanish Masses would be more steeped in tradition than the American Masses. I was able to handful of churches while in Spain in different locations and cities throughout the country, and I was lucky enough to stand in while a Mass was being held. Before doing so, I had expected solemnity, structure, and beautiful to be present and consistent in each church that I visited in Spain. This, I had expected, would be a very amazing experience to view a similar subculture to my through an outsider’s eyes.


Catholicism was first introduced to Spain in the early first century by the Visigoths. The Visigoths were part of the Germanic tribes that took over after the Roman Empire collapsed (Mark). Then by the eighth century and until the fifteenth century, the Arabs and Berbers conquered Spain and held control. The Islamic religion then spread throughout the country during that long period. For the majority of the Middle Ages, Spain was constantly being fought over by the Muslims (then known as the Moors) and the Christians. This period of warfare greatly impacted Spain and is referred to as the Reconquista. After this Reconquista, King Ferdinand the Second and Queen Isabella the First of Castile came into power. By the urging of Queen Isabella, the Spanish Inquisition was put into power in 1478. The purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to drive out the non-believers from Spain. These non-believers included the Moors, the Jews, the Protestants, and other people labeled as heretics in the eyes of the Catholic Church (Kreger). The counter reformation was an effort in the sixteenth century Spain to keep the Catholic faith alive throughout the country. This counter reformation was successful and the influence of Protestants was greatly diminished. During the eighteenth century was the height of the Catholic Church’s power to the government. Finally, from the nineteenth century and onwards, the Catholic faith as a power over Spain has decreased. This is especially prevalent through the Spanish Civil war, which lasted from 1936-1939, and this war was mainly caused by how much of a role the Catholic Church should have in Spain’s government. Once the Socialist party took over Spain’s government fourteen years ago, some legislation that directly goes against what the Catholic Church believes have been passed, which gives evidence as to how important of a role the Catholic Church is in Spain’s government currently (Phillips).

I visited a number of churches and cathedrals while I was in Spain. These churches were the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus in San Sebasti?- n, the Church of Saint Lorenzo in Valencia, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.


25 May 2018 (11:00 p.m.-11:30 p.m.); 27 May 2018 (5:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m.); 31 May 2018 (7:50 p.m.-8:30 p.m.); 3 June 2018 (3:30 p.m.-4:00 p.m.); 4 June 2018 (6:30 p.m.- 8:00 p.m.)

The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, 25-27 May 2018 (11:00 p.m.-11:30 p.m.) (5:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m.)

This was the first time that I visited a church in Spain. This church is located in the Old Town part of San Sebasti?- n, which is located in northern Spain. The Old Town had cobblestone pavements that had been there since the city was founded. I could even see the parts of the street where they were still inverted, which was originally so that whenever someone dumped their toilets onto the streets, the fluids would run into the center of the street. In modern times, those canals in the middle of the streets are filled with similar looking cobblestone. Located in the middle of the Old Town is the Bas?­lica de Nuestra Se?±ora del Coro. It was built in the eighteenth century in the Baroque style. Over the years, more modern sculptures have been added, however, such as the sculpture by a famous Spanish artist, Eduardo Chillida (San Sebasti?- n Turismo). There was currently no Mass being held on the 25th of May, especially considering how the church was closed. According to our family friend Javier, people would sit on the steps of the church to drink and have conversations well into midnight.

It is part of the culture of that city, to bar-hop after a 10:00 p.m. dinner, and to congregate around the church. Taking part in that little piece of culture was very new to me. In the United States, you have to be 21 in order to drink alcohol, but in Spain you only have to be 18. I was old enough to take part in the night life in Spain. I didn’t feel like much of an outsider while sitting on the church’s steps and drinking, but it was definitely a somewhat weird experience to be drinking

in front of a church so casually and so late at night.

The second time I visited the church, I was able to take a peek inside. The church on the inside (and outside) looked how I had envisioned the old churches of Spain would look. It was beautifully decorated from the ceiling to the floor in Christian imagery. Statues lined every spare inch of the outside of the church, and the inside was beautifully represented in all different types of warm colors like light blue, red, silver, and gold. It also cost money to enter and receive a tour of the church, which was about ?‚¬3-5, depending on how long of a tour you wanted. I wasn’t able to afford taking a tour at the time, so I was only able to look around for a short time.

The Church of Saint Lorenzo, 31 May 2018 (7:50 p.m.-8:30 p.m.)I was able to stand in the back of this church whilst a service was being held. I was not able to stay long because my family and I had to go out to eat dinner. While I stood in the back of the church, I paid enough attention to know that the Mass was being held in Spanish. This church wasn’t as beautifully adorned as the one in San Sebasti?- n, but it was still beautiful. I would compare the amount of decoration and traditional imagery to the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Sagrada Familia, 3-4 June 2018 (3:30 p.m.-4:00 p.m.) (6:30 p.m.-8:00 p.m.)I was lucky enough that I was able to view the magnificence of the Sagrada Familia from both the outside and the inside. And I am proud to say that I attended service there as well. In my first visit however, I was only able to view the outside of the Sagrada Familia because all of the tickets had sold out. I have never seen such magnificence in my entire life. The architect, Antoni Gaud?­, designed it all so that he could bring glory to the Holy Family. It was his way of showing his faithfulness and respect to the Holy Mother Mary as well.

The second time I visited the Sagrada Familia, I was able to buy a ticket to get in. The inside was just as gorgeous, if not more. I visited the basilica at just the right time where the sun was shining through all of the stained glass that adorned every window. It was the most beautiful experience I had ever had. I also found out through my time spent there that anyone can attend Mass there for free on Sundays. I imagine it would be hard to find seating if someone came in late to the service, but to just have the ability to go to church every Sunday at the Sagrada Familia just blows my mind.


The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, 25-27 May 2018 (11:00 p.m.-11:30 p.m.) (5:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m.)

This basilica confirmed my hypothesis that the churches in Spain are more traditional than the churches here in the United States are.

The Church of Saint Lorenzo, 31 May 2018 (7:50 p.m.-8:30 p.m.)

This church confirmed my hypothesis that the Masses of at least some churches in Spain are held in Spanish. This church however also brought to my attention that not all churches in Spain are as heavily influenced by tradition as others appear to be. This church more so reminded me of the fancier churches here in Alabama than the beautiful and heavily serious churches I had originally thought Spanish churches would be like.

The Sagrada Familia, 3-4 June 2018 (3:30 p.m.-4:00 p.m.) (6:30 p.m.-8:00 p.m.)

This basilica was an outlier in my research. This is one of the most famous basilicas in the world because it has taken over one hundred years for its structure to be completed. It is still in construction today. This confirmed all of my theories that the Spanish people are more so heavily influenced than United States Americans to take pride in their Catholicism. That might also be a bias in my part because of where I live and what I have experienced here in Alabama as a Catholic.

Overall, this was one of the best experiences I have ever had the privilege to experience. To be able to be an outsider in a place where my very distant ancestors once lived, and to experience the daily life of people that are similar in faith to me has been a blessing. It has opened my eyes as to how people of the same religion can still experience small (or large) differences in their daily lives.


White, Lawrence T. Why are Old People So Religious? Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers,

16 Feb, 2016, .

Mark, Joshua J.Visigoth.Ancient History Encyclopedia, 4 Dec, 2018,

Kreger, Kristin. The Spanish Inquisition. Then Again, 5 May 1997,

Phillips, Michael. Walking on Water: The Catholic Church, Historical Memory, and Human

Rights in Spain. Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, vol.3, no.2, 2013, pp.286-310.,


San Sebasti?- n Turismo. Parte Vieja Donosiarra. San Sebasti?- n Tourism, 2018,

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