"Religious tradition"? Key facts, please

In all my years on the Godbeat, I have never covered a vague "religious festival." All of the one's that I have covered -- especially when linked to ancient traditions in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other major faiths -- have very precise titles, rituals and purposes.

So, if you are willing to ask a question or two, you usually hit a specific passage in scripture, a reference to the life of a holy person, a tie between the secular and religious calendars, or some other hook to the faith in question. At that point, it is usually a short jump to a symbol or two, often with ethnic roots, and the rites linking the festival and the faith of the people involved.

This brings me to a recent Associated Press report that had just about everything, from bull fighting to political activism, with a few injuries thrown in along the way. It also centered on a major -- but, alas, vague -- "religious festival" involving Portuguese Catholics. Here's the top of the story:

THORNTON, Calif. -- It was supposed to be a "bloodless bullfight," a dangerous dance between a pirouetting matador and an enraged bull that would not end in death.

But this time-honored Portuguese tradition capping a religious festival was anything but bloodless.

As the matador raised a short festooned spear to stick to the bull's neck, an animal welfare investigator charged into the ring, suspecting that the banderilla's Velcro tip concealed an illegal steel barb that would pierce the animal's hide. Spectators chased down the intruder, and a bloody melee ensued, sending a San Joaquin County Sheriff's deputy to the hospital and two men to jail.

The episode in May reignited a battle that has endured for several decades between the bullfight aficionados and animal welfare advocates who contend the ritual is animal cruelty masquerading as religious theater.

As you can see, the legal issues involved are directly connected to a claim of religious freedom and expression. Thus, it would help to know something about the nature of this "religious festival" and, most of all, how that is linked to this ritual in the bullfighting ring. After all, as the story says:

When California lawmakers banned to-the-death bullfights in 1957, they created an exemption for Portuguese-style bloodless fights if they are part of religious celebrations, the only exemption in the U.S. ...

Animal welfare advocates say there is nothing religious about a bullfight and they are lobbying for laws to at least require veterinarians on the scene.

"When it gets to the point where they create these bullfights, pretend they're religious, then torture and slaughter the bulls, I have a big problem," said attorney David Casselman of the nonprofit Animal Cruelty Investigators, whose agents are monitoring the fights.

Once again, the content of the festival and its rites is crucial to judging the claims made by leaders on both sides of this story. The reference to "torture," by the way, appears to be a reference to the fact that the bulls are eventually slaughtered and the meat eaten as food. These Catholics are not vegetarians.

Again, what is the connection between these events and the Catholic faith?

Well, later in the story we do read:

Whether the bullfights are a religious exercise has been debated since 1981, when then-Attorney General George Deukmejian said the fights would have to be an integral part of a Mass, which must take place on consecrated ground, to comply with the law.

The story goes on to offer lots of other details about the fights themselves, including evidence that the banderillas used in the bullfights may, in fact, have barbs on the tips -- as opposed to the lethal weapons used in traditional, full-tilt bullfighting. We are also told that prosecutors don't like arguing with priests about these kinds of issues.

But what are they arguing about? We never find out.

I did a bit of searching and found a local story that, right up top, notes that the festivals are sponsored by a local chapter of the Our Lady of Fatima organization and that this was all part of the annual Holy Ghost Festa, which is one of the major events of the year for Portuguese Catholics. Another click or two yielded more information about that.

So, other than ethnic traditions, what is the link between between these Catholic rites and the actual bullfight? Perhaps someone needed to ask the members of the Our Lady of Fatima chapter? The reporter may have even tried talking to a priest or two. After that Mass, perhaps? The one that by law has to take place on sacred ground, presumably at the stadium containing the bullfight?

I'm curious about the answer to these question. How about you?

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