Skipping Past Father Thomas

I must have been around nine years old. It was after school and I was walking past the back wrought iron gates of San Ignacio, our neighborhood Catholic church. I was kicking a large rock down the sidewalk and trying to make it bounce like the stones I had seen kids on TV skip on water. Seeming to spring out of the brick wall, Father Thomas, a priest of imposing physique and fiery temperament, suddenly lunged from behind the iron bars and scolded, “Get in here and go to Catechism, you evil kid, or you burn in hell!”

I was stunned. I did not walk in the front of the church to avoid running into Father Thomas. It was not my only reason. I was intimidated by the randomness of the rituals people performed at the church’s front steps. Some people just walked past without acknowledging its holy grounds, but other people performed the sign of the cross. This was usually done by pinching the fingers of the right hand together and drawing a cross over the forehead. Not to be outdone in the competition for the best public display of piety, other people would do two signs of the cross, the second one a much grander version. They would touch their forehead then move their hand straight down to somewhere between the sternum and the belly button, and then finish off with a peck on each shoulder. Which ritual was the correct one? Who knows. No one ever explained any of this to me. Perhaps there is a Papal Bull somewhere that can settle the issue, but I haven’t taken the time to look it up. Only years later did I realize that I wasn’t even doing the initial part right. I was using all five fingers, like Kill Bill’s Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. In contrast, the official Church technique limits you to just the first three fingers to symbolize the Holy T rinity. Would Jesus mind my extra two fingers? One could argue that I improvised one extrafinger to include Mary and the other for… um…The Church? I suspect that Jesus would understand and even appreciate my nimble theology. After all, I wasn’t yet heretical as a kid. I was merely suspicious back then, a budding Doubting Thomas, if you will, and there were so many things about being Catholic that fed my blossoming skepticism.

Like, how far did the zone of holiness extend from the church that required the sign of the cross? I had a friend in high school and I paid attention to fickle devotionals when we drove past San Ignacio. He’d do the sign of the cross only if his car window was rolled down, suggesting that holiness was somehow airborne, possibly transmitted by water particles. This would be consistent with the entire holy water thing. I know, I know, I should have been a priest or a theologian, and except for my atheism and my commitment to procreation rights and gender self-determination and my loathing for hierarchy, tradition, ritual, and patriarchy and my loud condemnation of The Church’s bloody history of debauchery and exploitation, I think I would have made a great priest or theologian. But I didn’t need a degree in divinity to know that the magical curse that Father Thomas threatened me with could not compare to the heavenly bean burritos that were waiting for me at home, delights conjured up by my mother and my abuelita without the slightest need for prayer or magic.

Thus, I snapped out of my momentary petrification, ignored Father Thomas, and skipped happily home, hungry for what truly would sustain me. I’ve been skipping home ever since and dodging all the Father Thomases of the world.


Oscar Gonzalez is a writer and a lawyer who lives in Texas.