On Sunday, June 23, a procession advanced through the streets of Irapuato, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. The marchers carried an image that mimicked that of the traditional Catholic saints, but with notable differences: its face was that of a skull; its dress, an enormous hooded cloak, and in its skeletal right hand it carried a scythe. It was death, in short, but for the audience it was not just death: it was "Santa Muerte".
That a natural process such as death has attributes attached to it is nothing new; in fact, the mythologies of the peoples are full of examples. But, leaving myths aside, understanding her as a person and, in addition, giving her the category of "saint", goes beyond what is to be expected at this point in history. Even on Facebook there are groups of followers of this fiction, and its members are counted by hundreds and thousands: there are young people as well as adults, and from different social and professional backgrounds.
Two researchers who have gone deep into the subject and have talked to hundreds of followers are Kate Kingsbury, professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, and Andrew Chesnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Both explain to Palabra how this strange devotion, already present in Europe, has taken shape.
"It is a popular Mexican saint who personifies death."says Kingsbury. It is the only one of its kind in the Americas, and has been disavowed by the Catholic Church; the Pope does not recognize it and it is seen as heresy. Despite this, it has 10 to 12 million followers throughout the continent. In Mexico, it has between seven and eight million.
"It is said to possess the power to perform miracles for its believers; miracles ranging from protection from death to help with health, finances, and much more. And since he is outside the Catholic Church, he can also be asked for negative favors, such as revenge against enemies. Drug traffickers, for example, often ask him to guard the drug shipments they send to the United States.".
According to the expert, many "santamuertistas" believe that their devotion is complementary to their Catholic faith, or even part of it. "But these popular saints are distinct from the official saints, for they have not been canonized by the Church, although they are often more popular than the canonical saints in Latin America. Santa Muerte, however, differs from these in that she is the personification of death itself, not of a deceased human being.".
Francisco: "Macabre symbols".
The cult of Santa Muerte has its roots in pre-Hispanic times. As pointed out by Chesnut and Kingsbury in an article in the Catholic HeraldIn Mexico, the records of the Inquisition in Mexico mention the phenomenon twice in the 1790s, when they destroyed two shrines dedicated to the skull. The devotion remained out of focus until the 1940s, when a woman was known to practice it.
Now, the Christian sense of death, which inspires St. Francis to call it metaphorically "sister", since it is through death that the Christian reaches perfect union with God, is not precisely what animates the cult of the terrifying skeleton of the scythe.
Pope Francis, during his pastoral visit to Mexico in 2016, indirectly alluded to the problem by expressing his concern about "so many who, seduced by the empty power of the world, exalt chimeras and clothe themselves in their macabre symbols to market death in exchange for coins"..
Why does the Church reject this "devotion"? Kingsbury notes three reasons: one - perhaps too mathematical - would be the numerical growth of followers, in a geographical context in which the Church is already grappling with the rise of Pentecostalism. "Now he has to contend with a heretical folk saint, most of whose devotees claim to be Catholic, especially in Mexico, where 75 % of the 'santamuertistas' live.".
But in addition, he points out, "the Church sees the veneration of this figure as tantamount to Satanism, since death is the antithesis of the eternal life that Jesus attained for believers by his sacrifice on the cross"..
Lastly, the scholar cites the Pontiff's criticism of the "'macabre symbol' of the narcos, who over the past decade have sent tens of thousands of their countrymen to their graves early. Although he does not receive much media coverage for it, Pope Francis is a renowned enemy of drugs.".
But not only the Pope has disapproved, in the name of the Church, of this rare "spirituality". Other prelates, in Mexico, in the United States, and even an envoy of the Holy See, have expressed their condemnation in recent times. If in 2013 Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi pointed out that it was a matter of "a blasphemous cult" y "a degeneration of religion"because this "celebrate life, and here there is only death."Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe (New Mexico) emphasized the idea last March: that belief, he said, "it is really wrong. [...] Our devotion is to the God of life.".
"Patron saint"... of narcos and cops
Is it possible to draw a sociological profile of the believers in this phenomenon? "With 12 million devotees, it is understood that there is diversity among them." -Dr. Chesnut explains, "however, most are working class, millennials, considerably more women than men, many LGBTQ... In Mexico, there are many among those who are exposed to the possibility of an early death and in bad circumstances, and have hope of receiving a holy death in the midst of so much bad death. In the last decade, the country has only been surpassed by Syria in the number of violent deaths.".
Among the causes of the upturn in this "devotion", the researcher underlines precisely the violenceWe have to keep in mind the fact that the cult has proliferated in Mexico during the hyperviolence of the drug war, so she has become the patron saint of that war, not only for the narcos, but also for the police and the military, who implore her to take care of their lives during their dangerous operations against drug traffickers. Thus, on the one hand there are devotees who ask her for more life and protection, but on the other hand there are those who ask her to use her scythe to remove the enemies from the road"..
Finally, asked what would be an appropriate Christian position in the face of this expanding belief, Chesnut is inclined to teach the truth; to clarify without imposing: "Of course she is not a Catholic saint, and the Church rejects her as a heretical belief, but it seems to me that a campaign to catechize the faithful is more convenient than a policy of persecution of the cult and its devotees, since the majority in Mexico are people who still believe they are Catholics"..