Babies, Bandits, and Other Questionable Saints

The fifth-century Christian writer Suplicius Severus tells a story from the life of St. Martin of Tours. Upon being made bishop of that city, Martin became curious about a small roadside shrine supposedly devoted to an early Christian martyr. Wanting to know if the shrine was authentic, he asked older members of the community about the martyr’s real story. Unable to get a clear idea of who this actually was, he went to the shrine himself with his cohort and prayed to God that the true identity of the martyr would be revealed.
In response to his prayer, a fearsome and dark shadow appeared before him. It turned out that the man buried at the shrine was really a criminal executed by the authorities for his misdeeds. In death, he had deceived the people of the city into thinking he was a saint and thus had become an object of veneration. His earthly life, however, was far from admirable, and he was being punished for it in the afterlife. This fearsome apparition proved once and for all that the “saint” was a fake.
Almost since the beginning, unofficial saints have been part of the devotion of the Catholic masses. Throughout history, ordinary laymen have canonized questionable figures, from criminals to bad monks — even dogs. Here in the United States, the phenomenon of unofficial cults is becoming more visible in the Church with the continued influx of Catholics from Latin America. Spanish America has been a fertile breeding ground for such figures, and devotions such as those to Jesús Malverde and Santa Muerte bring up complicated pastoral problems for those who minister to these communities.

For the most part, folk saints emerge from a pious tendency of Latin American Catholics to pray for and venerate their dead. Throughout Latin America, to take one example, there are cults to what are known as angelitos, or little angels: baptized infants who die before the age of reason. Not only are their graves colorful expressions of folk piety, festooned with toys and other mementos, but some even become centers of pilgrimage where the faithful ask the dead infants for supernatural favors.
In other cases, the deaths of the people commemorated at these tombs are not so innocent. The famous folk shrine in Tucson, Arizona, of El Tiradito, or the Castaway, is the tomb of a man killed because of his involvement in a love triangle. This and other such figures are not considered saints by their devotees, but rather “animas del purgatorio,” or souls in purgatory. Somehow, people went from praying for them to praying to them in exchange for supernatural favors.

In a couple of cases, these figures have become the patrons of less than legal activities. The two most significant cases here are Jesús Malverde of northern Mexico and Gauchito Gil of Argentina. Malverde, a Mexican Robin Hood-like character of legendary origins, has become the patron of drug traffickers, and many corridos (popular ballads) are written in his honor, praising that dark and violent culture. Another such Robin Hood character appeared on the other side of the continent in the form of Gauchito Gil: an Argentine cowboy executed for desertion from the army in the 19th century. He has since become the patron of thieves and other violent thugs. While there are devotees to these figures who are not lawbreakers and live ordinary lives, the “saints” popularity has grown precisely because of their criminal followers.

The most disturbing devotion, and perhaps the most popular one at this point, is the Mexican and Argentine cult to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Of very recent origin, the reason why death has been “canonized” in recent years is far from clear. Though usurping traditional imagery of the Grim Reaper and the danses macabres of medieval origin, most devotees are not quite clear as to who or what they are praying to in this skeletal figure. Some think it is the angel of death, others the Virgin Mary in skeletal form. In any event, most have begun to leave any mimicry of Catholic piety behind in favor of New Age, spiritist, and other pagan ideas. Furthermore, the cult has been propagated by devotees living at the margin of society.

These stories, though colorful in themselves,
portray the two-sided reality that Catholics of Latin-American origin bring to this country. On the one hand, these people often have a more acute sense of the importance of death and the afterlife than mainstream American culture. The phenomenon of the folk saint often emerges out of the exhortation by the Church to pray for the dead so that they might be loosed from their sins, as we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46). On the other hand, the folk saint, as in the case of the “narcosaints” of Jesús Malverde or Santa Muerte, can become an excuse to circumvent the Church in the quest for supernatural aide for sinful activities. Though the boundaries are not always clear, the line between devotion and fetish is one that has to be preserved in these cases.

As with the story of St. Martin of Tours, it is up to the hierarchy of the Church to decide which devotions foster virtue, piety, and love of God, and which are merely supernatural quick fixes that make a mockery of real faith. While the Church in this country should foster the good tendencies that often underlie these cults and also encourage popular devotion to official saints (the Virgin Mary, St. Jude, St. Martin himself), it must combat the superstition at the heart of many of these unapproved devotions.
The Congregation of Divine Worship, in its Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, succinctly summarizes the task that the Church faces in these “devotions”: 

 

In its attempts to remedy such defects in popular piety, the contemporary Magisterium has insistently stressed the need to “evangelize” popular piety, and sees it in relation to the Gospel which “will progressively free it from its defects; purify it, consolidate it and clarify that which is ambiguous by referring it of the contents of faith, hope and charity” (66).

Arturo Vasquez

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Arturo Vasquez is a writer and independent researcher in New Orleans. He blogs regularly at Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity.

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