Brownsville, Texas, Oct 30, 2016 / 03:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- They call her Santa Muerte (‘Holy Death’ or ‘Saint Death’), but she’s no saint.
The skeletal female figure has a growing devotion in Mexico, Central America, and some places in the United States, but don’t be fooled by the Mary-like veil or the holy-sounding name.
She’s not a recognized saint by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, in 2013, a Vatican official condemned devotion to her, equating it to “the celebration of devastation and of hell.”
“It’s not every day that a folk saint is actually condemned at the highest levels of the Vatican,” Andrew Chesnut, a Santa Muerte expert who has been studying the devotion for eight years, told CNA.
Chesnut is the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” the only English academic book to date on the subject.
Despite her condemnation from on high, Santa Muerte remains increasingly popular among criminals, drug lords and those on the fringe of society, as well as cultural Catholics who maybe don’t know (or care) that she is condemned by the Church.
“She’s basically the poster girl of narco-satanic spirituality,” Chesnut said.
According to Chesnut’s estimates, Santa Muerte is the fastest growing religious movement in the Americas - and it’s all happened within the past 10-15 years.
“She was unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans before 2001, when she went public. Now I estimate there’s some 10-12 million devotees, mostly in Mexico, but also significant numbers in the United States and Central America,” he said.
The roots of Santa Muerte
Although she has recently exploded in popularity, Santa Muerte has been referenced in Mexican culture since Spanish colonial times, when Catholic colonizers, looking to evangelize the native people of Mexico, brought over female Grim Reaper figures as a representation of death, Chesnut said.
But the Mayan and Aztec cultures already had death deities, and so the female skeletal figure became adopted into the culture as a kind of hybrid death saint.
She’s also mentioned twice in the historical records of the Inquisition, when Spanish Catholic inquisitors found and destroyed a shrine to Santa Muerte in Central Mexico. After that, Santa Muerte disappeared from historical records for more than a century, only to resurface, in a relatively minor way, in the 1940s.
“From the 1940s to 1980s, researchers exclusively report Santa Muerte (being invoked) for love miracles,” Chesnut said, such as women asking the folk saint to bring back their cheating husbands.
She then faded into obscurity for a few more decades, until the drug wars brought her roaring back.
What’s the appeal of a saint of death?
Part of the attraction to Santa Muerte, as several sources familiar with the devotion explained, is that she is seen as a non-judgemental saint that can be invoked for some not-so-holy petitions.
“If somebody is going to be doing something illegal, and they want to be protected from the law enforcement, they feel awkward asking God to protect them,” explained Fr. Andres Gutierrez, the pastor of St. Helen parish in Rio Hondo, Texas.
“So they promise something to Santa Muerte in exchange for being protected from the law.”
Devotees also feel comfortable going to her for favors of vengeance - something they would never ask of God or a canonized saint, Chesnut said.
“I think this non-judgemental saint who’s going to accept me as I am is appealing,” Chesnut said, particularly to criminals or to people who don’t feel completely accepted within the Mexican Catholic or Evangelical churches.