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'Saint Death' Challenges Catholic Church

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'Saint Death' Challenges Catholic Church

Saint Death, aka Santa Muerte

Today is All Saints Day in the Christian Tradition. But one ghostly figure with “saint” in his name is drawing fire from the Catholic Church: Saint Death. Santa Muerte is appearing in Little Village, Pilsen and other Mexican neighborhoods across the country. In some ways, it’s Mexico’s idolatrous take on the Grim Reaper. And it’s posing a new challenge for the Catholic Church in the U.S. and Mexico.

There’s an ideological battle brewing outside Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Chicago’s Little Village. It’s Sunday morning, just after the 9:30 Spanish-language mass, and Eva Flores is sitting outside the church with a friend, finishing a quesadilla.

ambi: Sounds from outside the church - bells ringing, people talking

Short and plump, the 65-year-old left Mexico for the U.S. a dozen years ago. She’s a devout Catholic and regularly prays to the saints: David, Jude, and Lazarus. But she also prays to Santa Muerte - better known in English as “Saint Death.”

FLORES (in translation): Every time I have a problem, I pray to Santa Muerte. They’re all equal - Santa Muerte, and the Church.

In a nutshell, Santa Muerte is a skeleton. Sometimes, it’s male, sometimes, female. It carries a scythe, or sometimes a globe. Some experts say Santa Muerte came from Aztec traditions that mixed with Catholicism during Spanish colonial rule. But one thing is clear: Santa Muerte developed a large following only in the last quarter-century. Many Mexicans prayed to it to deliver them from poverty. Mexican authorities linked some Santa Muerte devotees to prostitution, homicides, and gangs. Eventually, Mexico’s Catholic Church declared Santa Muerte’s followers a cult. Now, Santa Muerte is appearing in U.S. neighborhoods with heavy Mexican populations.
ambi: Sounds from 26th Street - trucks, horns, music

This is 26th Street, the heart of Little Village, just a few blocks from Good Shepherd. Elderly women are standing at carts, slathering chili across freshly sliced mangos. Inside Centro Botanico Guadalupano, a clutch of women is scanning jars of herbs. Sound from the botanica at 26th Street Behind the store’s glass counter, is a wall of statues: Saint David, and Saint Jude. Larger than the rest: Santa Muerte. Men and women come in to buy the statues and palm-sized prayer cards bearing Santa Muerte’s image. Santa Muerte appears to be gaining broader credibility: Young, middle-class Mexican-Americans are snapping up Santa Muerte tee-shirts. Young men are getting Santa Muerte tattoos. Even Motorcycle Diaries star Gael Garcia Bernal is narrating a new documentary, called, “Saint Death.” So far, police in Chicago and other U.S. cities say they haven’t linked Santa Muerte to crime. The nation’s Catholic officials haven’t formally addressed Santa Muerte’s rise. But Chicago’s archdiocese appears to be among the most aggressive in confronting the issue. The reason: About 40% of its members are Latino. At the head of its efforts is Father Marco Mercado.

ambi: Sounds outside church

He heads the 3,000-member Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Father Mercado says he began seeing Santa Muerte in the U.S. about a decade ago, shortly after he became a priest. Now, he says, Santa Muerte is everywhere.

MARCO: They say Santa Muerte is so powerful, because no one escapes. Not even Jesus escapes from death. Anything you ask from Santa Muerte, she’s going to give it to you. But you have to be very faithful to her.

In recent months, Father Mercado has talked about Santa Muerte from the pulpit, saying it conflicts with core Catholic beliefs. A few weeks ago, he visited a parishioner’s home and saw an altar with a Santa Muerte statue. His response: Get rid of it.

MARCO : I explained to them about why it’s not good. I said, ‘take it away. I can take it back to church, whatever you want.

ambi: Sounds outside church - people talking, children playing

Father Mercado faces a tough battle. Belief in Santa Muerte runs deep. Outside Good Shepherd, parishoner Miguel Oronato is standing at a quesadilla stand with his wife and four young children. The brawny 23-year-old was born in Mexico and is Catholic. Sometimes, he prays to Santa Muerte for good luck. Now, he plans to build a home altar to various saints - including Santa Muerte.

ORONATO (in translation): Santa Muerte is a saint, like any other. We have to respect her. In terms of love and money, you have to put faith in her, and she’ll definitely help you.

America’s immigrants have introduced many cultural phenomenons, but Santa Muerte may be among the most unusual. It may also prove to be one of the most intriguing spiritual tests to face the U.S. Catholic church.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Steven Gray.

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