Unholy Devotion: The Cult of Santa Muerte in Mexico

As Mexico is embattled by its drug war, a spiritual war is also taking place. There is a disturbing phenomenon that is being weaved into the Catholic culture of Mexico known as Santa Muerte, or Holy Death. The origins of Santa Muerte are not exactly clear, but the dangers are implicit. Stylistically speaking, the Santa Muerte figure is a cross between the grim reaper and the Virgin Mary. Shrines to her devotion are prevalent throughout Mexico, with alms of cigarettes and liquor placed at her feet. Drug traffickers often tattoo her image on their skin and crowd their homes with her likeness. Followers of this burgeoning cult have tried to dress the figure as a spiritual hybrid of Christianity and the occult — and are venerating an idol in the process.

The cult figure of Santa Muerte has found a home among those who traffic narcotics through the country, with prayers offered to her for safe passage during drug runs and other illegal activities. They call upon Santa Muerte for help in deeds that they feel other saints would turn from, such as prayers of vengeance or sexual desires. As Catholics, and faithful participants in the communion of saints, this should be an insult to our sensibilities. To attach the title of “saint” to something that is so vividly in contrast to God’s teaching is an attack on the very nature of the Catholic faith. The Church, in particular the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City, has not minced words in decrying the worship of Santa Muerte as being in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church and proper worship — but this has not put an end to the craze.

Even though the cult of Santa Muerte is primarily contained in Mexico, it has implications for the worldwide Church. This cult of superstition darkens the image of the Church in Mexico and across the globe. Because so many of the followers of Santa Muerte have intermingled their dark beliefs with that of the culture of the Roman Catholic Church, it poses a threat to the integrity of the church as viewed from outside. It gives ammunition to anti-Catholic biases that often misconstrue traditions as superstitions and veneration of saints as idol worship. The Catholic veneer that has been thinly painted over it is precisely what makes this pagan tradition so dangerous. Many followers are tricked into assuming it holds a legitimate place in their worship, because it so closely mimics the visual representations of the Catholic Church.

The title given to this cult figure, Santa Muerte, is in and of itself is a deceptive misnomer. A saint is an actual person who has lived on earth and served God. In contrast, this entity is a concoction of self-serving evil. Saints lives are devoted to the glorify God; the symbol of Santa Muerte stands for self-glorification through wrongful deeds. As Catholics, we are all called to be saints and to use the lives of our canonized saints as models; this evil phenomenon is the inverse of that. To turn to a figure like Santa Muerte is to turn away from God and to mock the communion of saints. Unfortunately, in a culture submerged in drugs and death, the selfish idea of a wish-granting entity like Santa Muerte is infectious.

From these murky spiritual waters springs an opportunity for evangelization. “The key to dealing with Catholics caught up in this is education,” according to Brother Ignatius Mary OLSM , Director and Senior Counselor of the Padre Pio deliverance center, which emphasizes loyalty to the Magisterium and spiritual warfare within the allowances of canon law. He cites the worship of this false saint as being in direct violation of the first commandment. Pointing to the selfish nature of Santa Muerte, he notes, “Those in this cult are seeking and appealing to something other than God. They trust this non-existent ‘saint’ rather then in trusting God.”

Faithful Catholics should not be discouraged by the events unfolding with the flock in Mexico, but should see it as a chance for evangelization. The people of Mexico who are lured to this dark devotion are seeking an outlet, and it is an opportunity to educate about true saints and holy devotions in which their souls would be better invested, such as Divine Mercy. We should also be vigilant in our home parishes to watch for those who may become deceived by this growing cult. Popular culture in the United States has already begun to embrace the cult figure, with t-shirts and hats with the ghastly image imprinted on them in circulation. The cult of Santa Muerte is a dangerous amalgamation of Christian and pagan culture that threatens to lead many astray, but it is a force that can be fought with proper education.

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