“People are always looking for a new devotion as a way of acquiring something for themselves.”
This is the reflection of Bishop Emeritus Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, illustrating a danger spoken about in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that of focusing prayer on the gifts rather than the Giver.
But the bishop’s warning is particularly dire because it was made in reference to a fast-growing Satanic cult disguised in the terminology of Catholic devotion. It’s the cult of “Santa Muerte,” St. (holy) Death, and it promises devotees all kinds of things.
“People turn to this devotion for worldly help, for money, material benefits — even to commit crimes and to keep them from being caught for their terrible deeds. So it’s really a devotion to Satan to gain material favors: money, prestige, power,” explained Bishop Pfeifer, who has spent years speaking out against the growing phenomenon.
The history of this cult is rather uncertain. Many say it’s been around for centuries, attributing it to ancient Aztec worship of the god of death. But what is clear is that, in the second half of the 20th century and now in the 21st, the cult has gained many followers in Mexico and spread northward to the United States.
In an analysis of the cult written by Father Jorge Luis Zarazúa Campa, in an essay from 2015, rituals to Santa Muerte involve authentic Catholic devotions mixed with prayers to the scythe-wielding skeletal female representation of death.
Ceremonies in honor of Santa Muerte “resemble Catholic rituals in many respects. … Prayer groups, directed by a leader — generally the owner of the altar of the principal statue — organize rosaries in homes or stores, overflowing sometimes onto the street, in which they pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary and numerous Catholic prayers,” he wrote.
But at the same time, these devotees address Santa Muerte “as if addressing a loved one or a close relative, with a relationship similar to that which is cultivated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, Christ, St. Jude Thaddeus, St. Anthony of Padua, or others from the Catholic canon of saints,” Father Zarazúa continued. “Contrary to what would be expected, Santa Muerte does not make them afraid, as it does those outside the cult.”
Popular Piety Gone Awry
In effect, then, the cult is a manifestation of popular religiosity gone awry, despite being rooted in a country known for its deep Marian devotion via Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Bishop Pfeifer, who is a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and served in Mexico for 16 years, attributes this phenomenon to simple ignorance, mixed with the aforementioned desire to get material favors from the spiritual realm.
People “hear about the material benefits that come from this devotion, and so they turn to it — and also because, in recent years, it has become the religion of the narcotraficantes (drug traffickers). And they are getting stronger and stronger, and they promote this devotion, especially in villages where there are poor people,” Bishop Pfeifer explained. He noted how drug traffickers often use some of their dirty money to establish good works in poor communities — medical clinics or other resources — and thus win the confidence of the desperately poor, uneducated residents of the town.
“I think it’s ignorance, a lack of a full understanding, and also a lack of good preaching by our priests. The bishops, thank God, in Mexico, are speaking out more strongly against it,” he said.
In 2013, a Vatican official made clear that the cult is “blasphemy.” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, then and still the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, wrapped up a trip to Mexico with a press conference in which he spoke of the devotion as a “degeneration of religion.”
Religion “celebrates life,” he said, “and with this, there is only death. It’s not enough to simply take aspects of a religion to create [another] religion. This is blasphemy.”
Since the devotion is making its way into the United States, bishops in Texas have recently been more vocal, adding to the denunciations from their brothers in Mexico and the censure from the Vatican.
For example, Bishop Michael Sis of San Angelo released a statement on the cult in February, saying that involvement with it is “spiritually dangerous” and “not Catholic in any way.”
“It should be completely avoided,” his statement reads. “It is a perversion of devotion to the saints.”
Explaining to his flock that the cult has a central sanctuary in Mexico City and that it is popular in Mexican prisons, but has followers in “many walks of life in Mexico and in some parts of the United States,” he calls on the faithful to distinguish superstitions from true saints who have passed through the official process of canonization.
“Rather than asking Santa Muerte for protection or favors, we should turn our life over to Jesus Christ, repent of our sins, make a sincere confession, follow God’s commandments, and trust in the grace of God. Catholics and other Christians should get rid of any Santa Muerte statues, candles or other paraphernalia. In his resurrection, Jesus Christ conquered death. Through our Christian baptism, we share in his victory.”
Bishop Sis explained to the Register that the statement was “simply an exercise of my ongoing teaching role as the local bishop. The phenomenon of Santa Muerte is sometimes encountered by our prison-ministry teams, and there are some shops in our part of Texas that sell the paraphernalia.”
Bishop Pfeifer responds to the cult’s expansion by encouraging the faithful to combat the ignorance underlying the devotion.
He says he encourages people, especially the Knights of Columbus, to speak up if they find candles or other devotional items to Santa Muerte.
He asks shoppers to encourage store owners and managers to become aware that it’s not “another saint.”
And, in light of upcoming All Saints’ Day, devotion to holy heavenly witnesses should be encouraged. It would be apt to seek the intercession of ex-Satanist Blessed Bartolo Longo. His conversion and devotion to Mary is a counterwitness to the evil of Santa Muerte.
Kathleen Naab writes from Houston.