Mexico’s Church in the Spotlight

REGINA: We were a bit surprised when an older, retired Mexican academic asked us why we thought Mexicans were such ‘religious extremists’, citing as examples the Santa Muerte death cult and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Where does an attitude such as his come from?

Matthew Cullinan Hoffman: Historically, Mexico has been perceived as religiously fanatical for two reasons of which I am aware. The first is simply that the country has a stronger piety than most Latin American countries and those who are less pious are likely to see the more pious as fanatical or extreme. The second reason, however, is the emphasis in Mexico on devotions to saints and to religious images, which is quite strong in relation to other cultures, particularly non-Hispanic cultures, and which sometimes spills over into superstitious practices.

Matthew Cullinan Hoffman: “Mexico is also a society that has a great respect for rituals and customs and its ritualism can be employed both for Christian worship and for the occult and even the demonic. A prime example of the latter is the cult of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), which personifies death itself as an object of worship and has been condemned by the Catholic Church. It is associated with criminality and narco-trafficking.”

Frank and Irene Denke: We have noticed a tendency among Mexicans to talk about “spirits” appearing such as the “Llorona” (crying lady).  It’s not difficult to find people who believe in “Santa Muerte”, and are very motivated by beliefs that are not Catholic.

Mexican history records from the beginning those who practice forms of “witchcraft” among the early Indians, and now we have new “flavors”.  We have “narcos” and their spiritual beliefs. There are also rebel groups in Mexico entering from other countries, each having strange beliefs such as “Santa Trucha” rebels from San Salvador.  Strange beliefs are not uncommon these days.

Let me “change pace” a bit as our neighbor told us an interesting story regarding “The Llorona” (The Crying Lady), as she was the topic of conversations we heard some three years ago by some of our neighbors who were convinced of having “heard her”.  Our neighbor lives across the street and his family bakes bread all night to sell the next day.  His brother was baking about 4:00am when he heard the “Crying Lady” and opened the window to see her.  What he found was a car passing slowly by with its lights off, and coming from the car through a loud speaker was the sound of a woman crying.  Needless to say, he became a “disbeliever” in the “Llorona” from then on.

On the other hand, those who have kept their belief in Our Lady of Guadalupe have found more and more reasons – many through scientific studies – to believe more in this truly miraculous event across generations from the 1500’s, and their belief has grown.

Maria Albers: I see why you were a bit shocked. As a former academic, he/she should hold enough knowledge and discernment regarding what extreme and/or pagan factors are, but there are certain beliefs and practices that are embedded in Mexican Catholics for centuries regardless of their socio-economic and cultural background. Of course the belief in La Santa Muerte is extremist, not to mention pagan!

As for Our Lady of Guadalupe, a vast number of Mexicans add a good dose of extremism and superstition to their veneration of Her with such conviction that if you don’t believe the same, you are disrespecting Our Lady. You might expect that extremism would be absent above a certain socio-economic and cultural level, but not so. I had the ‘pleasure’ to know devout Catholics of high socio-economic and cultural levels who were heavily involved in beliefs such as La Santa Muerte, and were involved in occult, superstitious practices such as witchcraft, reading cards, etc.

I grew up in a Catholic family where believing in, for example, La Santa Muerte, was simply not done because it’s not part of our Catholic Faith, it’s a product of superstition, therefore a sin, period. Having that firm belief since childhood, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around people believing in that or understand why they would be so shocked and judgmental when I would express that I didn’t believe in La Santa Muerte.

Derik Castillo Guajardo: I am also an academic, and have friends who are anthropologists. Some academics look to religions like any other phenomenon to be studied, but outside of the religious point of view. From this perspective, religious extremism is related to the bombing of a street market, like in the Middle East.

REGINA: Does the Church hierarchy seem to be aware of the plight of so many Mexicans, and are they offering the Sacraments as a real support in all of this?

Matthew Cullinan Hoffman: It would depend on what one means by “plight.” Mexico is materially poorer than the “first world” but very rich in culture, which is why I moved here. Sadly, it is beset by high levels of crime in many places as well as rampant government corruption. The Church authorities are very aware of the country’s problems and particularly sensitive about their impact on the poor.

Frank and Irene Denke: We think so, generally. There are priests that try to help the poor here- even to the point of distributing among them what they have. At the same time, there are many priests that enjoy the “good life”.  The people down here are pretty “savvy” about knowing “who is who” – whether bishops or priests.

Derik Castillo Guajardo: Yes, Church hierarchy is very aware of the impoverishment of the Mexican population. They approach is perhaps not through the Sacraments, but social support programs. They tend to offer scholarships to young students who do not eat well, and other charities. Of course priests are available for counseling, but the Sacrament of Penance is not offered regularly in all Churches.

Maria Albers: To be frank with you, the Church hierarchy in Mexico has always acted in such different ways depending on where you are and who you are. Sadly, if you are rich and popular, the Archbishop himself will perform your marriage ceremony at the Cathedral with one week’s notice. If you are a regular mortal, good luck with trying to have your child baptized at the same Cathedral, after waiting for months, and certainly not by the Archbishop. Please don’t get me wrong, I love my Catholic Faith with all my heart and will always respect my Church, but fallible humans make that church and there are certain behaviors that are simply not acceptable, including the insane wealth many members of the hierarchy live in while serving a people that lives in unspeakable poverty, perhaps having one tortilla with salsa as their only meal of the day. On the other hand, thank God, there are the thousands…millions…of Church hierarchy members that are humble like Jesus and never lose sight of what their mission is, offering the Sacraments and fulfilling their duties as a very real support, from the bottom of their hearts.

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Ricardo Lara and Nathaly Robles: This is a difficult one. I have heard some priests (especially in poor, marginal zones) talk to people about the strength Sacraments give us, inviting the people to visit the Blessed Sacrament for God to help us with our problems, to reduce violence and robberies. The Church hierarchy doesn’t say much about the support of the Sacraments for the people situation.

REGINA: With the lack of vocations approaching critical levels, do Mexicans have much contact with the Church on everyday levels — for example are boys acting as altar servers?

Maria Albers: Sadly, no, not on every day levels. Using your example of altar servers, that is reserved for special Masses but not for the ordinary Masses, not even the Sunday Mass. This is as a general rule, because there are churches that do have altar servers most of the time, but most done. Also, most times said servers are adults assisting, not boys, which means younger generations are losing that contact with our Faith and Catholic rituals. It is also uncommon to see couples or families act as gift bearers. Usually the gifts are already at the front on a table to the side of the altar and passed to the priest by the adult assisting during the Mass.

Frank and Irene Denke: Our young neighbor has been very active for years in a Catholic group of young lay people here who were working under a priest who came from the US in the 1990s – Fr. Jose F. Pawliki – and organized missionary groups in the Guadalajara area among young married and unmarried youth, then trained and sent them out to evangelize.  

Fr. Pawliki died in 1999, but left a very well organized missionary organization, and a way of drawing that still draws young Mexicans to it during these days.  It still is having weekend conferences on a regular basis in Guadalajara and surrounding areas, and a method of incorporating the faith into the daily life of Mexican youth that apparently “connects” with the young people of this day, and has truly kept them interested, our neighbor tells us.

The FSSP also has a missionary activity that brings people from the US to Mexico to help the poor for several weeks, before they return to the States.  While most don’t speak much Spanish, It has still been very successful.

Boys do not serve in the “Ordinary Mass” in the Franciscan Basilica near us. (Only Franciscan’s serve).  However, in the diocesan churches, boys (not girls) are serving as far as we know.  

While I don’t know the situation in other parishes, in our parish many boys are serving with the FSSP priests during the “Extra Ordinary” Latin Mass we have on Sundays in Guadalajara, and some have shown a deep interest in becoming priests and some have already entered the FSSP seminary in Nebraska.  There are many contacts here between priests of the FSSP and groups (marriage; catechism; etc.) of laity in our parish.

Ricardo Lara and Nathaly Robles: There are just few young boys that want to act as altar servers. Beginning about ten years ago, we have seen more girls as altar servers. The registry of the parishes are often attended by mistresses, not always with the best attitude. We can say, in the most of the minor churches there are just one or two (at most) priests, and all the church operation is worked by lay people.

Derik Castillo Guajardo: There are very fine young men discerning their religious vocations. I met a few who were attracted to religion because the family is active in the church, mainly in the Catechism, or another religious movement. Sadly some of them find the seminary not fulfilling their expectations. That is to say, they would like to find an environment where they can grow in sanctity, but this is not always the case, and they quit.

REGINA: Despite periodic persecutions and official government opposition, previous generations seemed to have a deep understanding of the need for the Church as the fundamental organizing principle of society in Mexico. Is this still the case?

Derik Castillo Guajardo: This is not the case these days. A lot of people (including priests) have become lukewarm and accept the usual drill that the Church needs not to participate in the organization of society. This has been the case increasingly since the Cristeros Movement. The Calles laws forbids priests to participate as candidates for public offices, and any reference to religion is banned in elections, as well as political propaganda.

Maria Albers: No. Younger generations of Mexicans are not aware, much less appreciative, of the important role that the Catholic Church has played in Mexican culture and society. So many Mexicans were raised in strong Catholic families, families that gave them the grounds to achieve everything they have now. Yet, they dare mock the Church, the Religion, they don’t ‘need’ God, etc….except, of course, when something goes wrong in their lives, then they run to Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica to make all these promises if She solves whatever is afflicting them. No, the understanding, appreciation and pride of Catholicism in Mexico is not what it used to be.

Frank and Irene Denke: In a way – while we were taught that the Church’s spirituality is the “building block” of society, when asking our Mexican neighbor (who is deeply Catholic and loves his faith) how the Church is viewed these days as being necessary to build a stronger society, his answer was: “The Church is the most powerful mafia in the world”.

Ricardo Lara and Nathaly Robles: According to the surveys, the Church is still one of the most trustworthy institutions in Mexico while the government is not.

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