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from issue no. 02/03 - 2008

The Church, the santería and the salus animarum

by Davide Malacaria

Procession for the feastday of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, in Havana

Procession for the feastday of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, in Havana

There are many santeros in Cuba. Many and difficult to quantify, not least because the true and proper santeros are few, since for the most part this popular religiosity, that can also merge into magic and spiritualism, creates a syncretism with Christianity different from person to person. Santería arrived on these shores from Africa, Nigeria more precisely, along with the slaves. Here this religion, that represents a link with the African roots and, at the same time, an area of freedom away from the faith of the Christian slave-owners, took a particular form. Prevented from practicing public worship, the santeros identify their divinity with the Christian saints. Thus Oshun, the god of waters and love, became the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba, Yemayà the Virgen de la Regla, patron saint of Havana and so on. Thus the santeros attend the churches and make acts of devotion like all Christians, but, instead of praying to the Catholic saint, they go to worship their own God. A practice that might have provoked a crusade to reaffirm a proper idea of the purity of the faith. Instead the Cuban Church deals with the problem in a completely different way. An approach that has to do with the supreme law of the Church: the salus animarum. “A difficult problem that of the santería”, Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes explains, “because this interweaving of religious devotion and spiritism is not at all a logical issue. So relations with these people cannot derive from a logic. Santería is not an institution: every santero has his own religious feeling in which the Christian elements are at times preponderant, if not decisive. So the reponse must be weighed case by case, within a personal relationship”. With the Virgen de la Regla the santeros are at home. Father Mariano Arroyo, parish priest of the sanctuary, is not in the least disturbed by the crowd of santeros that throng into the church. He leads us placidly around inside and points to the statues of the saints that embellish the walls. “The faith of the people here is entirely visual”, he says. “That is why the statues are so important... At the foot of every statue I have put a short note about the saint: a sort of brief catechesis for the benefit of all, the santeros included”. At the end of the church, in a side nave, Father Mariano has put up a copy of the statue of the Virgen de la Regla. In this way the santeros can pay her homage without disturbing the mass. Beside the statue, a little further on, the priest has placed the image of Our Lady of Sorrows – who seems to be much venerated by the santeros – as a sort of stage in a conceptual journey leading to the Most Holy Sacrament at the end of the side nave. In short, a sort of pilgrimage that should lead the santeros to Jesus. But there is no presumption in this brief visual catechesis. Everything is entrusted to the heart of the individual. Better, to the Lord. Father Mariano explains that there are many kinds of santeros; there are, in fact, many Christians amongst them. “They come here in throngs to the requiem mass. According to my personal statistics, worked out from the people who atttend in these functions, 20% are santeros, another 20% are santeros with Catholic characteristics, while the rest of the participants don’t identify with any particular religion, even if all of them have their own religious feelings. Of that 60% only a small part is Catholic”. And he says that the santeros baptize their own children. Indeed, to be able to participate in certain important rituals, the santeros must be baptized. The ways of the Lord are indeed infinite. It seems the Cuban Church tries only to leave them all open... “We do no other than follow what the Church has always done”, explains Monsignor García Hernández, President of the Cuban Episcopal Conference: “Zacharias officiates in the Temple in September and, after six months, the evangelist says, comes the Annunciation; then, another nine months gone by, in December, there is the Nativity of the Lord. And yet it is also said that the Church adopted the feast of the invincible Sun, proper to pagan worship... “. No, no crusade, just a merciful embrace.

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