Cuba’s Santería faithful experience Pope Francis’s visit through different prism

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This is an article written just before Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba. Jonathan Watts writes, “The island’s syncretic religion, which blends west African deities – orishas – with Christian saints, is widely practiced and deeply intertwined with Catholicism.” He enlightens the readers by explaining some of the connections between Santería (practiced by 13% of Cubans) and Catholicism (practiced by 27%) [although I do not agree with his statement that Saint Barbara, or Changó, is “the deity of thunder, dancing and machismo”]. The article speculates on what the Pope will think about the existence of African-based religions alongside Catholicism, but I believe we all know the answer to that. To access the complete article, see the link below.

When Pope Francis pays homage today at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, he will celebrate the Virgin Mary’s maternal love and mercy, but for hundreds of thousands of Cuban Santería followers, he will simultaneously be honouring Ochún, the seductive and sensual deity of fertility and rivers.

The syncretic religion of Santería has unsurprisingly not been mentioned in the pope’s schedule or sermons, but its powerful influence on the island means that many of those listening to his homilies will be interpreting references to the Catholic saints in a very different way from Vatican orthodoxy.

Santería, which has its origins in the Yoruba mythology of what is now Nigeria, emerged as a result of slavery. Brought to the New World to work on sugar plantations, the slaves had Christianity imposed upon them. To maintain their beliefs, they – at first secretly – syncretised their spirits or orishas with Roman Catholic saints. Today, this blend of beliefs – also known as la Regla de Ocha – is widely and openly practiced in much of Latin American, taking in both animal sacrifices and drumming outside the church, as well as christenings and saints-day services inside.

Santería is just one of several Cuban syncretic religions with roots in Africa, but it is practised by 13% of the 11 million population, according to a survey earlier this year by the Spanish network Univision and Fusion. This would make it the second-most popular religion after Catholicism with 27% – though many believe the two are so intertwined that it is difficult to consider them separately.

“This is not just religion; it’s Cuban culture. Like our music, it is a mix of Spanish and African,” said Johnny Hernández, a babalawo (Santería priest). “That’s why our believers have high expectations of the pope’s visit. They all go to church.”

The complex interaction between religions is explained at the Municipal Museum of Guanabacoa, a township in the west of Havana. One display features a shrine-like cabinet displaying a typical hierarchy of the orisha/saints.

Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre – the patron saint of Cuba – is at the top, decked out in the yellow and gold associated with Ochún. Below her is the Virgin of Mercedes in the white of Obatalá, the deity of intelligence and peace; then the Virgin of Regla in the blue of the sea goddess Yemayá; and at the bottom is Saint Barbara in the red of Changó, the deity of thunder, dancing and machismo.

[. . .] Throughout history, the Catholic church has had a somewhat awkward relationship with such syncretic religions. At times, priests have described them as the work of the devil. Today, however, they are more tolerant, partly because congregations would probably fall dramatically if Santería followers were excluded.

“There have been worried about this, but I don’t think syncretism damages the church. It’s not prohibited,” said Cirilo Castro, a priest. “When people come on Sundays, some are devout, some are pragmatic and some are Santería believers. But they all take their place and they are all respectful.” [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/21/cuba-santeria-pope-francis-visit

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