The archbishop vs. the folk saint
The story of Catholicism in Latin America, especially in the last fifty years, has often been a spectacle of the blind leading the blind. While in historical Catholicism, it is the clergy that is supposed to be the defenders of piety and tradition, it has often been members of the common laity who, in their sometimes distorted way, have been defending the historical ethos of the Church. Often, there are no good guys or bad guys, no side that is definitely on the side of the Gospel, or side that is bent on distorting it. In a way, Catholicism is a distorted religion per se since it has always attempted to draw all things towards itself, with often mixed results.
No story in the Church better expresses this than the very real battle between the late archbishop of Cuzco, Luis Vallejos, and the bizarre “folk saint”, el Niño Compadrito. In the late 1970’s, the cleric and advocate of liberation theology waged a real war against this “idol”, seeking to confiscate and burn it while his loyal followers hid him in their houses. While the war is still being waged on a smaller scale in the highlands of Peru, that particular battle was won by the folk saint in a very ominous and tragic way.
The “saint” himself, seen above, is tiny and looks like something out of a horror movie. From head to toe, he only stands about fifty centimeters, and his head is only about ten centimeters. Legends abound as to the origin of this tiny person. The most romantic of them is that he is a child of a colonial Viceroy and a native woman of Cuzco named Maria. The Viceroy was apparently bad news, and at the age of thirteen the son was captured by his enemies and taken into the jungle, where his body was shrunk in “head shrinker” style. His body was apparently found when a wall of a house was split open by a lightening bolt, revealing a small coffin with the body inside.
That is the apocryphal tale of the origins of the remains themselves. The actual origin of the cult is as in most of these cases unknown. Like most cults to “folk saints”, devotees tend to be ordinary if marginal Catholics. He generally lives in a home of a devotee, and hundreds of people can come to worship him a week. They light candles and bring offerings ranging from cigarettes to posters of the Pope. The petitions are usually for common, mundane things like work, success in school, or other things that people tend to ask God and the saints for. As with other folk saints, however, people light black candles for less than edifying intentions, and according to eyewitnesses, black candles are often half of the candles left before the saint. In the popular imagination, folk saints are able to work both sides of the cosmic law. He is reputed to communicate with followers through dreams, often given to women, regarding the granting of a certain request. And priests, apparently, would come and say Mass before the saint.
It is not known how long all of this had been going on when Archbishop Luis Vallejo stumbled upon the cult while walking down a street in Cuzco in 1976. While the Mass going on in the nearby church was sparsely attended, here devotees could be counted in the hundreds. According to witnesses, the archbishop was furious, and he condemned all the devotees then and there, and exhorted them to give up their idolatry. He followed up his public confrontation with an official decree dated September 2nd of that year, condemning the “pagan cult” and ordering that the bones be seized and an anthropological investigation done to determine if the remains were those of a human being or a monkey. A local priest, an American and also a believer in liberation theology, became the standard barer of the archiepiscopal campaign against the “diabolic effigy with simian features that should be burned”.
At first glance, Vallejos was an unlikely candidate to follow in the footsteps of the colonial Peruvian Inquisition. He was a late vocation, entering seminary at the age of thirty after a stint with Catholic Action. He was ordained in 1957 and in 1971 was named as the second bishop of his native Callao. He was promoted to Archbishop of Cuzco in 1975, a year before his confrontation with the unseemly saint. His rise to power may have had to do with his theological leanings. During his seven year tenure as archbishop, Cuzco became one of the most progressive dioceses in all of Peru. It seems that he had hitched his bandwagon to the idea that the People of God were right, and that leaders needed to listen to their subordinates. Except when they start worshiping the bones of monkeys. Then it’s back to bad old Mr. Mean Bishop. Perhaps he thought that in this case, religion was a distraction from the struggle and the opium of the people. The people are always right, except when they’re not.
Whatever the motives, such bad press forced el Niño and his cult into hiding. He was literally on the run for almost six years, just one step ahead of the law. Female devotees would often receive revelations in dreams as to when he needed to be moved. Nevertheless, the cult continued, and the fame of the saint grew, until the fateful day in which he finally came out of hiding.
On a day in June, 1982, Archbishop Vallejos died in a car crash. A few days later, under similarly strange circumstances, the militant American priest and enemy of el Niño was found dead. Devotees of the saint said that this was revenge for the bishop saying that he had the face of a monkey. In any case, the cult resurfaced in its public manifestation, with many people convinced that the “saint” had indeed exacted his revenge on one of the successors to the Apostles. Nevertheless, followers also felt that they needed to “pretty him up” a bit by making his face more appealing.
In spite of all of this, the war continues. Recently, Cuzco police stumbled upon the cult unexpectedly while making a routine raid on a house suspected of harboring known thieves. They were greeted by dozens of angry devotees fighting back to defend their saint. When asked to comment, a local priest stated that the continued hostility of the Church towards el Niño Compadrito “has nothing to do with trying to restrict religious freedom. It is rather that el Niño and others like him are an obstacle to the development of Peru. Something that contradicts the teachings imparted in the schools, whether they be religious or secular”.
After winning the last round, and gaining thousands of followers because of it, one devotee of el Niño responded to the priest by saying:
“We don’t wish him any harm, since we are Christians and brothers of Jesus Christ. We respect his office of the priesthood while he treats us like idolaters and other such things. For his own good we have to tell him that his life is in danger.”
With a dead archbishop and a prominent priest supposedly in his column, perhaps the cleric should take the devotee’s words seriously.
Of course, I find it interesting that the priest’s main objection towards the strange cultus is that it is an obstacle to progress, a shameful anachronism from a bygone age where people still feared lightening and employed leaches to fight disease. If that is the case, many people would see rosaries, Holy Week processions, and statues as also being obstacles to progress; childish spectacles that divert the people from finding decent, interior, modern religion. Heck, there are even more people who think the Virgin Birth and the physical Resurrection of Christ are also obstacles to progress… Whoever the bad guys are in this story, I am not sure that the people wearing the proper pointy hats are the good guys. But perhaps it is stories like these that are the norm in real Catholicism, and not necessarily the exception.
If you want to see more about this, understand Spanish, and can tolerate the hideous accents and patronizing attitude of the presenters, see this video on Youtube: