The saints today have a lot of work to do

21 08 2008

[Note: I translated this article because it makes a few good points that I think need to be said. However, I acknowledge that this article has a profoundly anti-clerical tenor. In the end, I really didn’t feel competent to separate the wheat from the chaff. I leave it then to the reader to decide. The original can be found here]

From the Correo de Salem by Eduardo González Viaña

There are so many saints in Peru that when a Peruvian dies, heaven should seem more or less a familiar place.

Let us begin in 1581. In that year, a new archbishop, Toribio de Mogrovejo, arrived in Peru. He immediately began to make pastoral visits. A little above Lima, in Quives, he confirmed a pretty little girl by the name of Isabel Flores de Oliva (1586-1617). Rosita, as she was called, returned to the City of Kings with her parents to reside in the neighborhood of San Sebastian. In that same parish, six years before, Martin of Porras was baptized.

Martin had a great friend from the Recoleta de Santa María Magdalena whose name was Juan Macias. Together they listened to the sermons of the eloquent Franciscan friar Francisco Solano. These five, Toribio, Rosa, Martin, Juan, and Francisco, were elevated to the altars and were the first saints of Peru.

They were the first, but not the only ones. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dozens of women enclosed themselves in their homes, made prolonged fasts, scourged themselves, and lived a life of permanent prayer in the context of the contemplative life.

The Holy Inquisition, however, made little distinction between saint and sinner. In the same way that it persecuted supposed heretics, Jews, fornicators, witches, lechers, and even people who slept in on Sunday instead of going to Mass, it suspected those who exaggerated their ascetical practices outside of the convent.

Many of these would-be contemplatives were thrown into the darkest dungeons and almost tortured to death so that they would admit that they were really praying to the devil and not Christ. The inquisitors did not want the Church to lose the exclusivity and leadership that she had over ritual, and for this even Saint Rosa was investigated.

Crucifixion, the rack, the burning of feet and burying alive were practiced with such liberality that the result was almost always a confession of guilt. In a slow-burning furnace was burned a poor woman who was said to go from her home to Mass at the Church of La Merced, floating…

It is not only the period of colonial times that has furnished us with saints. In Peru, as in other countries of similar ancestral make-up, there is mysticism everywhere. An alternative religiosity appears at the cemeteries and the roadsides, and it seizes control of a space parallel to the traditional devotions of the established churches. The mixing of the indigenous, African, and Catholic religions produces a devouring faith, and this faith has need of saints outside of the boundaries of the official Church. Peruvians are mystics and will continue to be in spite of their criminal Inquisition and archbishops.

Sarita Colonia is one example. She will never be canonized. She doesn’t meet the class or racial qualifications for this to happen. In spite of this, some of the poorest of the world’s poor have declared her a saint, and she belongs to those who are in most need of a spiritual advocate but have none: the poor, the prisoners, the thieves, the prostitutes, the homeless, and in these days, the clandestine, frightened immigrants.

At the hidden entry points into the United States, many people with forged papers clutch a holy card of Sarita or have her scapular sown into their underwear, and they invoke Sarita so that they can pass into the United States undetected.

The devotees of Sarita, la Difunta Correa, Gaucho Gil, Santa Muerte, and Jesus Malverde, in Peru, Argentina, and Mexico, know that their saints will make them invisible when they are hunted to death in the deserts of Arizona by the damned “Patriots”, racist paramilitaries who have made it their duty to protect the racial purity of the United States.

They are so poor that they often don’t even have a face. Of Sarita all that we have is an amplification of her small girlish face from a family photo. The lyricist from the band “Los Tigres del Norte” commissioned a statue to be erected of Saint Jesus Malverde in Mexico.

-But we really don’t know how he looked like.

-Doesn’t matter. Just make him with the face of Pedro Infante. [translator’s note: Pedro Infante was the most important male actor from the golden age of Mexican cinema.]

They don’t have a face. They don’t have a history. But they belong to a people whose long wait has made them into saints. In this day and age, all of the saints have a lot of work to do.


Commentary: Firstly, I think the Church has the obligation and right to regulate mystical behaviors in its faithful, and those who are bona fide saints have been submissive to authority. Examples of this are legion in the history of the Church.

That being said, do I believe the “black legend” accusations of this article? Let’s just say that I don’t dismiss them outright. Further investigation would be needed on my part. The Church in Latin America was guilty of a number of other injustices, but I won’t go into them here.

On the other hand, the comments on folk piety and its at times independent existence from the official Church is something that I wanted to present to you, and that is why I translated the article. For this reason I think that my effort was worth it.



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