In mid-December 1531, an indigenous Mexican man who had converted to Catholicism soon after the arrival of Franciscan missionaries set out to find a priest to hear the deathbed confession of his uncle. In doing so, Juan Diego decided to bypass his ordinary route in favor of one that would allow him to avoid meeting the mysterious lady who had been appearing to him for the past few days asking him to act as her emissary to the local bishop.
His plan didn’t work. The lady appeared again to him. When Juan Diego explained that he was seeking a priest to minister to his dying uncle, she replied, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” She assured him his uncle was cured and gave him signs of her appearance, which the bishop had requested: winter roses and a miraculous image of herself impressed upon Juan Diego’s cloak or tilma.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
During the early years of the Church’s mission in Mexico, there were few conversions among the natives. Christianity was the religion of the Europeans; Our Lady of Guadalupe, though, was one of their own.
Our Lady appeared to a native man, an insignificant widower with little family and no influence, she spoke to him in his native language, she called herself his mother, and she charged him with speaking for her to the religious authorities in Mexico City. In the image of herself on the tilma, Our Lady appears as a native Mexican woman—one of high rank but adorned in symbols of the Aztec culture that had been suppressed by the Spanish. Within ten years of her apparitions to St. Juan Diego, nine million natives poured into the Church. In the centuries that followed, her image became one of the most important and enduring symbols of Mexican identity.
The rise of an “Anti-Virgin”
Recently, a new lady has arrived in Mexico and in US cities along the border, challenging the Virgin of Guadalupe for the devotion of certain segments of the Mexican people. She’s known by many affectionate titles, such as the Bony Lady and the White Sister, but she’s most commonly called Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Santa Muerte is a skeleton, androgynous in appearance but personified as feminine. Often she’s depicted wearing colorful robes and carrying a scythe, which gives her the appearance of a female Grim Reaper.
Devotion to Santa Muerte has exploded in the past few years. R. Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies professor and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, estimates that Santa Muerte has gathered between ten to twelve million devotees—roughly the same number of native converts, within a comparable time span, who entered the Church in the decade following the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The dangers of Santa Muerte
To the extent that Santa Muerte is known in the United States, she has usually been seen as a perverse patroness of the drug cartels, but her influence actually is much wider. She’s considered a “folk saint” to those on the margins, a miracle worker for people who have not been well-catechized in their faith or who feel disaffected from the Church for various reasons. One woman who spoke with Chesnut said of Santa Muerte, “She understands us because she is a battle-ax . . . like us.”
Chesnut, initially interested in writing about Our Lady of Guadalupe before turning to Santa Muerte, said that “at first glance [Santa Muerte] seemed to be [Our Lady of Guadalupe’s] antithesis, a sort of anti-Virgin.” But he eventually dismissed this observation, and his book is sympathetic to Santa Muerte and her followers.
The allusion is chillingly apt, though: Santa Muerte is indeed an “anti-Virgin,” and the rise of devotion to her has alarmed bishops in Mexico and the US.
Bishop Michael J. Sis of San Angelo, Texas, said in a statement on his diocesan website:
We must distinguish true saints from false saints and superstitions. . . . Rather than asking Santa Muerte for protection or favors, we should turn our life over to Jesus Christ, repent of our sins, make a sincere confession, follow God’s commandments, and trust in the grace of God. Catholics and other Christians should get rid of any Santa Muerte statues, candles, or other paraphernalia.
Some clergy have used stronger language than Bishop Sis in their denunciations of Santa Muerte. Fr. Andres Gutierrez of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, told Catholic News Agency, “[Santa Muerte] is literally a demon with another name. . . . That’s what it is.” Fr. Gary Thomas, an exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, California, told CNA, “I have had a number of people who have come to me as users of this practice and found themselves tied to a demon or demonic tribe.”
The battle for hearts
If Santa Muerte is, in fact, a distorted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—if she is an anti-Virgin—then perhaps one of the keys to challenging devotion to her might be to present the true image of the Blessed Mother to the people she claimed for her own.
Our Lady of Guadalupe presented herself to Juan Diego as a native woman, speaking to him in his own language, arrayed in the symbols of his own culture. Although he protested to her that she should find someone more influential to take her message to the bishop, Our Lady lifted up a seemingly inconsequential man to speak to those in power on her behalf.
Santa Muerte is a skeleton who invites her followers to embrace death as an end in itself. But Our Lady of Guadalupe is shown to be pregnant with her divine Son. She is surrounded by the sun, the moon, and the stars, heavenly symbols that point us to our eternal destiny of union with God.
Santa Muerte is regarded as a miracle worker and is importuned for protection and favors. Our Lady of Guadalupe reminded Juan Diego that he had recourse to her in his troubles, not as an androgynous trickster performing wonders but as a loving mother who occasionally offers physical healing as a means of drawing all of her children to her divine Son, who is the way, the truth, and the life for every human soul (John 14:6).
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been likened to the woman of Revelation 12, attacked by a dragon who wanted to snatch her child from her as soon as he was born. In that interpretation, Santa Muerte may be just one more means by which the dragon attempts to steal the children of the Virgin. In the end, though, we are assured that he will not succeed:
The great dragon was thrown down . . . he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev. 12:9–10).