Folk Catholicism

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Vodou altar celebrating Papa Guede in Boston, Massachusetts, featuring offerings to Rada spirits, the Petwo family, and the Gede. In the center is a golden monstrance. Haitian vodou altar to Petwo, Rada, and Gede spirits; November 5, 2010..jpg
Vodou altar celebrating Papa Guédé in Boston, Massachusetts, featuring offerings to Rada spirits, the Petwo family, and the Gede. In the center is a golden monstrance.

Folk Catholicism can be broadly described as various ethnic expressions and practices of Catholicism intermingled with aspects of folk religion. Practices have varied from place to place and may at times contradict the official doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. [1]



Some forms of folk Catholic practices are based on syncretism with non-Catholic or non-Christian beliefs or religions. Some of these folk Catholic forms have come to be identified as separate religions, as is the case with Caribbean and Brazilian syncretism between Catholicism and West African religions, which include Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé.

Similarly syncretism between Catholic practice and indigenous or Native American belief systems, as are common in Maya communities of Guatemala and Quechua communities of Peru are typically not named as separate religions; their practitioners generally regard themselves as good Catholics.

Other folk Catholic practices are local elaborations of Catholic custom which do not contradict Catholic doctrine and practice. Examples include compadrazgo in modern Iberia, Latin America, and the Philippines, which developed from standard medieval European Catholic practices that fell out of favor in Europe after the seventeenth century; the veneration of some local saints, and pilgrimages in medieval and modern Europe. Folk Catholic practices occur where Catholicism is a major religion, not only in the oft-cited cases of Latin America and the West Indies. Folk accommodations between Catholicism and local beliefs can be found in Gaelic Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria, the Philippines, and southern India.

In Ireland, openly Catholic worship was banned due to the Penal Laws. This led to storytellers inventing their own tales to teach the Gospel or add further lessons. These further lessons however often ended up contradicting the teaching of the Catholic Church. Within these stories a variety of recurring characters and themes appear such as the Virgin Mary, priests, Paul the Apostle, Satan, and Jesus himself. [2]

In the Philippines, the custom of Simbang Gabi developed from the farming community. [3] Simbang Gabi is a devotional nine-day series of Masses leading up to Christmas. On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo (Spanish for "Rooster's Mass"). It has an important role in Philippine culture. It has its origins in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. Despite being exhausted by a long day's labor, the people would still attend the customary evening novenas. In 1669, the priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. This cherished Christmas custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and became a symbol of sharing. [4]

The Catholic Church takes a pragmatic and patient stance towards folk Catholicism. For example, it may permit pilgrimages to the site of reported apparitions (e.g. Međugorje) without endorsing or condemning belief in the reported apparitions and will often declare Marian apparitions and similar miracles "worthy of belief" (e.g. Our Lady of Fatima) or will confirm the cult of local saints without actually endorsing or recommending belief. When the Catholic Church considers that there is a blatant heresy occurring, it actively rejects it and tells Catholics to stay away from such practices. This is the case of the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death, a personification and veneration of death). The Church has condemned the cult as blasphemous, calling it a "degeneration of religion". [5] [6] [7]

Participants at one of the Simbang Gabi masses. Simbang Gabi Baclaran Church Dec 16 2018.jpg
Participants at one of the Simbang Gabi masses.


One of the biggest and well-known folk religions is Vodou. [8] It first appeared in Haiti in the 17th century, and has grown to a large religion which has over 60 million worshippers globally. [9]

It began in tribal regions of the Dahomey Kingdom which is near present-day Nigeria. [10]

Vodu is from the Fon language of Dahomey and means "god" or "spirit". Vodu and was the religion for many people in this part of West Africa. It is also the origination of the rhythmic drum beating which became a big part of worship and lwa.

Once they arrived in Haiti, the enslaved people were forbidden from practicing any religion except Christianity by their new owners. Many slaves were baptized. In order to continue worship, they adopted Catholic saints and traditions. The saints became stand-ins for their lwa; St. Peter, for instance, was Legba. [11] In this manner, they were able to practice their faith and please the slaveowner at the same time. [12] Something similar happened with enslaved Africans brought to other countries as well, though Vodou is one of the best examples of the syncretism that occurred between Catholicism and native West African beliefs.


In the Philippines, among the most relevant celebration of popular Catholicism is the novena Christmas known as Simbang Gabi , which arose within the farming community and consists of a nine-day devotional gesture of masses in preparation for Christmas. On the last day of Simbang Gabi, which coincides with Christmas Eve, the most important service is held, called in Spanish Misa de Gallo ("Mass of the Rooster").

This is an ancient tradition celebrated since 1669, brought to the Philippines by Spanish missionaries: originally, the nine masses were held very early in the morning, because most of the country's inhabitants were farmers who had to go to work before dawn, to avoid being in the fields during the hottest hours of the day.

While evening novenas were more common in the rest of the Hispanic world, this Christmas custom eventually became a distinctive feature of Philippine culture and a symbol of shared participation of popular faith. [13]



Neapolitan crib figures. N. somma, g. gori, g.b. polidoro e l. mosca, nativita, napoli 1750-1800 ca.JPG
Neapolitan crib figures.

In Italy, the spread of popular Catholicism is due to three main factors: [14]

Events that contributed to the formation of popular Italian Catholicism include the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, and then the social and civil commitment of the Catholic movement between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [14]

Candelore for the feast of Sant'Agata in Catania. Candelore di sant'Agata.jpg
Candelore for the feast of Sant'Agata in Catania.

Among the most popular saints and patrons in Italy are San Pio (Padre Pio), Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco), Santa Rita of Cascia, St. Joseph, St. Michael, Mother Teresa, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Rosalia, Januarius, St. Agatha, St. Ambrose, and St. Catherine of Siena. [15] Simon of Trent is also amongst popular figures of Italian folk Catholicism.

To the Italian peasantry, the presence of the sacred was associated with rites of traditional magic called benedicaria. [16] This form of magic was practiced by the strolghe (Italian : le streghe, 'witches'), combining knowledge of herbs, formulas and spells with the sacraments and prayers of the Catholic Church. [17]


Ireland has a rich heritage of folk Catholicism. Among the many customs and practices is the tradition of holy wells. These sacred wells are scattered throughout Ireland and are visited by people seeking bodily cures, for example eye ailments. [11] The holy wells contain water blessed by a Catholic priest or bishop and are usually dedicated to one of a myriad of native Irish saints, for example St. Senan's holy well on Scattery Island. [12]

Another tradition is the holy ribbon. The most famous being the Brat Bhride in honour of St. Brigid. [8] This is a piece of cloth or ribbon which is left over night on a windowsill on the eve of the saint's feast day. The belief is that the saint will pass through Ireland that night and touch the ribbon which is then kept by individuals and venerated as a holy object which may be used to help the sick or for protection. [9] Other examples of the holy ribbon include the Ribin Cainnear [7] in honour of St. Cainnear and St. Gobnait's Measure. [5] Another custom in Ireland sees people take a piece of straw from the crib in a church at Christmas and this is supposed to bring financial security for the year ahead. [18]


The Amorsbrunn chapel in Amorbach, Franconia, Bavaria, has a fountain that is purported to help in conceiving children if bathed in and is a pilgrimage site for both Christians and non-Christians, who share the water. The water's purported powers and the pilgrimage to them predates the construction of the chapel; the pre-existing sacred site was intentionally incorporated into the new building and its associated religion, i.e. Catholicism, creating a "cult of continuity". The water's powers were then attributed to "some medieval Catholic saints", but these "appear as spurious, being poorly motivated." The site's power was previously attributed to a Germanic legendary figure called Mother Holle/Holda and she was venerated there. [19] More generally, she lives on as a fairy tale character, weather, specifically snow, maker, and general cultural figure, even appearing in movies based on the fairy tale named for her.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lwa</span> Haitian Vodou spirits

Lwa, also called loa, are spirits in the African diasporic religion of Haitian Vodou. They have also been incorporated into some revivalist forms of Louisiana Voodoo. Many of the lwa derive their identities in part from deities venerated in the traditional religions of West Africa, especially those of the Fon and Yoruba.

Haitian mythology consists of many folklore stories from different time periods, involving sacred dance and deities, all the way to Vodou. Haitian Vodou is a syncretic mixture of Roman Catholic rituals developed during the French colonial period, based on traditional African beliefs, with roots in Dahomey, Kongo and Yoruba traditions, and folkloric influence from the indigenous Taino peoples of Haiti. The lwa, or spirits with whom Vodou adherents work and practice, are not gods but servants of the Supreme Creator Bondye. A lot of the Iwa identities come from deities formed in the West African traditional regions, especially the Fon and Yoruba. In keeping with the French-Catholic influence of the faith, Vodou practioneers are for the most part monotheists, believing that the lwa are great and powerful forces in the world with whom humans interact and vice versa, resulting in a symbiotic relationship intended to bring both humans and the lwa back to Bondye. "Vodou is a religious practice, a faith that points toward an intimate knowledge of God, and offers its practitioners a means to come into communion with the Divine, through an ever evolving paradigm of dance, song and prayers."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christmas in the Philippines</span> Overview of the role of Christmas in the Philippines

Christmas is one of the biggest holidays in the Philippines. As one of the two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, the Philippines celebrates the world's longest Christmas season ; Christmas music is played as early as August. The holiday season gradually begins by September, reaching its peak in December during Christmastide, and concludes within the week after New Year's Day, more specifically on the Sunday of Epiphany; however, festivities could last until the third Sunday of January, the feast day of the Santo Niño de Cebú. Liturgically, the Christmas season is observed by the Catholic Church in the Philippines from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

<i>Oungan</i> Male priest in Haitian Vodou

Oungan is the term for a male priest in Haitian Vodou. The term is derived from Gbe languages. The word hounnongan means chief priest. ‘'Hounnongan or oungans are also known as makandals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Novena</span> Devotional prayer in Christianity lasting nine days or weeks

A novena is an ancient tradition of devotional praying in Christianity, consisting of private or public prayers repeated for nine successive days or weeks. The nine days between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost, when the disciples gathered in the upper room and devoted themselves to prayer, is often considered to be the first novena.

<i>Misa de Gallo</i> Name for the Catholic Mass celebrated around midnight of Christmas Eve

Misa de Gallo is the Midnight Mass celebrated in Spain and many former Spanish colonies on Christmas Eve and sometimes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Simbang Gabi</span> Nine-day mass held in the Philippines

Simbang Gabi is a devotional, nine-day series of Masses attended by Filipino Catholics in anticipation of Christmas. It is similar to the nine dawn Masses leading to Christmas Eve practiced in Puerto Rico called Misa de Aguinaldo. Originally intended as a practical compromise for farmers that started working in the fields before sunrise, this cherished Christmas custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and became a symbol of sharing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Haitian Vodou</span> Religion from Haiti

Haitian Vodou is an African diasporic religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between several traditional religions of West and Central Africa and Roman Catholicism. There is no central authority in control of the religion and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Vodouists, Vodouisants, or Serviteurs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catholic devotions</span> Catholic traditions

Catholic devotions are particular customs, rituals, and practices of worship of God or honour of the saints which are in addition to the liturgy of the Catholic Church. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes devotions as "expressions of love and fidelity that arise from the intersection of one's own faith, culture and the Gospel of Jesus Christ". Devotions are not considered part of liturgical worship, even if they are performed in a church or led by a priest, but rather they are paraliturgical. The Congregation for Divine Worship at the Vatican publishes a Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religion in the Dominican Republic</span>

Christianity is the most widely professed religion in the Dominican Republic. Historically, Catholicism dominated the religious practices of the country, and as the official religion of the state it receives financial support from the government. About 60% of Dominicans identify themselves as Catholic.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christianity in the Philippines</span> History of the Christian religion in the Philippines

The Philippines is ranked as the 5th largest Christian-majority country on Earth in 2010, with about 93% of the population being adherents. As of 2019, it was the third largest Catholic country in the world and was one of two predominantly Catholic nations in Asia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Espiritismo</span> Term used in Latin America and the Caribbean

Espiritismo is a term used in Latin America and the Caribbean to refer to the popular belief that evolved and less evolved spirits can affect health, luck and other aspects of human life.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Louisiana Voodoo</span> African diasporic religion in Louisiana

Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, is an African diasporic religion that originated in Louisiana. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional religions of West Africa, the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, and Haitian Vodou. No central authority is in control of Louisiana Voodoo, which is organized through autonomous groups.

Vodou drumming and associated ceremonies are folk ritual faith system of henotheistic religion of Haitian Vodou originated and inextricable part of Haitian culture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religion in Haiti</span>

Haiti is a majority Christian country.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christianity in Haiti</span>

Haiti is a majority Christian country. Figures in 2020 suggest that 93% of the population belong to a Christian denomination.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christianity and Vodou</span>

Christian-Vodou can be seen as a syncretism of different cultures and religions. Primarily focused on Haitian Vodou and Catholic Christianity, the two have been merging together in a way since around the 18th century, when a majority of Haiti was part of the Atlantic slave trade.

The religion of Haitian Vodou has been present in Cuba since at least the 18th century. It was transmitted to the island by Haitian migrants, the numbers of whom grew rapidly in the early 20th century, and is primarily practised by their descendants. It is distributed primarily in eastern parts of the island, especially in Oriente. In Cuba, some practitioners of Haitian Vodou have also become involved in the related Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Haitian Vodou art</span>

Haitian Vodou art is art related to the Haitian Vodou religion. This religion has its roots in West African traditional religions brought to Haiti by slaves, but has assimilated elements from Europe and the Americas and continues to evolve. The most distinctive Vodou art form is the drapo Vodou, an embroidered flag often decorated with sequins or beads, but the term covers a wide range of visual art forms including paintings, embroidered clothing, clay or wooden figures, musical instruments and assemblages. Since the 1950s there has been growing demand for Vodou art by tourists and collectors.

Pierrot Barra (1942–1999) was a Haitian Vodou artist and priest, who was president of a Bizango society. He was well-known for his use of diverse materials to create “Vodou Things,” which functioned as charms or altars for the Vodou religion.



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