Although popular Catholicism is one expression of the heterogeneous range of Latin American popular religion, “it is necessary to recognize that empirical evidence additionally demonstrates that it is, without doubt, the most generalized and widespread” (Parker 1993, p. 167). In Colombia, this can be observed in different cities and regions through different forms, such as the cult of folk saintsFootnote 11 (Losonczy 2001; Vignolo 2013). Here the focus is on the beliefs and practices constituting the religious life of people who identify themselves as Catholics and have adopted the cult of the souls in Purgatory.
A religion sui generis
Perhaps the main characteristic of popular Catholicism is its relative independence from the Catholic Church. It can follow an autonomous development with great capacity for adaptation. In this sense, popular Catholicism includes “a set of ritual acts that have their support in the institutional norms of Catholicism, but which exceed the control of the Church and follow its own logic and development” (Colatarci and Vidal 2008, p. 129). This can be observed through different elements. The first one is the eclectic combinations of beliefs and practices from diverse sources in which people engage (McGuire 2008), which some Latin American scholars such as Manuel Marzal (1993, 2002), Jean Pierre Sanchis (2001) and Renée De la Torre (2013), have referred with the term syncretismFootnote 12.
In Puerto Berrío, the Catholic church plays a fundamental role in this confluence of beliefs and practices, both institutional and popular, because it not only tolerates the cult of the souls, but also promotes and facilitates it. Catholic doctrine commemorates the day of the deceased every November, 2nd, and throughout the month asks Catholics to “honor the memory of the dead and offer prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (Roman Catholic Church 2003). On this subject, it is not surprising that Catholics in Colombia attend the Eucharist, pray the rosary, pray the novena for the souls and practice the sacrament of confession as well as perform Works of MercyFootnote 13 in the name of penitent souls (Bastidas et al. 2018).
This is followed both by the priests of Puerto Berrío, who invite Catholics in their homilies to pray for the deceased, and by the animero, a layman around 70 years old with no official certified qualification in the administration of salvation goods, who performs specific activities during NovemberFootnote 14.
Every night during November, at approximately 11:00PM, the animero performs a small ceremony in the cemetery chapel. Dressed in a specific outfit consisting of two rosary necklaces wrapped around each arm, a black waterproof poncho with a hood that has the face of Jesus painted in white on the front, and rubber boots. He prays the novena for the souls of Purgatory accompanied by approximately 30 people each night, who then accompany him in processions through different parts of Puerto Berrío. Before going out to the street, he goes through the cemetery praying and ringing a bell to, according to the tradition, call the souls of the deceased who rest there to accompany him in the procession, an activity that he repeats in reverse when the procession ends, returning them to their resting place.
After the prayers, at approximately midnight, the animero begins the procession in which he prays aloud for the souls and rings the bell, announcing each of his prayers: “An Our Father and a Hail Mary for the souls in Purgatory for the love of God!” or “Give them, Lord, eternal rest!”, to which the people following him in the procession reply “May perpetual light shine for them!”, and he replies “Rest in peace, amen!” (Fig. 4).
These practices, far from fueling conflict with the priests of the two Catholic parishes in Puerto Berrío, are instead supported by them. The priests not only invite Catholics to pray for the dead at the Eucharist celebrated every Monday—since Monday is the day of the dead, according to Catholic tradition—of the year in the cemetery chapel, but they also lend the chapel to the animero to carry out his activities. Additionally, they invite people to pray for the souls in purgatory when they hear the sound of the bell announcing that the night procession is passing by their houses, well aware that people perform certain activities not to commemorate the memory of the deceased, but for magical purposes.
On this subject, one of the priests said:
the animero is a person who invites others to pray for the souls, I can say that in the month of November there is a person who goes through the neighborhoods of Puerto Berrío, ringing a bell so that people realize that at that moment he is passing by, inviting them to pray an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the souls in Purgatory, (…) it helps faith, doesn’t it? Because anyway, as you see, he is inviting them to pray, and that is what people do at home, pray (Interview. November 5th, 2019).
In Puerto Berrío many believers mix both institutional and popular beliefs and practices. Some attend the Catholic Eucharist and also the activities with the animero, while others solely attend the activities with the animero and see the Eucharist only as an offering to the souls, who in return are supposed to perform miracles.
Blurring of the boundaries between the popular and the institutional is not exclusive to Puerto Berrío, but is common in other Latin American countries as well. Jennifer Scheper, for instance, highlights that although popular religion may have a partial autonomy, it is not necessarily opposed to ecclesial religion:
In fact, in some contexts it is not possible to distinguish between popular religion and ecclesial religion. For example, priests may share in the local beliefs and practices of their parishioners, just as parishioners may incorporate traditional rites into their daily lives. We see this, for example, when priests lend their support to the celebration of locally significant patron saints or affirm local experiences of the miraculous. Also, community rituals and celebrations designed and organized completely by laypeople are often felt to be incomplete without the presence and benediction of clergy (Scheper 2016, p. 485).
The coexistence of different beliefs and practices is linked to two other important elements: the capacity to adapt to different traditions and the resignification of beliefs as a result of free interpretation, since “on the ground and in practice Catholicism has proven surprisingly expansive, inclusive, and adaptive. It is, in fact, stunningly pliant” (Scheper 2016, p. 480). This dynamic is also emphasized in the studies by Renée De la Torre in Mexico, in which esotericism, Catholicism, and New Age adapt to each other in such a way that the same set of beliefs produce new forms of religiosity with different meanings from each other (De la Torre 2012, 2013).
For example, De la Torre shows how some people can resignify beliefs from Eastern and New Age traditions and incorporate them in their own matrix of popular religiosity. Included in the data presented by de la Torre is the case of a woman who:
performs Limpias [cleansingFootnote 15] to harmonize the chakras, she lights incense sticks to ‘scare away bad energyFootnote 16’ […] and she appropriated the idea of karma but resiginifying it with the providentialist idea of destiny: ‘Karma means that I was born to be screwed and I will continue to be screwed’, [she says]. She detects neither conflict nor rupture between the knowledge of parapsychology and popular Catholicism, but rather it serves her to resume her activity as a healer (De la Torre 2013, p. 13).
In another example, De la Torre incorporates the case of a woman who, vice versa, reinterprets Catholic beliefs and rituals in terms of New Age meanings and communicates them to a group of followers both through workshops and meditation classes, and publically through a radio program:
‘We must achieve the unity of the planet. Without distinction of religions or races, all beliefs lead us to the existence of the same God. We have to balance the energies of this planet to achieve harmony, to raise our level’, [says the woman]. Both in her workshops and in her radio program, new age concepts are present in the signifiers of traditional Catholic devotion: The Virgin, the saints, the guardian angels, Christ, or God the father, all are spiritual guides. For her, the guides can present themselves under different forms and different personalities, but ‘it’s all the same’ (De la Torre, 2012, p. 516).
Since popular Catholicism follows its own logic, it allows not only the emergence of new religious forms that differ from each other, but also results in a lack of internal homogeneity in terms of the different popular expressions underlying beliefs and practices, as will be shown in the following section.
A heterogeneous religion
Popular Catholicism has no canonical books that specify a body of teachings or precise instructions on how to proceed with rituals. Therefore, it is common that different beliefs circulate among the believers without a consensus. In Puerto Berrío, even though the animero offers some instructions, practical guidance and explanations for beliefs and ritual procedures, there are multiple versions about beliefs and practices constituting the cult. Some people, for example, say it is necessary to visit the cemetery during the whole month of November, while others claim that one only has to visit on Mondays. Some people, in addition to visiting the cemetery, deem it necessary to attend the Eucharist, and raise prayers for the souls of the deceased, whereas others consider praying at home to be enough. On the one hand, some people regularly attend the Eucharist—in the cemetery or in the parish—or pray and walk through the streets of the town in the night processions with the animero and, on the other, as the following interview excerpt illustrates, not every believer attends such processions or the Eucharist:
I don’t really go to mass, I pray at home, but the usual, an Our Father when I go to bed to sleep (…), imagine, this town is famous because of the souls, and I don’t even have the novena of the souls, I have never prayed the novena, and I am supposedly devoted to them (…) I don’t know him, people say: the animero, the animero, but I have never seen him, nor do I know who he is, sometimes one hears the bell, but I don’t pay attention to that (Interview. November 17th, 2019).
Another example of this heterogeneity is the ambiguity surrounding the cult of folk saints in the Central Cemetery of Bogotá, where different versions of the biography of such saints circulate, as in the case of the popular saint known as Salomé. This cult began in the 1950s at an uncared-for grave, which became well known for miracles attributed by the believers to this dead person, so much so that in a few years the tomb became a small sanctuary adorned with flowers and plaques of gratitude. Then one day a vendor of flowers, candles, and religious articles in the cemetery claimed, based on a portrait, that the person lying there was her mother, who was a peasant from the Colombian Andes, and her name was Salomé Muñoz (Bastidas et al. 2018). As time went by, other versions of this person’s biography began to circulate, fueled by different details that helped to elaborate unfinished and fragmented accounts, so that people would circulate different versions, according to which she used to be:
(…) a prostitute, she used to sell candles in the cemetery, she used to wash other people’s clothes, she used to live in the Egyptian neighborhood, in Perseverance neighborhood, was charitable, was a very poor woman, suffered in marriage, had a son who gave her a bad life, was beaten by her husband, was killed by her mother, died due to a sickness, was burned to death, was dragged to death, was mutilated …Footnote 17 (Peláez 1994, p. 155).
Although the vagueness and lack of knowledge regarding the biographies of folk saintsFootnote 18 is generally attributed to the lack of historical data (Cortés 2007; Colatarci and Vidal 2008; San Juan 2010), such ambiguity also manifests even when the popular saint’s biography is well documented, as in the case of the mathematician and engineer Julio GaravitoFootnote 19, who is buried in the same cemeteryFootnote 20. When inquiring about the life of this folk saint, people’s responses varied and:
none of the believers gave an answer that came even minimally close to [the documented biography of the saint]. This was made clear by a sex worker (…) “Today he is the one with the twenty thousand pesos bill, when he was alive, he was a writer, a poet, a person who helps, a womanizer, he enjoyed these women who practice prostitution” (Bastidas et al. 2018, p. 67).
Regardless of the ambiguities, people tend to invest hope for the resolution to urgent problems in the supposed earthly intervention of supernatural beings, such as the souls of the deceased, which will be addressed in the following section.
A utilitarian religion
Unlike Catholicism, which promotes the performance of good works through a promise of salvation in the hereafter, popular Catholicism is characterized by a focus on seeking relief from the most urgent worldly needs. This can, among others, be seen through two features: the strong presence among the poor populationFootnote 21 and the performance of some magic rituals.
In 2019, according to the indicator of unsatisfied basic needs, 38% of the population of Puerto Berrío lived in poverty (Torres et al. 2020). This corresponds to the socio-economic situation of the people in Magdalena Medio, which historically is “one of the poorest regions with high rates of violence. Poverty becomes evident when one considers that, except for BarrancabermejaFootnote 22, all the municipalities in the region have indices that show more than 60% of their inhabitants in poverty” (Dávila 2009, p. 26).
Such situation could hypothetically be one reason as to why in Puerto Berrío the devotees interviewed included in their list of petitions to the souls the fulfillment of material needs. Interviewees commonly ask the souls for help in solving a wide range of problems, such as finding a job or a better job, securing admission to a public universityFootnote 23, finding a cure for an illness, winning prizes in gambling houses or in getting a house. According to Christian Parker, people who adhere to popular Catholicism in Latin America ask for the resolution of “daily problems of the subordinate classes: work, health, affective and family relations, studies, etc. These are requests of the devotees linked to universal problems that the popular culture facesFootnote 24” (Parker 1993, p. 182).
In Puerto Berrío, as usually happens in other cases of popular Catholicism, people also often ask for the souls to help with relationship matters, such as the solution to problems in their relationships, the resolution of a personal conflict, or the retrieval of a loved one whose whereabouts are unknown. But people also enlist the souls in matters related to behaviors or actions that are generally disapproved of socially, such as the commission of crimes. This orientation of popular Catholicism is also present in other cases from Latin American countries: in Argentina, for example, where the cult of San la MuerteFootnote 25 (Saint the Death) also holds “a form of veneration (…) in which the saint is used for evil, he is asked for ‘damages’ or changes in unfavorable situations through death or illness” (Calzato 2008b, p. 275), or the cult of Jesus Malverde in Mexico, which is known for having among its devotees persons linked to drug trafficking as well as criminal delinquency (Gerardo and Jungwon 2014).
The presence of popular Catholicism among the less fortunate classes has also been identified in other specific cases in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Examples include the devotion to folk saints in the Central Cemetery of Bogotá among the inhabitants of the Santa Fe neighborhood, especially among transgender sex workers (Bastidas et al. 2018), the cult of San Luis Rey and Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in México (Fragoso 2011; Gonzáles 2014; Gutiérrez 2015), and the cult of San La Muerte (Saint the Death) (Calzato 12,13,a, b) and the Gauchito Gil in Argentina (San Juan 2010). For this reason, some scholars distinguish among the possible connotations of the Spanish term popular which identifies it with the religion of the poorFootnote 26 (Peterson 1998; Martín 2009; De la Torre and Martín 2016; Scheper 2016).
In Puerto Berrío, the satisfaction of such aforementioned needs is sought through rituals whose purpose is to influence the will of the souls so that they offer their help. In this context, the best-known practice is the adoption of NN bodies found floating in the Magdalena River. For years, the inhabitants of the town observed how several times a week bodies of people murdered in municipalities further up the river appeared, which were then rescued by the town’s fishermen, and buried as unidentified persons in the local cemetery. Faced with this situation, the practice of praying, naming the unidentified body, and the maintenance of a clean and sometimes decorated grave in exchange for a miracle, became widespread. Some people promised to attend the Eucharist, others promised to pray with the animero, and yet others combined these with promises of daily visits to the cemetery. Considering that the people found in the river were predominantly victims of forced disappearance, devotees believe that, since relatives and acquaintances do not know they are dead, nobody prays for them. Hence, the nameless souls are more in need of prayers than others and, therefore, more effective in granting miracles.
One of the most common offerings is the recognition of the miracle through plaques of gratitude that believers leave on tombs converted into altars. Generally, people give thanks for a favor by referencing the date it occurred on a marble or stone plaque that is left as a public testimony to the miraculous eventFootnote 27. In daily interactions, people either communicate to others the process of achieving such results, or the animero explains the proper set of practices for such purpose, when people need advice in this regard.