They call her Santa Muerte ('Holy Death' or 'Saint Death'), but she's no saint.
The skeletal female figure has a growing devotion in Mexico, Central America, and some places in the United States, but don't be fooled by the Mary-like veil or the holy-sounding name.
She's not a recognized saint by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, in 2013, a Vatican official condemned devotion to her, equating it to “the celebration of devastation and of hell.”
“It's not every day that a folk saint is actually condemned at the highest levels of the Vatican,” Andrew Chesnut, a Santa Muerte expert who has been studying the devotion for eight years, told CNA.
Chesnut is the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint," the only English academic book to date on the subject.
Despite her condemnation from on high, Santa Muerte remains increasingly popular among criminals, drug lords and those on the fringe of society, as well as cultural Catholics who maybe don't know (or care) that she is condemned by the Church.
“She's basically the poster girl of narco-satanic spirituality,” Chesnut said.
According to Chesnut's estimates, Santa Muerte is the fastest growing religious movement in the Americas - and it's all happened within the past 10-15 years.
“She was unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans before 2001, when she went public. Now I estimate there's some 10-12 million devotees, mostly in Mexico, but also significant numbers in the United States and Central America,” he said.
The roots of Santa Muerte
Although she has recently exploded in popularity, Santa Muerte has been referenced in Mexican culture since Spanish colonial times, when Catholic colonizers, looking to evangelize the native people of Mexico, brought over female Grim Reaper figures as a representation of death, Chesnut said.
But the Mayan and Aztec cultures already had death deities, and so the female skeletal figure became adopted into the culture as a kind of hybrid death saint.
She's also mentioned twice in the historical records of the Inquisition, when Spanish Catholic inquisitors found and destroyed a shrine to Santa Muerte in Central Mexico. After that, Santa Muerte disappeared from historical records for more than a century, only to resurface, in a relatively minor way, in the 1940s.
“From the 1940s to 1980s, researchers exclusively report Santa Muerte (being invoked) for love miracles,” Chesnut said, such as women asking the folk saint to bring back their cheating husbands.
She then faded into obscurity for a few more decades, until the drug wars brought her roaring back.
What's the appeal of a saint of death?
Part of the attraction to Santa Muerte, as several sources familiar with the devotion explained, is that she is seen as a non-judgemental saint that can be invoked for some not-so-holy petitions.
“If somebody is going to be doing something illegal, and they want to be protected from the law enforcement, they feel awkward asking God to protect them,” explained Fr. Andres Gutierrez, the pastor of St. Helen parish in Rio Hondo, Texas.
“So they promise something to Santa Muerte in exchange for being protected from the law.”
Devotees also feel comfortable going to her for favors of vengeance - something they would never ask of God or a canonized saint, Chesnut said.
“I think this non-judgemental saint who's going to accept me as I am is appealing,” Chesnut said, particularly to criminals or to people who don't feel completely accepted within the Mexican Catholic or Evangelical churches.
The cultural Catholicism of Mexico and the drug wars of the past decade also made for the perfect storm for Santa Muerte to catch on, Chesnut explained. Even Mexicans who didn't grow up going to Mass every Sunday still have a basic idea of what Catholicism entails - Mass and Saints and prayers like the rosary, all things that have been hi-jacked and adapted by the Santa Muerte movement.
“You can almost see some of it as kind of an extreme heretical form of folk Catholicism,” he said. “In fact, I can say Santa Muerte could only have arisen from a Catholic environment.”
This, coupled with the fact that Mexican Catholics are suddenly much more familiar with death, with the recent drug wars having left anywhere from 60,000 - 120,000 Mexicans dead - makes a saint of death that much more intriguing.
“Paradoxically, a lot of devotees who feel like death could be just around the corner - maybe they're narcos, maybe they work in the street, maybe they're security guards who might be gunned down - they ask Santa Muerte for protection.”
Why she's no saint
Her familiarity and appeal is actually part of the danger of this devotion, Fr. Gutierrez said.
“(Santa Muerte) is literally a demon with another name,” he said. “That's what it is.”
In his own ministry, Fr. Gutierrez said he has witnessed people who “suffer greatly” following a devotion to the folk saint.
Fr. Gary Thomas, a Vatican-trained exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, told CNA that he has also prayed with people who have had demonic trouble after praying to Santa Muerte.
“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,” he said.
Fr. Gutierrez noted that while Catholics who attend Mass and the sacraments on a regular basis tend to understand this about Santa Muerte, those in danger are the cultural Catholics who aren't intentionally engaging in something harmful, but could be opening the door to spiritual harm nonetheless.
Elizabeth Beltran is the parish secretary at Cristo Rey Church, a predominantly Latino Catholic parish in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Beltran, who grew up in Mexico and whose family is still in Mexico, said she started noticing Santa Muerte about 15-20 years ago, but she hasn't yet noticed the presence of the devotion in the United States.
Besides narcos and criminals, the folk saint also appeals to poor, cultural Mexican Catholics or those who are simply looking for something to believe in, Beltran said.
“People who don't know their faith very well, it's very easy to convince them” to pray to Santa Muerte, she said. It's common practice in Mexico for people to mix superstitious practices with Catholic prayers like the Our Father or the Hail Mary, in order to gain trust in the Catholic culture.
Besides her demonic ties, she's also a perversion of what the practice of praying to saints is all about, said Fr. Ryan Kaup, a priest with Cristo Rey parish.
“What we venerate as saints are real people who have chosen this life to follow the will of our Lord and have done great things with their lives, and now they're in heaven forever, and so that's why we ask for their intercession,” Fr. Kaup said.
“So taking this devotion and this practice that we have of asking for this saint's intercession and twisting it in such a way as to invoke this glorified image of death is really a distortion of what we believe is true intercession and truly the power of the saints.”
Because of her growing popularity in the United States, Fr. Gutierrez said he is hoping that bishops and Catholic leaders in the U.S. become more aware of the danger of the Santa Muerte devotion and start condemning it publically.
“I would love to hear something on a national level, from the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops or from local bishops speaking about it publicly,” he said. “I think that would be one way to really call it to attention.”
Fr. Thomas added that honoring a saint of death is a corruption and distortion of what Christians belief about Jesus, who came to give us eternal life.
“'Saint Death' is an oxymoron. God is a God of the living, not the dead.”