“I really salute his leadership. Everybody has really come through, but the president has seemed particularly sensitive to the, what shall I say, to the feelings of the religious community.”
Tag Archives: Roman Catholic Church
“Most of the alleged victims were not raped: they were groped or otherwise abused, but not penetrated, which is what the word “rape” means. This is not a defense – it is meant to set the record straight and debunk the worst case scenarios attributed to the offenders.” – Bill Donohue, PhD, Catholics for Religious and Civil Rights, “Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report Debunked”, 16 August 2018
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
Once more, the ugly head of hypocrisy has arisen for the Roman Catholic Church. A mammoth report issued by the state of Pennsylvania last month has left the oldest and largest denomination of Christianity in turmoil – again. According to the results of a grand jury, top Catholic leaders covered up roughly seven decades of abusive child behavior by hundreds of priests. More than 1,000 victims, the report alleges, fell prey to the antics of pedophilic clergy. During that lengthy period (more than half a century, if you think about it), the Church put the welfare of itself over that of the affected children. That should surprise no one. One of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions on Earth, the Roman Catholic Church has metamorphosed from its humble beginnings as an ideology that regards everyone as essential and vital to the construct of humanity into an omnipotent criminal organization more intent on destroying anyone who dares question its authority.
The Pennsylvania scandal is painfully reminiscent of a similar fiasco that tore through the diocese of Boston nearly two decades ago. That mess centered mainly on one man, John J. Geoghan, a former priest who had molested a gallery of young boys in the Boston area starting in the 1960s. The focus then shifted to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the former archbishop of Boston who was forced to resign in 2002, when proof arose that he became aware of Geoghan’s perverted predilections not long after he had arrived in Boston in 1984 to helm the diocese. Like any criminal syndicate (think a street gang or a drug cartel), the Church decided to handle the matter quietly and internally. The results have been catastrophic – and sometimes deadly.
Instead of doing something reasonable and decent, such as turning Geoghan over to outside authorities, Law moved him around. Even one of Law’s own bishops thought assigning Geoghan to another parish was too risky and wrote a letter to the prelate that same year, 1984, protesting the transfer. As early as 1980, Geoghan himself admitted to church officials that he’d engaged in predatory behavior with children! In one case, he repeatedly abused 7 boys in one extended family – something he claimed wasn’t a “serious” problem.
These various allegations and the Church’s documentation analyzing them were eventually uncovered by the “Boston Globe” and revealed in 2002 in a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials by 5 investigative journalists.
Not until the mid-1990s did some of the Boston-area survivors begin coming forward to tell their stories. These couldn’t have been easy decisions for them, especially when confronting such an indomitable monolith as the Roman Catholic Church. No one wants to believe that someone like a priest, or any religious official for that matter, is capable of such horrors as sexual assault and child molestation. People often look to their places of worship as refuges of safety and hope; places to seek guidance in moments of trouble and despair or to reaffirm their faith in the greater good of humanity. The men and women who function as leaders in these institutions are supposed to be above such humanly transgressions as sexual perversions.
We often forget those leaders and officials weren’t born into those roles. They came into this world like the rest of us; they’re human beings first and foremost. But they made the decision to lead lives of religious individualism. Being a faith leader may be a spiritual calling for some individuals, but it is also a profession; something that person chooses to do with their lives. People, therefore, choose to become drunk on the power bestowed upon them – supposedly by some deity – but, in reality, by elders in those organizations. They choose to take vows of celibacy or piety and to stand as the proverbial beacons of hope. And they choose to use their positions for good or bad.
In the Roman Catholic Church, priests don the fanciful regalia befitting their roles as leaders of the masses. They dress differently and (are supposed to) behave differently. Sex, which is a natural part of the human experience, is strangely viewed as base and demeaning. It is too much of a distraction for the individual; hence, the vow of chastity.
But the human libido is often stronger than the human-designed definitions of proper individuality. Thus, many priests (and nuns) stray from those vows and either hide their moral transgressions or leave the Church altogether. Church history is replete with priests and nuns who had the audacity to fall in love. I personally feel it’s perfectly normal and don’t see anything wrong with that.
Yet no one in their right mind can look upon the scourge of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church and consider it misguided love. The tap-dancing semantics that people like Bill Donohue spit out to explain these transgressions doesn’t mitigate the significance of it; it only amplifies it.
I was once a strong devotee of the Catholic faith. Like most Hispanic-Americans, I grew up in it. It was a fact of life for me. I even became an altar boy at a church in Dallas in the 1970s and served that church – and what I felt was the greater good of my community – with some measure of faith and distinction. And, in case you’re wondering, no, I was never molested by anyone in the Church. I was never molested by anyone outside of the Church, for that matter. I never knew of anyone at that particular church who suffered physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a priest or a nun. In retrospect, I realize most were good and decent; a few of them were actually fun to be around. And sadly, some were assholes. But I can’t find that any scandal erupted within its walls.
It’s ironic, though, because the Dallas diocese was the nexus of one of the largest pedophile priest scandals within the Church. In 1997, a Dallas County jury awarded 11 plaintiffs of a class-action suit $119.6 million; the largest monetary award of its kind at the time. Eleven young men claimed they had been molested by a former priest, Rudy Kos. Tragically, by the time the case went to court, one of the young men had committed suicide. He was 21, and his family had pursued the matter. The Kos case served as the proverbial catalyst for the avalanche of similar claims and subsequent lawsuits across the U.S. Then Bishop Charles Grahmann testified in court that he knew nothing of Kos’s antics; claiming he’d never even opened Kos’s personnel file. If he had, he surely would have found letters dating to the 1980s from other priests warning of Kos; that the latter often gave alcohol and even drugs to some of the boys. Grahmann surely knew something was amiss, as he moved Kos around – which apparently had become standard procedure within the Church by then. Grahmann only exacerbated the dilemma when he blatantly insinuated that some of those boys were partly responsible for the abuse. That, of course, is a typical reflex-type response to sexual assault victims, especially those who are male. Remember, in the bloodthirsty psyche that is American culture, males – even very young ones – are never supposed to be victims. Kos was sent to prison, and Grahmann remained bishop for another decade before resigning. He passed away recently.
As with serial killers, I often wonder how many victims of a pedophile remain hidden. Who else is out there who just didn’t have the courage and / or support to come forward and tell their story? Like I stated earlier, these matters aren’t easy to discuss. Going up against an outfit as powerful and affluent as the Roman Catholic Church is overwhelming and sometimes impossible. What the Church has done to distance itself from these crimes – and even discredit the victims, in some instances – is beyond abominable. Their actions are truly monstrous.
One thing I find curious, though, is that other people within individual parishes had become aware of the pedophilia (or whatever crimes were taking place) and chose to put their concerns in writing. They apparently tried to do something; to bring it to the attention of higher authorities within the institution. Yet, when nothing was done, what did those other people do? Were they so bound to the laws and regulations of the Church that they felt it could go no further? It had to stop there and then? It is against the law to fail to report child abuse. But, with the separation of church and state a building block of the United States, how is that to be handled?
I haven’t waited for either the Roman Catholic Church or the U.S. government to respond. I left the Church more than a quarter-century ago over its disrespectful behavior towards women who comprise more than half of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics. Like its siblings, Judaism and Islam, Christianity is patriarchal at its core. A number of men within its environs had dared to say women should hold more leadership positions than head nun or head housekeeper. While other branches of Christianity have moved towards gender parity, the Roman Catholic Church remains unyielding. But the pedophile priest scandals that have exploded over the past several years solidified my decision to leave the Church in the dust of its own glittering arrogance. Shortly after the Boston fiasco, many wondered if the Church would survive the chaos. And I thought, who cares? The real question should be if the Church will admit not only that it has a serious problem in its ranks, but that it has been conducive to that problem.
I also have to be fair in that I know the majority of people who run the Church aren’t pedophiles or accessories after the fact. Most do try to uphold to the Church’s two millennia old principals that all humans are valuable and should be treated with respect. They work hard to ensure a safe community for everyone. When I think of those who embodied this dogma, I always think of Oscar Romero; the former archbishop in El Salvador who spoke out against the country’s dictatorial regime and was gunned down while performing mass in 1980. While Romero tried desperately to feed and clothe his parishioners in one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, his counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world were paying out millions in settlements because they didn’t want any bad press.
Yet, I now feel the Church has run its course. It’s done; it’s served its purpose. It no longer has the right or the power to dictate how people should live their lives. Indeed, it is wishful thinking on my part that the mighty Roman Catholic Church simply fold up and somehow melt into the rest of society. It has too strong of a grip on the world.
In the late 1930s, my paternal grandfather, a carpenter, landed an ideal contract with the Catholic Diocese of Dallas: build a new parochial school. My grandfather, Epimenio, had mixed feelings about the Church. Sometime before then, my grandmother had fallen ill, and my grandfather had called their local parish priest to ask for some money to take her to the doctor. When he arrived at the rectory, the grumpy old priest flung the few dollar bills at his feet.
“If this wasn’t for my wife,” my grandfather told him in Spanish, “I’d make you pick this up and hand it to me like a real man should.”
One afternoon, as my grandfather and some of his men were atop the newly-attached roof of the school, the bishop appeared at the construction site to survey the project. One of Epimenio’s employees immediately stopped what he was doing and began bowing, as was the custom at the time, upon seeing a high-ranking Catholic official. Bowing to the bishop while perched on a slanted roof of a 2-story structure.
“Pendejo!” Epimenio muttered to the man, a Spanish curse word whose closest (polite) translation is moron. “You’re going to roll off this roof and die when you hit the ground! Then the bishop is going to wonder what happened!”
That’s what I’m thinking now. The Roman Catholic Church seems to be marching itself into oblivion. Its acolytes are literally dying to keep it relevant. Can any of them see that?
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro releases the findings of a two-year grand jury investigation into clergy abuse at six of the state’s Roman Catholic Dioceses:
“Francis – Latin: Franciscus – ‘Free man,’ a man subservient to his government.”
– Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule, 1963.
After a brief and heavily-publicized tour of the United States, Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Sunday night. Amidst his hectic schedule, frequent baby-kissing and the usual slew of parades, complete with Miss America-type waves, Francis became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the first to hold mass at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The media and Catholic faithful couldn’t get enough of it. I’d had enough the moment he stepped foot on U.S. soil.
In a way, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was returning home; since he’s the first pope from the Americas and the first outside of Europe. But he’s of Italian extraction, and his hometown of Buenos Aires is more European than Latin American. So, he’s not that different from his predecessors. You know what would be different? If the Church had selected a full-blooded Indian who was raised dirt-poor in the mountains of México; perhaps even a man who had been married to a woman and then widowed or (better yet) divorced; maybe someone with a criminal background, like burglary or auto theft. But that would make him too imperfect. I can’t see someone with that many scars rising to the lead one of the most self-righteous institutions the world has ever seen.
I’m not concerned with perfection. No such quality exists in humans. Most everyone in America, from President Obama down to the latest illegal immigrant across the U.S.-México border, was smitten with Francis. As a recovered Catholic, I could see right through the velvet and silk menagerie of angelic verbiage and outstretched hand. Yes, Francis may sound different; offering juicy tidbits of progressive ideology by saying, for example, it’s improper to judge gays and lesbians and criticizing the growing wealth divide. But he’s still head of one of the most powerful and affluent entities on Earth; an empire with an estimated net fortune up to $750 billion. As a former altar boy at a Dallas Catholic church, I wonder now if any priest or nun thought of molesting me; knowing how shy and obedient I was during my childhood. Francis has convinced many people to return to the Catholic Church. I left the Church years ago for one primary reason: its mistreatment of women. And I’ll stay away. I’ve always had a tendency to hold grudges, but this goes beyond personal feelings.
Of the world’s estimated 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, women comprise more than half, which corresponds to the world’s overall population; that is, women make up more than 50%. Yet, unlike most of the planet, certainly unlike developed nations, the Church is far behind in how it views women and their “place” in society. Women actually make the Church function; they’re the ones who teach the kids, sweep the floors, cook the meals, do the laundry, carry the water and so forth. Meanwhile, their male counterparts (term used loosely) don all those chic designer gowns and issue judgmental pronouncements on human behavior. In medieval times, for example, the Church condemned as heretics any medical practitioner who sought to ease the pains of pregnancy and birth for women. Such agonies, the Church declared, are the price all women must pay for Eve’s trickery in the ethereal “Garden of Eden.” You know the story: the one where the wicked female shoved an apple, or some type of fruit, down Adam’s throat; thus making him and all of humanity a victim of feminine wiles. Even now, the Church refuses to grant the role of priesthood to women. It was hell – almost literally – for them to allow alter girls. But, aside from the convent and church secretaries, there aren’t too many formal positions for women in Roman Catholicism. The Church still won’t even sanction birth control.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized the first Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwa. It was a unique moment in the Church’s history. Native Americans have a contentious relationship with Roman Catholicism and all of Christianity. That came to the forefront recently when the Church announced that Francis would canonize Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. Canonization is exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church; a lengthy and exhaustive process a deceased individual undergoes before achieving sainthood. Sainthood is that coveted status in the Church where people are proclaimed to be as God-like as humanly possible. Someone has to do a great deal in the name of the Church (and God) just to be considered for canonization. It’s sort of like the U.S. Medal of Honor, except the Church doesn’t acknowledge the recipient may have killed some folks along the way. More importantly, Medal of Honor recipients don’t try to convince people they’re above humanity.
In the 18th century, Serra established one of the first Christian missions in what is now the state of California. I’ve always proudly announced that Spaniards were the first Europeans to colonize the American Southwest; building entire communities. But I’m just as quick to acknowledge the other side of the epic tale: the indigenous peoples of the same region often fell victim to the violence and oppression Europeans brought in their hunger for land and precious metals. When Spain’s Queen Isabella, who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyages and who’s also one of my direct ancestors, learned that her minions were torturing and killing the Indians, she ordered them to stop – which they did. She then ordered them to begin trying to convert the Indians to Christianity – which they did. Then Isabella died, and the slaughter continued. The brutality was almost as bad as that imposed by British and French royalty who had no problems killing those people who either didn’t catch the flu and died or dropped to their knees and started praying to Jesus. In America’s infancy, many White Christians held a concept called “Manifest Destiny.” Some still do.
Francis proclaimed Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and praised his willingness to abandon the comforts of his native Spain to spread Christianity in the Americas. Absent in the virtual deification is the fact that Serra was a tool in a brutal colonial system that killed thousands of Native Americans and subjugated thousands of others who didn’t perish. In August, the California state senate voted to replace a statue of Serra with one of a truly heroic figure: the late astronaut Sally Ride, a California native who was the first American woman in space. You know that had to piss off the Vatican elite. A woman given higher status than a male missionary?! How dare they!
Naturally Francis didn’t address the Native American holocaust; the longest-lasting and most far-reaching genocide in human history. Instead, he said that, when it comes to Christian missionaries, we must “examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and shortcomings.” In other words: we don’t give a shit how you people feel.
The Pedophile Scandal
In June of 1985, American Roman Catholic bishops held their annual conference in Colorado. There, they were presented with a report entitled “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner.” Labeled “confidential,” the massive document was prepared just as the church was dealing with the case of Gilbert J. Gauthe, a priest in Lafayette, Louisiana who had been convicted of child molestation. While we now know the pedophile priest scandal stretches back for decades, the Gauthe case is where the madness first came to light. Revelations about what the Church knew and when shocked and horrified the Catholic faithful. That the Church tried to cover up the scandal by spiriting its gallery of child rapists from one diocese to another – a sort of ecumenical Witness Protection Program – initially seems unimaginable. But, with its vast financial resources and entrenched role as a global powerhouse, I’m not the least bit surprised. Like any international conglomerate, the Church didn’t want to concede it was wrong; opting instead, to pay out millions to keep the loudmouths quiet.
There’s no amount of money that can make up for the pedophile scourge. The damage has been done. This is not a 1950s-era TV show where mom dents the car, and the kids stumble around trying to keep dad from finding out. Francis grudgingly acknowledged the pedophile conundrum during his visit to the U.S. by meeting privately with a handful of victims and proclaiming that “God weeps” at the sexual abuse of children. I guess God weeps when old fuckers like Francis couch their disdain for talking about it publicly by using such generalized terminology. I say this because Francis also praised American bishops for how they confronted the scandal and told priests he felt their pain. For the record, the Roman Catholic Church never confronted this scandal, until U.S. law enforcement got involved. And the priests certainly aren’t the ones who endured any pain – unless it was pain from handcuffs that were too tight or soreness from sitting in a chair for hours, while giving a deposition. But I don’t feel that qualifies.
In the myriad dreams my writer’s psyche produces, the disintegration of the Roman Catholic Church is one of the grandest. But it’s still a dream. We’re talking about an institution nearly two millennia years of age. It’s the foundation of all Christianity – something evangelicals are loathe to admit. It’s not going away anytime soon, unless a comet strikes the Earth or every super volcano on the planet erupts simultaneously. With his soft voice and impish smile, Francis may have convinced a number of people he’s a pope unlike any other; a man wanting to bring the Church into the modern age. After all, he has a Twitter account!
Social media savvy or not, I see the same ruse. I see the same hypocrisy. I see the same figurehead. I see the same wicked entity. It just won’t change for the better. It can’t. It’s deceived too many souls.
Image courtesy J. Belmont.
As Pope Francis returns to his native South America for the first time since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church, Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz is ready with an edible altar. Composed primarily of thousands of ears of corn and pumpkins, Ruiz’s giant art piece conveys the mixed Indian and Spanish heritage of Latin America. It’s no accident he chose corn and pumpkins: both are indigenous to the Americas. Probably originating from an archaic plant called teosinte, corn was first cultivated in what is now central México as far back as 5,600 years ago. It migrated into North America around A.D. 200 and remains a staple of the Indian people’s diet. Seeds related to pumpkins found in México have been dated to 7000 B.C.
Ruiz’s altar is 131 feet (40 meters) wide and 45 feet (14 meters) high. I don’t know if its presence had an impact on Francis. After arriving in nearby Bolivia last week, the Pontiff did something no other pope – or any well-known Christian leader – has done. He acknowledged the Church’s role in both decimating the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and subjugating the survivors.
“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said.
I don’t anticipate we’ll hear anything similar from the Church of England or U.S. evangelical Christian leaders in our lifetime. Those clowns never want to admit they’ve done something bad, especially if no White people got hurt. But it’s a nice gesture on Francis’ part.
Corn and pumpkins survived the European conquest of the Americas and – despite what U.S. history school books say – so did the native peoples. On that note, let’s eat!
Now that the Roman Catholic Church has crowned Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as their new leader, followers from across the globe hope he can usher in significant and much-needed changes in an institution that has become as corrupt as it is antiquitous. Bergoglio has taken the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, a medieval cleric known for his work with the poor. He’s also considered the Catholic patron saint of animals, which probably endears him to a greater number of people. St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order in the early 13th century; a mission dedicated to helping the impoverished. It’s obvious economic disparities have existed throughout humanity. So, either the world’s political structures haven’t functioned properly for thousands of years, or religious entities aren’t doing something right. If you realize the massive wealth the Roman Catholic Church possesses – how else can you explain their ability to pay out millions in sex abuse settlements? – then it may be a mixture of both.
Many Roman Catholics are excited about Frances, especially here in the Western Hemisphere. But, while some people see change on the horizon, I see just another geriatric virgin (or maybe not) swaddled in silk and velvet; ensconced in a cloistered society, far removed from the real world in which most Catholics (and people of other faiths) reside.
Francis is the first pope outside of Europe. He’s also considered the first Hispanic pope, since he’s from Argentina. But, he’s an Argentinian of Italian ancestry. Thus, in effect, the Church has just put another Italian in the pontiff’s chair; not much different than before Pope John Paul II. Francis is 76, only two years younger than Pope Benedict XVI was when he ascended to the papacy in 2005.
Allegedly, as votes were being counted last week during the papal conclave, Bergoglio told a fellow cardinal, “Remember the poor.” This is an interesting proclamation, noting that the Roman Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest institutions on Earth. No one can put an exact figure on it, primarily because the Church isn’t beholden to tax burdens. But, it’s estimated net wealth is between $400 billion and $750 billion. This includes its vast collection of artwork and other treasures (often made of gold or silver) that sit in its tightly-guarded environs. It costs a great deal of money to maintain the buildings that comprise Vatican City alone, as well as the heavily-armed security guards that surround the pope.
With such massive wealth comes power. The Roman Catholic Church ruled much of Europe for centuries; often dictating who would be crowned king or queen. But, the advent of political democracy – first here in the U.S. and then in Europe – weakened much of that authority. In modern times, the Church has often confronted military and political dictatorships. That’s what makes the selection of Francis a rather curious development. He was around during Argentina’s notorious “dirty war,” when thousands of people either were killed by the country’s military dictatorship, or mysteriously disappeared. Criticism about his activities in those years ambushed him almost as soon as he greeted the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. I suspect it’s something that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Yet, when Francis spoke openly about the poor, I was reminded of Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of El Salvador, who once said, “When I feed the poor, you call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, you call me a communist.” For his outspoken views, Romero was assassinated while conducting Easter mass in 1980.
I left the Roman Catholic Church years ago, mainly because of its disrespectful attitude towards women who make up more than half of its 1.2 billion adherents. After two millennia of existence, why hasn’t the Church agreed to let women into the priesthood? It’s clearly a patriarchal entity. But, ignoring more than half the human population is an abomination. It’s also just plain rude. I mean, women can do more than have kids, mop floors and cook meals for the menfolk. Any single mom will tell you that! Besides, women would look better in those flowing velvet gowns.
The pedophile priest scandal that has swept across the U.S. these past several years only solidified, in my mind, ineptness and utter irrelevance of the Catholic Church. I know the great majority of priests would never harm a child. But, I just never could understand why the Church shuffled the perverted ones from one diocese to another. I suspect it was a matter of self- preservation – one that backfired.
There is no other institution on Earth quite like the Roman Catholic Church. Lutherans and Methodists, for example, don’t have a supreme leader in quite the same mold. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches come close. Baptists and Pentecostals here in the U.S. certainly have no central commander, which may explain why they hate Catholics so much are always pissed off. Neither Judaism (Christianity’s cantankerous mother) nor Islam (its ugly offspring) have leaders similar to the pope.
Some observers hope that Francis will be a reformer along the same lines as Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to update Church doctrines in accordance with various scientific discoveries and advancements. But, Francis has already shown displeasure with contemporary issues, such as birth control and homosexuality, which is to be expected. So, unless Francis accepts that some people use birth control, while others are queer, how is he going to be a reformer?
It would have been great if the Church had elected a truly unconventional and imperfect figure to the papacy; say, a 50-something man who perhaps had been married, maybe even has a juvenile criminal record, prefers vodka to wine, loves ultimate fighting and likes to tell bathroom jokes. Somebody who – albeit multi-lingual and well-versed in religious scholarship – could still identify more clearly with the average person. How could anyone who has spent most of their years enmeshed in prayer and meditation understand the complexities of daily life?
I don’t know what the future of the Roman Catholic Church holds under Francis’ leadership and I almost don’t care. I know that too many people adhere to every word that spills from the gilded lips of the Church’s hierarchy, which of course, is their right. But, it’s also their greatest fault. I would only visit Vatican City for one reason: to check out the artwork. Art serves a purpose; blind faith does not.
Halloween is perhaps the most understood day of the year next to Valentine’s Day. It’s riddled with misconceptions and folklore. But, unlike Valentine’s Day, Halloween has its roots in ancient religious practices. As you might suspect, the Roman Catholic Church has much to do with the mythology surrounding October 31; that is, the advent of Christianity. But, Halloween also owes much of its mystery to ancient Celtic beliefs.
The Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies who populated most of Europe for thousands of years. The Greeks encountered the Celts around the sixth century B.C. and called them Keltoi. When Julius Caesar encountered the Gauls (the early peoples of present-day France) around 58 B.C., he said they called themselves Celts. The word may have derived from the Indo-European ‘kel,’ which means ‘hidden.’ But, the term ‘Celt’ applies to any of the European peoples who spoke a Celtic language. Greeks and Romans depicted the Celts as barbarians, but archeology has proven they were a socially and technologically advanced people. They built complex settlements with sustainable farming practices and made significant breakthroughs in metalworking. They essentially created the Europe that exists today.
Like every society in the ancient world, the Celts lived in accordance with the weather and the seasons. Their calendar began on what now corresponds to November 1, which marked the start of winter. They had to move their cattle and sheep to closer pastures and secure all animals for the cold months ahead. They also harvested and stored their crops, again before winter’s arrival. The Celts divided the year into four major holidays, and on what now roughly corresponds to October 31, they celebrated a festival called “Samhain,” pronounced ‘sah-ween.’ Since October 31 was technically their New Year’s Eve, the Celts believed the spirits of the dead would mingle with the living as part of the overall life cycle. During Samhain, the Celts celebrated that the souls of all those who had died throughout the year would pass into the next world. They feasted upon meats, fruits and vegetables and lit bonfires to help the deceased on their journeys. Some Celts wore masks to ward off any evil spirits that tried to disrupt the celebrations or stop dead loved ones from moving onward.
Then, as Christianity began to spread across Europe, Celtic traditions came under attack. Early Christian leaders denounced holidays like Samhain as pagan and even demonic. While they succeeded in altering the ideological landscape of Europe, Christians didn’t completely eliminate Celtic rituals; the latter just changed their practices. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory I issued an edict to his missionaries concerning the beliefs and customs of the Celts. Rather than try to obliterate Celtic rituals, Gregory instructed his missionaries to incorporate them. If the residents of a town or village worshipped a tree, for example, the missionaries wouldn’t cut it down; instead, they would consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
But, as the Roman Catholic Church increased its power, all non-Christian beliefs and practices were declared malevolent. The Celtic spirit world became associated with the Christian “Hell.” Any remaining practitioners of Celtic ideology were forced into hiding and were branded as witches.
Sometime in the 4th century A.D., the Catholic Church designated November 1 as “All Saints Day.” It honored every Christian saint, especially those who did not have a special day devoted to them. It was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and ultimately to replace it. That did not happen, of course, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions. Once again, though, Christianity didn’t triumph completely as its esteemed leaders had hoped.
In the 9th century, the Church designated November 2 as “All Souls Day,” when the living prayed for the souls of the dead. Christians also referred to All Souls Day as “All Hallows” – hallow means sanctified or holy. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. As the centuries progressed, people continued celebrating All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but they gradually came to associate supernatural beings with evil. Any soul that hadn’t moved into Heaven was deemed unholy – and so was any celebration of those souls.
Celtic traditions are now most closely associated with the British Isles. That’s mainly because the peoples of those islands – separate from the European mainland – were the last holdouts against Christianity. Even after the time of St. Patrick, many Irish refused to convert to Catholicism, which is ironic considering that Ireland is now predominantly and staunchly Roman Catholic.
Most contemporary Halloween traditions can be traced to Samhain. The wearing of costumes, for instance, and roaming from door to door demanding treats correlates to the Celtic belief that the souls of the dead wandered around, along with more malevolent spirits. The Celts made offerings of food and beverages to placate all of them. As Christianity became more entrenched in European society, people began dressing up like witches and demons and performing antics in exchange for food and beverages. This practice is called “mumming,” from which trick-or-treating evolved. The term ‘mumming’ is derived from either the German word ‘mumme,’ which means mask or masking, or the Greek word ‘mommo,’ which basically means a frightening mask. Even now, in many small towns in England and Ireland, people stage ‘mumming plays.’
There is no evil in celebrations honoring the dead. Christianity is what made that connection. Every society across the globe honors its deceased loved ones. It’s done out of respect and admiration. Most Indigenous Americans, for example, conducted similar rituals, which – as early Christians tried to do with the Celts – Catholic missionaries worked to eliminate. But, as with the Celts, some Indians merely incorporated Roman Catholic practices into their religion as a means of survival. There were some holdouts, though, who refused to convert and often suffered the bloody consequences. Even now, México celebrates “El Dio de los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead,” which is a modernized version of indigenous Indian rituals that literally go back thousands of years. People build temporary alters to honor their deceased relatives and friends, which includes offerings of food and beverages.
That’s not evil – that’s love.
BLESS, O GOD, THE DWELLING
Bless, O God, the dwelling,
And each who rests herein this night;
Bless, O God, my dear ones,
In every place wherein they sleep;
In the night that is tonight,
And every single night;
In the day that is today,
And every single day.
In a historic move, Pope Benedict XVI canonized the first Indigenous American into sainthood on Saturday, October 20. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in what is now central New York State. She was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church at age 20. After being rejected by her family, she moved to a Jesuit mission near Montreal, Canada, where she taught children until her death four years later.
American Indians have been appealing for Kateri to be canonized for more than a century. She was given the special status of venerable in 1942, the first step towards sainthood, and was beatified in 1980.
A person must be deceased for at least 5 years, even before he or she can be considered for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Afterwards, there are 4 steps in the process.
- When the subject arises that a person should be considered for Sainthood, a Bishop is placed in charge of the initial investigation of that person’s life. If it is determined that the candidate is deemed worthy of further consideration, the Vatican grants a “Nihil Obstat,” a Latin phrase meaning “nothing hinders.” Henceforth, the candidate is called a “Servant of God.”
- The Church Official, a Postulator, who coordinates the process and serves as an advocate, must prove that the candidate lived heroic virtues. This is achieved through the collection of documents and testimonies that are collected and presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. When a candidate is approved, he/she earns the title of “Venerable.”
- To be beatified and recognized as a “Blessed,” one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is required in addition to recognition of heroic virtue (or martyrdom in the case of a martyr).
- Canonization requires a second miracle after beatification, though a Pope may waive these requirements. (A miracle is not required prior to a martyr’s beatification, but one is required before his/her canonization.) Once this second miracle has been received through the candidate’s intercession, the Pope declares the person a “Saint.”
More than 700 Native Americans, many in full regalia, took part in the ceremony in St. Peter’s Square honoring the woman known as the “Lily of the Mohawks.” A choir singing an Indian hymn was among the participants. At a Mass on Monday, the 22nd, inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Native Americans will conduct a “smudge” ceremony by burning sage, according to an American church official.
Among those in attendance was a delegation from the Archdiocese of Seattle that included Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy whose recovery six years ago from necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating disease, was accorded the status of a miracle by the church.
His survival was anything but certain when his parish and Native Americans around the U.S. and Canada began praying to Kateri. His recovery was the key in the decision to canonize Kateri, said the Rev. Wayne Paysse, executive director of the bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.
Finkbonner’s family, who are members of the Lummi tribe, live in Bellingham, Washington.
Anyone who knows me personally, or follows this blog, is fully aware of my harsh views of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church’s relationship with the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples is written in blood. It’s the longest and most widespread chronicle of genocide in world history. Of course, that’s pretty much the case with any branch of Christianity. Early Spanish conquerors viewed Indigenous Americans with contempt and tried to destroy them. Spain’s Queen Isabella I put a stop to the bloodshed, however, demanding that her representatives in what are now México and the United States baptize the Indians into Roman Catholicism. Many Indians conceded; more I think as a matter of survival than acceptance of the strange, new religion. Nothing can ever compensate for such brutality. But, the canonization of Kateri is still a measure of goodwill.