Vatican denounces Mexican death saint

May 09, 2013

On a tour of Mexico aimed at speaking to non-Catholics, Vatican culture minister Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi denounced the folk saint Santa Muerte as blasphemous. The remarks Wednesday are not the first time she has been targeted.

santa muerte Santa Muerte in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. (Photo by Michel Marizco - KJZZ)

Santa Muerte is a skeletal figure of a cloaked woman, scythe in bony hand like a saintly grim reaper. Over the last dozen years, the Death Saint has gone from being virtually unknown, worshipped mostly in secret by a tiny number of people, to having huge following in Mexico, Central America and the United States. Now, she is Mexico's spiritual public enemy number one.

She has become known as a narco-saint worshipped by drug traffickers. Former Mexican President Filipe Calderon ordered shrines to Santa Muerte demolished.

But Andrew Chesnut, who holds the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said most Santa Muerte followers see her as a potent and speedy miracle worker who can help them get jobs, cure ills and find lovers.

"The great majority of devotees aren’t narcos and aren’t criminals, but are actually looking for mundane miracles," says Chesnut, who wrote Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

For years, the Catholic Church in Mexico has opposed her. Chesnut said the Death Saint’s spreading popularity and the election of Latin America's first pope makes her a target for the Vatican. Pope Francis’s home country of Argentina has a male folk saint similar to Santa Muerte.

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