At this point, it seems opportune to recall all the primitive religions, the Animist type of religion, which puts first emphasis on the worship of their ancestors. It seems that those who practice it are particularly close to Christianity. Among them the missionaries of the Church more easily find a common language.
                                           —John Paul II, Passing the Threshold of Hope
To serve the loa [spirits], you have to be a Catholic.
                                          —Haitian peasant

The future of the Church in Europe is bleak. By Philip Jenkins’ reckoning, quoted in a 2002 interview for Atlantic: “Christianity is largely a dead issue.” But we can take heart from the explosive growth of the Church in Africa, or what is buoyantly termed the Global South.


Ram decorated for sacrifice (1950s), Senegal.Quai Branly Museum, Paris.


Or can we? When the Church’s center of gravity has completed its transit to the Southern Hemisphere, would any Catholic alive today still recognize it? It is hazardous to predict the full effect of that demographic shift on the historical practices of Christianity. Still, we ought not discount the chance that this tectonic shift could yield a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.

In 2000, Buti Joseph Tihagale, currently Archbishop of Johannesburg, gave an interview to The Southern Cross, a South African weekly. In it, he suggested incorporating blood libations into liturgies celebrated by African Catholics:

Sacrifice to the ancestors continues to be a very common practice among Africans. The slaughtering of an animal—cow or sheep—takes place wherever there is a funeral or a marriage feast, or in times of illness, unemployment, family feuds, or the birth of a child.

He recommended that the practice be considered within the approved orbit of Vatican invitation to adapt a culture’s special customs: “Is there a way to integrate this custom with their Christian belief as a step toward meaningful inculturation?” Disavowing any reversion to Old Testament animal sacrifices, the then-bishop begged the question of where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn. Tihagale discreetly left others with the sticky issue of when and by what means fresh blood would be introduced into the liturgy.


Animal sacrifice (c. 1900), Vietnam. Adoc-Photos.

The Archbishop’s nod to animist ritual brings to mind the mix of African rites and Christian observances at the heart of Voodoo (alternately, Vodun or Vodou). A slantwise glimpse into the temper of this Catholicism aborning in the Global South can be had in Alfred Métraux’s Voodoo in Haiti, originally published by Oxford University Press in 1959. More that a half century on, it remains a stellar text—methodical, prudent, free of theoretical axe-grinding—on the transplanting of the cult of vodú from West Africa to Haiti.

A grasp of Voodoo’s beliefs, liturgies, social function, and ties with Christianity are a sobering brace against good-willed complacency and incautious optimism:

The peasant who sacrifices to the loa, who is possessed by them, who every Saturday answers the call of the drums, does not believe . . . that he is behaving like a pagan and offending the Church. On the contrary, he likes to think of himself as a good Catholic and contributes to the salary of his curé without hesitation. This “idolater” would be wretched if he were excluded from Communion or if he were forbidden to marry or baptize his children in church.


Medicine bundle wrapped around a monkey skull. Benin. Werner Forman, NY.

Anticipating Archbishop Tihagale, Métraux wrote:

Once when I asked a fervent Catholic whether he had finally finished with Voodoo, he replied that he would always be faithful to the Catholic Church but nothing could make him give up the worship of loa who had always protected his family.

Métraux continued:

The hunsi [assistant to a Voodoo priest] .  .  .  saw nothing wrong in attending Mass after dancing all night for the loa. It takes a white man’s mentality to be shocked that a hungan or mambo [priest or priestess] can march beside a curé at the head of a procession without a trace of shame.

Numerical growth tells us nothing about the blurring of religious distinctions among African congregations or among clergy themselves. A priest might preach Christianity by day and, under cover of the communion of saints, visit an animist divine at night to consult his forefathers.


S.E. Bottox. Fall of Man (20th C.), Haiti. Collection of Manu Sassoomian, New York.

Animists live in an enchanted world. It is a gyre of spirits, genies, demons, and the ritual magic to appease, bridle, or steer them:

A wood cutter about to chop down a tree will give the trunk a few taps with the reverse of his axe, so as to warn the resident soul and give it time to get out. To be on the safe side, he will even recite a prayer and invoke the Holy Spirit.

Poets, romantics, and Third World fanciers smile on enchantment. Modernity’s flawed, sometimes illusory, attachment to rationality is never enough to conjure away the realities of living and dying in the shadow of the Cross. Now comes the next Christendom, with its bewitchments, charisma, and ecstasies Christ-tinted to soothe the uneasy.

What price for this emergent re-enchantment? Who can say? Or perhaps it has already been said and we have only to remember the words. Commenting on nostalgia for the ideals of pagan nature worship—to which ancestor worship is aligned—Chesterton wrote:

He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate.

mmletters.ft@gmail.com

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

Loading...