You see a lot of strange words now in Catholic circles. Words that you would never before have associated with the word “Catholic,” like “shaman” and “cosmos” and “integral ecology.” All having to do with the recent Amazon Synod. You have to wonder: what would such an “inculturated” church even look like? And what about the “slippery slope” factor? How far might such innovations go? A few years ago, I just may have had a glimpse. I was visiting a church in the state of Chiapas in Mexico.
The original church of San Juan Chamula, in the highlands of Chiapas, was founded by Spanish missionaries in 1524. Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the church is home to the Tzotzil Maya people. The town of St. Juan Chamula is an autonomous community, one of only a few in Mexico. They have their own police, and no military or outside police forces are allowed to enter. The women wear traditional white embroidered huipiles (loose blouses) with dark woolen skirts and bright blue shawls. The men wear long white tunics. Ninety-five percent of the population speak the native Tzotzil language.
For centuries, they practiced the Catholic faith — until the 1970s. At this time, the Church attempted to curtail some of the indigenous practices, deeming them a hazard to the faith. The bishop cautioned that under such circumstances, Masses might no longer be said at San Juan in the future. The warnings were to no avail. The recalcitrant parishioners, being a fiercely independent group (Chiapas was home to the left-wing Zapatista rebellion), refused to comply with Church authorities. Instead, they deposed the priests (all the mestizos were kicked out of the town), kept the building, and established their own “priests” and rituals.
There has not been a Mass on the premises nor any Catholic presence for a very long time. Needless to say, it is no longer recognized by the Catholic Church.
San Juan Chamula is a typical, brightly painted, whitewashed church, one that you might see in any rural area of the country. When you step inside, however, you enter a different world.
The first thing you notice: there are no pews. Everyone sits on the floor, which is strewn with vast quantities of fresh pine needles. They huddle in small family-like groupings around candles that have been arranged in precise patterns. The colors of the candles are significant: green symbolizes a good harvest, for example, and white symbolizes an abundance of food.
Statues of saints line the walls, and a large statue of St. John the Baptist (rather than Christ) reigns over the main altar. “Worshipers” sit or kneel before their favorite saints who they believe represent pagan gods. After making the sign of the cross, they present the saint with offerings such as food or flowers. As part of the ritual, a communal cup of posh is passed around; this is an alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane. Even young children partake. And, incongruously, Coke cans, lots of them, are in evidence! Coca-Cola? The black color of the drink is thought to ward off evil spirits.
The cavernous space is dark and gloomy, as there are no windows; there is only a small skylight in the ceiling. The only light comes from hundreds of burning tapers. The air is redolent with the exotic aroma of melted candle wax, flowers, and the burning of copal incense (made from pine resin). The pine represents Mother Earth.
Silent prayer is not apparent in San Juan Chamula. In its place, a cacophony of low-volume sound permeates the entire space: voices murmuring, moaning, beseeching, crying, chanting, imploring.
And then there are the shamans. The shamans! They seem to be the aristocrats, the jefes of the entire enterprise. Much deference is paid to them. You see them everywhere in the church. They are in demand for “healing” and “cleansing” ceremonies. Both men and women can be shamans, although I only saw male shamans the day of my visit. You can’t miss them. They are the ones standing. They stand over a supplicant and waft an egg or a live chicken over the person’s head. In some circumstances, an animal sacrifice is required to appease the gods — in which case, the chicken is killed on the spot! Right then and there. The shaman wrings the neck of the chicken with his bare hands, or he will slit the animal’s neck. I’m glad I missed this part of the ritual. A trip to San Juan Chamula is decidedly not for the faint of heart.
“How does one become a shaman?” asked one tourist. “Through their dreams,” the guide replied. “It is through their dreams that they are called to the service.”
As disconcerting as all this was, the attitude of Arturo, the sycophantic, non-indigenous tour guide, was even more so. He was the proselytizer par excellence for “the new faith.” A more anti-Catholic spokesman would be hard to find anywhere. He practically snarled every time he mentioned the word “Catholic.” And God help you if you didn’t show zeal for his enthusiasm.
The NO PHOTOGRAPHS rule is rigidly enforced. Cameras will be smashed if seen. Physical violence has been known to occur if a person reveals a camera. Some people have been beaten and thrown in jail for attempting to take a photo.
It was a desolate place. All the time I was there, one Scripture passage kept playing over and over in my mind: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25).
Perhaps the bishops at the Amazon Synod should have paid a visit to San Juan Chamula first — coming to a church near you?
Mary Hansen has an M.Ed. and an M.Div. from St. Michael’s (Toronto). She is a former teacher and has written for the National Catholic Register, the Catholic Register, St. Anthony Messenger, Catholic Insight, and others. She writes about churches in Mexico, particularly Our Lady’s Mexican shrines, at Madonnas of Mexico dot com.