What is Folk Catholicism?

What is Folk Catholicism and How is it Practiced?

folk catholicism Jesus as greenmanFolk Catholicism is an example of Syncretism – when one religion or belief system is combined with another that is not Christian or Catholic. Several forms of folk Catholic customs are founded on syncretism. In the Caribbean and Brazil, syncretisms between Catholicism and West African religions, such as Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, and Brazilian Candomblé, are examples of how some of these folk Catholic forms have evolved into their own distinct religions. This is also the case with some of the syncretisms between Catholicism and indigenous religions in Brazil.

Similar syncretisms between Catholic practice and indigenous or Native American belief systems, such as are common in Maya communities of Guatemala and Quechua communities of Peru, to give just two examples, are typically not named as separate religions; their practitioners generally regard themselves as good Catholics even while worshiping non-Christian gods. For example, in Maya communities of Guatemala and Quechua communities of Peru, it is common for Catholic practice to be combined with indigenous belief systems.

Some folk Catholic practices are local elaborations of Catholic custom that do not contradict Catholic doctrine or practice. These traditions are not considered to be heretical. Some examples include the veneration of local saints and pilgrimages in both medieval and modern Europe. Gaelic Scotland, the Philippines, Ireland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Poland, and southern India are some of the places where people have made folk accommodations between Catholicism and their local beliefs.

The Philippines

The Simbang Gabi novena Christmas celebration, which originated in the rural community and consists of a nine-day devotional gesture of masses in anticipation of Christmas, is one of the most significant celebrations of popular Catholicism in the Philippines. The most significant service, known in Spanish as Misa de Gallo, is celebrated on the last day of Simbang Gabi, which falls on Christmas Eve (“Mass of the Rooster”).

The nine masses used to be held very early in the morning because most people in the country were farmers who had to leave for work before dawn to avoid working in the fields during the hottest parts of the day. This is an ancient tradition that has been celebrated since 1669 and was brought to the Philippines by Spanish missionaries.

Although if evening novenas were more popular in the rest of the Hispanic world, the Philippine people finally developed this Christmas tradition into a distinctive aspect of their culture and a representation of widespread participation in popular religion.

Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte
artistic depiction of Santa Muerte

In both Mexican Neopaganism and folk Catholicism, Santa Muerte is a female divinity, folk saint, and object of cult worship. Her followers see her as a personification of death who can heal, protect, and make sure people have a safe journey to the afterlife. Despite being condemned by Catholic Church, her fan base has grown significantly since the turn of the twenty-first century. In Mexico, sections of Central America, the United States, and Canada, there are now between 10 and 20 million followers of Santa Muerte, an increase over the previous ten to twenty years.

Santa Muerte is represented by a skeleton of a woman wearing a long robe and holding one or more objects, usually a scythe and a globe. Although more exact depictions of the figure vary greatly from devotee to devotee, and depending on the ritual being done or the request being made, her robes can be any color. She is known by many names including: the bony lady, the Godmother, white lady, white sister, and lady of shadows.

Scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp are also things that people associate with Santa Muerte. The scales symbolize fairness, justice, and even-handedness, as well as the will of God. People believe that death is not the end because the hourglass can be turned upside down to start over. The hourglass serves as a visual representation of Santa Muerte’s relationship with time and the worlds above and below. It’s also a sign of being patient. An owl is a sign of her wisdom and ability to find her way in the dark. The owl is also said to be a messenger. A lamp is a symbol of intelligence and spirit. It shines a light into the darkness of ignorance and doubt to show the way.

Haitian Vodou

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Haiti experienced the development of Haitian Vodou, an African diaspora religion. It developed due to a process of syncretism between several West and Central African traditional faiths and Roman Catholicism. A single body does not govern the religion, and its adherents, often referred to as Vodouists, Vodouisants, or Serviteurs, are very diverse.

Haitian art
A painting of the lwa Danbala, a serpent, by Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite.

Vodou is centered on spirits called lwa. They are compared to Roman Catholic saints because they frequently take their names and characteristics from traditional West and Central African divinities. This results from the syncretism that took place when French conquerors forcibly converted West African slaves in the colonies of the West Indies to Christianity. The African slaves did not fully convert to Christianity; rather, they disguised their loa as Catholic saints.

In order to get a lwa to take possession of one of their members and allow them to interact with them, practitioners perform a primary ritual that includes drumming, singing, and dancing. A significant part is also played by healing rituals and the creation of talismans and herbal cures. Fruit, liquor, and sacrificed animals are all offerings to the lwa. Moreover, offerings are made to the spirits of the deceased. It takes a variety of divination techniques to decipher the lwa’s messages.

In the 16th to 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade led to the development of vodou among Afro-Haitian populations. Its structure resulted from mixing the traditional religions of the West and Central enslaved Africans who had been transported to the island of Hispaniola, including the Yoruba, Fon, and Kongo. There, it acquired elements of the culture of the French colonists who ruled the colony of Saint-Domingue, especially Freemasonry and Roman Catholicism. The two faiths share several customs; for instance, it is not unusual for Vodou burial rites to be performed before a Roman Catholic service officiated by a priest. Together with traditional Vodou festivities, many Haitians also observe Christian holidays. It is a complicated relationship overall where some believe the theologies are incompatible while others do believe they are compatible.


After the Atlantic slave trade, which took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Afro-Cubans began to practice Santeria. It came about when the traditional religions of West African slaves, most of whom were Yoruba, and Roman Catholicism, which was the only religion the Spanish colonial government allowed on the island, were mixed together. In West Cuba’s cities, these traditions and Spiritist ideas came together in the late 19th century.

Santeria has many gods and is based on gods called orishas. They are like Roman Catholic saints because their names and characteristics come from traditional Yoruba gods. People believe that each person has a personal connection to a certain orisha who shapes their personality. There are many myths about these orisha, who are thought to serve Olodumare, an all-powerful creator deity.

Santeria is a flexible and eclectic tradition, and there are many different ways to follow it. There is no strict orthodoxy, no central holy text, and no one person in charge of the whole religion. It has taken on parts of the cultures it has met, like the culture of the Chinese people who moved to Cuba in the 19th century. In North America, it has also taken on parts of Central American and Mexican religions, as well as New Age and modern Pagan practices. Cubans often mix ideas from different religions in their own way, and many people who practice Santeria say they belong to more than one religion. People who follow Santeria often think of themselves as Roman Catholics. In fact, some Santeria priests and priestesses won’t initiate anyone who isn’t a baptized Roman Catholic.

Catholic Conjure

saints altar
my main saints altar – Reverend Roy

People almost always think of Vodou in New Orleans or Haiti when they hear the word “conjure.” Conjure is a way of communicating, often with spirits, that uses signs and symbolic events to explain, understand, and change the physical and spiritual worlds. But the word “conjure” is not just used by people who believe in one religion or follow one path. Instead, conjure has been known to include everything from Vodou to Spiritual Churches, as well as small, everyday things people do to control and change their surroundings.

No matter where a particular tradition comes from, conjure as a cultural phenomenon is a way of communicating with the spiritual world that is constantly changing and not limited to a single method. It is also a tool used with other religious beliefs, not just to hide them but also to make them stronger or more effective. However, I must add that, historically, the African American community should be contributed to the initial melding of their beliefs with Catholicism, mainly as an act of self-preservation. Over time, many cultures added their unique spiritual practices into Catholic beliefs, branching off to become individual spiritual paths.

I’m referring to this when I say that I perform ‘Catholic Conjure.’ I was baptized as a Catholic, so when I do magic, I ask saints, angels, and the medicine of my Native American ancestors to help me. As a native Tennessean, I also incorporate the folkloric and mystical mountain traditions I grew up with. This mixture of my ancestors’ folk practices, their magic, and folk medicine into the structure of the Catholic religion transforms it into something else. It is no longer just the doctrines of the Catholic church. It becomes what is known as Folk Catholicism.