Let’s start with what the Day of the Dead is not. To quote a 2019 Vatican News article: “It must be clear that in Mexico this celebration is not a ‘satanic cult’ or something related to a ‘cult of death’. coco, although it incorporated many real elements of Mexican culture, to the delight of audiences in Mexico and abroad. Just as we wouldn’t look to Disney for a completely accurate portrayal of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales or those recorded by the Grimm Brothers, its Pixar affiliate is not a reliable source of information on how the Catholics of Mexico celebrate the day of the dead. .
Spectrum, the James Bond film, simply uses part of the celebratory aesthetic as the dramatic setting for memorable chase scenes. Indeed, prior to the film, there had been no major Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City’s historic center, although it has since quickly become a “tradition” as a reliable source of tourist income.
A tradition rooted in the methods of evangelizing missionaries
What is it then? First of all, coming back to the Vatican News article, “this is part of a belief that has its roots in the pre-Hispanic world.” Among the cultures that existed in what is now Mexico before the arrival of Europeans, the article continues, there was a general belief in an afterlife, including something akin to Purgatory. In order for the dead to reach their destination in the afterlife, they needed certain essential items, and once a year they visited the earth. On this occasion, the living could offer them food and objects to help them.
Until now, one could still object: “You see? It is a pagan celebration that Catholics should avoid. However, when Catholic missionaries arrived in the Americas, they realized that in these beliefs and celebrations there were elements of truth that were common ground that could help indigenous peoples understand the Catholic faith. These partial truths are what the Church calls “semina verbi” or “seeds of the Word” – a term coined by Saint Justin Martyr in the 2nd century (originally in Greek, “logoi spermatikoi”).
The missionaries engaged in what is called inculturation: they took the elements of truth they found and some of the cultural manifestations that accompanied them, and imbued them with the Catholic faith, transforming the feast of the god of the underworld in a celebration of all souls. Day. In this way, the missionaries introduced Catholic teaching, which helped transform the culture as a whole.
This technique of evangelization is not new. Saint Paul himself, speaking to the Areopagus in Athens, did not say: “Forget everything you know, for everything is wrong. Instead, he quoted a pagan poet and referred to a pagan altar “to the unknown god,” saying, “What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. (Acts 17: 22-31)
Many folk traditions surrounding Catholic holidays have been adopted over the centuries from non-Christian traditions as part of inculturation. Even some aspects of Catholic iconography, terminology, and philosophy (used to elucidate theology) have non-Christian origins, such as the Greco-Roman mystery cults and Neoplatonism.
While the anti-Catholic rhetoric of atheists and non-Catholic Christians often exaggerates how the Church has embraced these sources and claims that it has had a negative impact on the faith, the fact of inculturation is undeniable and in effect. quite positive. Grace is based on nature and perfects it. In his providence, he has guided mankind to the truth and prepared us to receive the gospel. When human beings strive to move forward, even with a few mistakes, God takes what is good and makes it better, while purging what is wrong or bad.
Day of the dead today
Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated by most Catholics across Mexico in a completely Orthodox way. There is nothing wrong with skulls, “bread of the dead” or bright orange “cempasúchil” (marigold) flowers, just as there is nothing wrong with Christmas trees or wreaths. Advent, which also has roots in pagan traditions.
This is not to say that there is never syncretism, confusion or unhealthy practices during the celebration. Indeed, to keep the celebrations on track, some dioceses in Mexico have published guides on their websites. They encourage prayer for the dead, remembering the communion of saints, keeping Christ at the center as our Redeemer who has won eternal life and resurrection for us, and obtaining the plenary indulgences associated with the feast of the dead.
They also recognize the holiday as an important part of Mexican tradition and identity, and warn of the corrupting influence of … none other than the United States, with its distortion of Mexican culture and confusion of the Day. of the Dead with Halloween. They also caution against the cult of Santa Muerte, a relatively recent invention linked to the culture surrounding drug trafficking and not specifically related to the Day of the Dead.
Can Catholics Celebrate Day of the Dead? The answer is clearly “yes”, if understood correctly as the celebration of the Day of the Dead with certain cultural and folkloric aspects of Mexican culture.