“You can almost see some of it as kind of an extreme heretical form of folk Catholicism,” he said. “In fact, I can say Santa Muerte could only have arisen from a Catholic environment.”
This, coupled with the fact that Mexican Catholics are suddenly much more familiar with death, with the recent drug wars having left upwards of 60,000 - 120,000 Mexicans dead - makes a saint of death that much more intriguing.
“Paradoxically, a lot of devotees who feel like death could be just around the corner - maybe they’re narcos, maybe they work in the street, maybe they’re security guards who might be gunned down - they ask Santa Muerte for protection.”
Why she’s no saint
Her familiarity and appeal is actually part of the danger of this devotion, Fr. Gutierrez said.
“(Santa Muerte) is literally a demon with another name,” he said. “That’s what it is.”
In his own ministry, Fr. Gutierrez said he has witnessed people who “suffer greatly” following a devotion to the folk saint.
Fr. Gary Thomas, a Vatican-trained exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, told CNA that he has also prayed with people who have had demonic trouble after praying to Santa Muerte.
“I have had a number of people who have come to me as users of this practice and found themselves tied to a demon or demonic tribe,” he said.
Fr. Gutierrez noted that while Catholics who attend Mass and the sacraments on a regular basis tend to understand this about Santa Muerte, those in danger are the cultural Catholics who aren’t intentionally engaging in something harmful, but could be opening the door to spiritual harm nonetheless.
Elizabeth Beltran is the parish secretary at Cristo Rey Church, a predominantly Latino Catholic parish in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Beltran, who grew up in Mexico and whose family is still in Mexico, said she started noticing Santa Muerte about 15-20 years ago, but she hasn’t yet noticed the presence of the devotion in the United States.
Besides narcos and criminals, the folk saint also appeals to poor, cultural Mexican Catholics or those who are simply looking for something to believe in, Beltran said.
“People who don’t know their faith very well, it’s very easy to convince them” to pray to Santa Muerte, she said. It’s common practice in Mexico for people to mix superstitious practices with Catholic prayers like the Our Father or the Hail Mary, in order to gain trust in the Catholic culture.
Besides her demonic ties, she’s also a perversion of what the practice of praying to saints is all about, said Fr. Ryan Kaup, a priest with Cristo Rey parish.
“What we venerate as saints are real people who have chosen this life to follow the will of our Lord and have done great things with their lives, and now they’re in heaven forever, and so that’s why we ask for their intercession,” Fr. Kaup said.
“So taking this devotion and this practice that we have of asking for this saint’s intercession and twisting it in such a way as to invoke this glorified image of death is really a distortion of what we believe is true intercession and truly the power of the saints.”
Because of her growing popularity in the United States, Fr. Gutierrez said he is hoping that bishops and Catholic leaders in the U.S. become more aware of the danger of the Santa Muerte devotion and start condemning it publically.
“I would love to hear something on a national level, from the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops or from local bishops speaking about it publicly,” he said. “I think that would be one way to really call it to attention.”
Fr. Thomas added that honoring a saint of death is a corruption and distortion of what Christians belief about Jesus, who came to give us eternal life.
“‘Saint Death’ is an oxymoron. God is a God of the living, not the dead.”
This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 30, 2016.