Catholicism With an African Flavor

By Awake! writer in Brazil

IN Salvador, the capital of Bahia State, Brazil, the new year is marked by a festival of huge proportions. Hundreds of women lead a procession up to the Catholic church of Bonfim, where they wash the church steps with perfumed water. This rite honors Oxalá, African god of creation.

As many as a million spectators witness this ceremony. To the rhythm of African percussion instruments, they join in the boisterous street party that follows.

This 250-year-old ritual is a striking example of syncretism, a term meaning a mixture of religious beliefs, a trademark of Brazil’s Catholicism. More than 70 million Brazilians are said to be directly or indirectly linked to Candomblé, Umbanda, Xangô, and other Afro-Brazilian religions. Yet, at the same time, the vast majority claim to be Catholic.

How did this fusion take place? How does the Catholic Church view it? And is the intermingling of religious beliefs something to be praised or shunned?

‘Springboard to the True Faith’

Estimates vary, but it is probable that more than six million Africans from Yoruba, Bantu, and other tribal backgrounds were transported to Brazil as slaves between the mid-16th century and 1888, when slavery was finally abolished. The mixture of traditional African beliefs and Catholicism in Brazil is thus a legacy of slavery.

While insisting on the conversion of all slaves, the Catholic Church nonetheless gave its blessing to the intermingling of Catholicism with elements of African religion. According to historian Roger Bastide, Jesuit missionaries believed that native Africans, like children, should be drawn to the Catholic faith through music and dance as well as their love of titles and honorary positions. “They should not be forced to break completely  with their traditional customs,” wrote Bastide, “but these should be evaluated and the acceptable ones used as a springboard to help them attain the true faith.”

In various all-African religious brotherhoods, such as those dedicated to Catholic “Saint” Benedict and the Virgin of the Rosary, many African traditions received a “Christian” varnish. Once a year, on “Saint” Benedict’s feast day, such fraternities would elect a king and a queen from among their members, a custom derived from the succession of African tribal kings.

“Saints” or Orixás?

The belief in numerous intercessors between God and man is common to Catholicism and to African religions. The Yoruba, for example, believed in orixás. These were thought to be deified warriors and kings that controlled natural forces and served as intermediaries between the people and their supreme god, Olorun. Similarly, Roman Catholics believe that “saints” intercede with God for man. And they invoke specific “saints” for protection in connection with particular activities.

Instead of abandoning their orixás, many slaves simply cloaked their devotion to the orixás in the veneration of “saints” with similar characteristics. Thus, the Yoruba god of warfare, Ogun, assumed the identity of the Catholic “saints” Anthony or George, both soldiers and heroes of Christendom.

Similarly, Yemanjá, mother of all the orixás and goddess of the seas, matched up with various “apparitions” of the Virgin Mary. The Lord of Bonfim, Salvador’s most popular “saint,” was equated with Oxalá, the supreme orixá of the Yoruba pantheon. This association is still celebrated in the annual ritual of the washing of the church steps. *

“People here believe sincerely and with the same conviction in Jesus, in Catholic saints, and in the orixás,” comments one Catholic leader from the city of Salvador. “Many flit between one religion and another,” adds a Brazilian anthropologist. “They walk out of Mass in a Catholic church and straight into [an African] candomblé center.”

This melding of Catholicism and African beliefs is a sensitive issue. Lucas Moreira, former president of the Brazilian Catholic Episcopal Conference, asserted: “Each one should follow his own faith, with no mixing.” Yet, another Catholic bishop observes: “Syncretism is a reality that defies the church’s action.”

The battle lines are drawn. Conservative church leaders combat what they view as pagan and demonic, while others press for the inclusion of African symbols and dance in the rites of the Catholic Church.

What Would Jesus Say?

Jesus Christ, the Founder of Christianity, preached to a variety of religious and ethnic groups. But he was adamant when he said: “True worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him.” (John 4:23) Moreover, Jesus explained that the Father, Jehovah God, reveals the truth by means of His Word, the Bible.​—John 17:17.

Jesus instructed his followers to teach ‘people of all the nations to observe all the things he had commanded.’ (Matthew 28:19, 20) He never suggested that they modify his teachings in order to attract people who held to different traditions and beliefs. In the days of the apostles, some people did try to introduce ideas and customs borrowed from other religions. However, such attempts were condemned. “Get out from among them, and separate yourselves,” wrote the apostle Paul, “and [God] will take you in.”​—2 Corinthians 6:17.


^ par. 14 According to the Dicionário de Cultos Afro-Brasileiros (Dictionary of Afro-Brazilian Religions), the washing of the steps of the Bonfim is closely related to a Yoruba ceremony called water of Oxalá, which involves the ritual washing of the otás (sacred stones) of Oxalá.

[Pictures on page 12]

Afro-Brazilian priestesses washing the steps of the church

Crowds on the steps of the church of Bonfim, in Brazil

[Credit Lines]

Top: De: A Tarde​—Wilson da Rocha Besnosik; bottom: De: A Tarde—​Antônio Queirós