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The Representation of Popular "Canonization" in the Discourse of Contemporary Urban Space

Selected Examples

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2016 22 Seiten

Romanistik - Spanische Sprache, Literatur, Landeskunde


Table of Contents







1. Introduction

Santo subito! , which essentially means “Sainthood immediately!”, were the words shouted by the masses at Pope John Paul II’s requiem.1 The people wanted the deceased Pope to be canonized as soon as possible. But the way to get there is not a simple one - neither in the Catholic Church nor in any other church. The situation is different with ‘canonizations’, which are not carried out by the Church. Those saints who are not officially canonized, i.e. folk saints or popular saints, do not have to go through a complex institutional process. They are rather venerated as saints by the people due to certain actions in life or in death.

The tradition of creating folk saints is a long one. In the pre-Christian Abrahamic tradition, holy people were mainly identified by popular acclaim rather than official designation and early Christians followed the same tradition when visiting the shrines of martyrs.2

Nowadays, this tradition still exists. Especially in Middle- and South America people tend to venerate local deceased individuals who then often reach popularity in much the same way as ever. Those folk saints include not only individuals of partly or entirely constructed identities from pre-Columbian Mesoamerican tradition but also recently deceased individuals such as Cuarteto singer Rodrigo from Argentina.3 Most of the folk saints show certain similarities. The devotion to them emerges typically in rural areas and is sometimes not expanding. Nevertheless, some folk saints reach popularity throughout the entire country and beyond and their presence in big cities seems more natural than ever.

The topic and aim of this paper is to have a closer look at different aspects of the so-called ‘popular canonization’, especially in Argentina. First of all there will be a delineation between official canonization and the concept of popular ‘canonization’. The focus will then be on the dynamism of this type of veneration in Argentina, i.e. its expansion from rural areas to profane urban spaces. The selected examples of folk saints will be Gauchito Gil and San La Muerte, which are both figures, whose popularity was continuously increasing over the past decades. Additionally, the situation in Europe will be taken into consideration to demonstrate if popular ‘canonization` is also expanding throughout this continent.

2. Delineation of concepts

2.1 Official canonization

The main difference between official canonization and popular ‘canonization’ does not necessarily lie in the practice of devotion but rather in the process of ‘canonization’ itself. At this point, a closer look at those processes is needed, whereby only the canonization by the Catholic Church is taken into account, as well as Orthodox practices.4

2.1.1 Canonization by the Catholic Church

In the Catholic Church, canonization is a complex and long-winded dogmatic procedure. It may even take up to over 100 years and at the end, authority rests chiefly with the Pope.

If the person concerned did not die as a martyr, there has to be evidence of a miracle in relation to the person. This miracle - usually a medical wonder - has to be approved by a scientific commission, which examines the progression of the disease, reviews medical files, and questions witnesses.5

First of all an individual has to be venerated by the people before the process begins with a bishop’s petition to allow the initialization of a Cause for canonization at the diocesan level.6 This process cannot begin until 5 years after the person’s death to ensure that “the person has an enduring reputation for sanctity among the faithful.”7 The Postulation established by the diocese must collect information about the life and virtues of the Servant of God. Therefore all of his writings - public and private - must be collected and reviewed before the bishop decides whether the heroic virtues have been demonstrated sufficiently or not. In a next step, the results are communicated to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, a Relator, and a theological commission, which votes affirmatively or negatively on the Cause. Before the final judgement by the Pope, the Cause also has to be approved by the cardinal, the archbishop, and bishop members of the Congregation.8

In a way, the catholic canonization therefore serves to show the faithful how to live the ideal Christian live. Nevertheless, the official saints of the Catholic Church are also patron saints who, according to the Catholic believe, are able to intervene effectively for the needs of their special responsibilities. The saints are seen as intercessors and their liturgical character is emphasized by the possibility to invocate the saint in crisis situations.9 Another noteworthy aspect is the celebration of Name Day by believers who are named after a saint. In some regions, this day is of greater importance than the birthday.10

To summarise, the Catholics regard their saints mainly as role models for the Christian life style and secondly as intercessors of God and Jesus Christ.11

2.1.2 Orthodox practices

Believes and practices in relation to the veneration of saints within the Orthodox Churches are very similar to those of the Catholics. But there are major differences concerning the process of the canonization. There are no standardized rites in which individuals are officially canonized.12 The initialisation and the implementation depend on the region and the particular church. In the Russian Orthodox Church, usually a church service is held on a selected day to initialize the veneration for a certain saint. As requirements for canonization can be seen martyrdom, healings and miracles in life and death, a dignified life, special services in the spreading of Christianity, the approval of a saintly person by the people or the incorruptibility of the relics.13

The best-known orthodox saint is Nikolaos of Myra, who is also venerated as a patron saint by sailors, jurists, and pharmacists. However, most of the orthodox saints are only known regionally and are therefore not venerated by people from other regions.14

In sum, the Orthodox Church regards sanctity as a characteristic of God who may impose it upon human beings or objects to separate them from the profane world.15

2.2 Popular ‘canonization’

2.2.1 Origin and development

In comparison to official canonization popular ‘canonization’ does not undergo an institutionalized process. The initiation lies exclusively by the people who regard a particular individual as saintly. As mentioned before those venerations already existed in the pre-Christian Abrahamic tradition and are nowadays still widespread. Usually folk saints are canonized because of their tragic deaths or due to special virtuous deeds during their lifetime. The devotions usually begin in a rural community because the folk saints tend to come from the same region as their followers.

Those followers regard their saints as active members of their community; even after their death. Tales of miracles and good deeds are spread by word of mouth. According to Frank Graziano, a professor of Hispanic Studies,

[t]he devotion to folk saints is clearly indebted to, if not derived from this special relation of the living and the dead. Indeed, many folk devotions begin through the clouding of the distinction between praying for and praying to a recently deceased person. If several family members and friends pray at someone's tomb, perhaps lighting candles and leaving offerings, their actions arouse the curiosity of others. Some give it a try - the for and the to begin intermingling - because the frequent visits to the tomb suggest that the soul of its occupant may be miraculous. As soon as miracles are announced, often by family members and friends, newcomers arrive to send up prayers, now to the miraculous soul, with the hope of having their requests granted.16

Especially in Spanish America folk saints tend to share some common features such as an indigenous background. Nevertheless there are also those who descended directly from the Europeans or other immigrants.17 Furthermore, many were either healers or crooks or they belonged to a leftist guerrilla group during their lifetime.18 Even though a large number operated outside the legal framework, they are regarded as innocents who usually suffered a cruel and ‘unjust’ death. Even in recent times, individuals were ‘canonized’ by the people despite the absence of a exemplary life. An example is the singer Rodrigo, who was known for drug and alcohol abuse.19

2.2.2 Devotional practices

Devotional practices differ depending on the region and the ‘saint’. According to Graziano, in Spanish America “[t]he devotion to folk saints is clearly indebted to, if not derived from, this special relation of the living and the dead”.20 The death of a person is not regarded as terrible finality but rather as a change of state. Also, a deceased person is still able to communicate with the living and to protect his or her family members.21 Consequently, folk saints are seen as special dead individuals who perform to a larger extend, i.e. protect not only members of their families but also the members of entire communities. Thus the devotional practices in relation to folk saints resemble those performed for deceased family members. Their real or symbolic graves and shrines are visited and prayers are spoken. Since many folk saints are also regarded as patrons, they are asked for help and support, depending on their specialities. Due to the specialities for which their help is sought, folk saints are not only offered candles and tributes of thanks, but also items, related to their former personality. Argentinian folk saint Difunta Correa, for example, is offered bottles of water because she died of thirst and the spirit of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa receives cigarettes, cigars and alcohol.22 In comparison to official saints, who remain canonized, no matter, how popular they are, folk saints depend entirely on their devotees and their popularity.

2.2.3 Relationship with the Catholic Church

Folk saints are not officially canonized and in former times intolerance dominated the relationship between the Catholic Church and the folk saints. Today, the Church is rather tolerant towards popular devotion and there are even some members of the Catholic Church, who sympathize with this type of veneration.23 Furthermore, praying to folk saints can be regarded as “a normal part of being Catholic”24 and a number of imagery found in the sanctuaries “often symbolically links them [the folk saints] to traditional Catholic figures”.25 Thus there are some similarities between the devotion of officially canonized saints and folk saints. First of all, “like their canonized counterparts, folk saints provide access and expedition”.26 Many devotees regard folk saints as advocates, bridges to or instruments of God. On the other hand, there are also those devotees, who push God in the background and refer to ‘their’ folk saints as the true fulfiller of miracles. Thus,

[d]evotees’ perceptions may vacillate between the theological model of intercession and the urge for a pantheon of demigods, but in everyday devotion the folk saints are godlike in their awesome power to perform miracles.27

Furthermore, death in Catholicism differs from death in relation to folk devotion insofar as the iconography of the folk saints serves primarily as a model for meaningful misery and the shrines and graves are visited for the purpose of alleviating suffering. As mentioned earlier, Catholic saints are much more regarded as role models and as vehicles for constructive change.28

Additionally, the relationship between devotees and folk saints can be regarded as much more intimate than the relationship people have with official saints. Folk saints are not ‘responsible’ for people all around the globe but rather for a limited community and thus, are more likely to follow a request by a devotee.29

3. Gauchito Gil and San La Muerte - Argentina and the expansion of its folk saints

In Argentina there are thousands of different folk saints, many of whom are local figures. But there are also a number of nationally known figures whose popularity spread throughout the country and even beyond. In many cases, the tradition of ‘sanctifying’ popular figures - especially if they died young - leads to a “cult-like devotion” as for example in the cases of Eva Perón and Carlos Gardel.30 Miraculous shrines can be especially found alongside the highways and at the cemeteries in the northern provinces of Argentina.

Especially in a country like Argentina, where, according to a survey from 200831, 76.5 % of the inhabitants state that they are Catholics, folk saints are often linked to traditional Catholic figures. Thus, the cross is found in many of the shrines, which are dedicated to individual folk saints. Additionally the indigenous influence cannot be ignored. Funeral rites, as for example feasts at the graves, were also celebrated by the Guaraní.32 Argentinian author, María Rosa Lojo writes:

Más allá del hecho de que una cultura dominate intentase con éxito imponer , entre otras cosas, su vision de lo divino, la voz de los vencidos se filtra entre los intersticios para apropiarse de las prácticas del dominador, para resignificarlas en una expression original.33


1 (28.07.2016).

2 (28.07.2016).

3 Lojo, M.R. (2007): Cuerpos Resplandecientes. Santos populares Argentinos . Buenos Aires, p.3.

4 The Anglican Church does not recognize canonized Saints and most of the Protestants disapprove of any behaviour, which resembles worship to God or Jesus Christ. In other religions the term „holy“ is sometimes used to distinguish the „special“ nature of sth. from the profane or is completely forbidden. Nevertheless there are also practices similar to those oft he Catholic Church; (29.07.2016).

5 cf. (29.07.2016).

6 cf. (29.07.2016).

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 ibid.

10 ibid.

11 cf. Frigerio, A. (2011): “La gente siempre creyó en formas diferentes a las que la iglesia intentaba imponer“, Nuestra Cultura , año 3, nro. 14, Buenos Aires, p. 7.

12 Stubenrauch, B./ Erzpriester Andrej Lorgus (2013 ): Handw ö rterbuch Theologische

Anthropologie. R ö misch-katholisch/Russisch-orthodox. Eine Gegen ü berstellung . Freiburg im Breisgau, S. 356.

13 ibid.

14 (29.07.2016).

15 Stubenrauch (2013), p. 256.

16 Graziano, F. (2006): Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America . Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 9-10.

17 cf. Lojo, M.R. (2007): Cuerpos Resplandecientes. Santos populares Argentinos. Buenos Aires, p. 2.

18 ibid.

19 cf. Lojo (2007), p. 3.

20 Graziano (2006), p. 9.

21 Ibid.

22 Kail, T.M. (2015): Narco-Cults. Understanding the Use of Afro-Carribean and Mexican Religious Cultures in the Drug Wars. Boca Raton, p. 177.

23 cf. Lojo (2007), p. 5.

24 Granville-Jones, K. (2008): “Locally Miraculous: Argentina’s Unofficial Saints”, in: The Argentina Independent , 18th July 2008, style/locally-miraculous-argentinas-unofficial-saints/ (29.07.2016).

25 ibid.

26 Graziano (2006), p. 12.

27 Graziano (2006), p. 12-13.

28 Graziano (2006), p. 10.

29 Granville-Jones (2008).

30 ibid.

31 “Primera encuesta sobre creencias y actitudes religiosas en Argentina“. FONCYT y CEIL PIETTE-Conicet. Casos:2403. Alcance nacional. Director: Fortunato Mallimaci. Printed in: Nuestra Cultura , año 3, nro. 14, Buenos Aires, p. 7.

32 Lojo (2007), p. 6.

33 ibid.


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representation popular canonization discourse contemporary urban space basis selected examples




Titel: The Representation of Popular "Canonization" in the Discourse of Contemporary Urban Space