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January 31, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The ancient Greek historian Herodotus records a story about a young man who caused the accidental death of his brother. Fleeing from home, he was taken in by a king who performed the necessary rite of purification and took him into his own household. One day, out hunting with the king’s son, the young man accidentally caused the prince’s death. In despair, he took his own life.
What is the moral of this story? The king’s act of kindness was misjudged; the rite of purification was not sufficiently powerful; those whom the gods have chosen to afflict cannot be helped. Perhaps the young man had inadvertently offended some deity, a common occurrence in Greek myth. You can’t be too careful: Works and Days by Hesiod attempts to summarize omens and auspicious and inauspicious days for everything from getting married to planting beans. The result is a mind-boggling collection of material that, if taken seriously, would control one’s every action, with no guarantee of success. This is what life under paganism was like in ancient Europe, and it was to this world that the Church’s sacraments and spirituality were first directed.
When pagan cultures accept Christianity, they are not immediately cured of all their woes, but they are given immensely powerful spiritual tools. In a recent article in the Catholic Herald (Jan. 24 — not, alas, online), Dr. Daniel J. Dolley, a social anthropologist who studied a community close to the Amazon region, described the effect of this group accepting Catholicism five centuries ago.
I discovered in Ecuador that, despite all the religious indifference of the previous 50 years, the arrival of the Church was seared into the collective memory as a transformative turning point in the community’s history. It was the moment at which the spirits retreated, the distance between humans and animals increased, and the dead began to lie peacefully in the grave.
A great many animals in Amazonia, like the spirits of the forest and rivers, exist in a state of predatory competition with humans: they are seen as potential enemies. There is no Amazonian equivalent of St Francis. Their relationship with the dead before the arrival of Christianity was characterized by still more intense animosity and terror. The old stories they tell recount how the dead used to return from the grave to harass and kill the living, how animals used to take on human form and fatally disrupt society, how vampiric spirits would descend upon people’s houses forcing them to flee for their lives.
The kind of Catholicism that helped this community, as it helped European pagans long ago, was a Catholicism of sacraments, blessings, ritual, and Latin. Dolley notes how the pagan shamans use rituals and spiritually charged objects, resorting on occasion to a sacred language unknown to ordinary people, and to periods of celibacy during intense periods of communion with spirits.
In the implicit competition of spiritual power between priests and the shamans, the former had several advantages.
Of vital importance in the Church’s mission in Amazonia is the fact that, unlike that of the shaman, the priest’s power is not dependent upon a potentially malevolent spiritual helper. Furthermore, it does not (or at least should not) come at a cost. Another difference is that the protection offered by a shaman is temporary, provisional and unreliable; it is always vulnerable to the shaman’s caprice, to challenge from another shaman or from a more powerful spirit. By contrast, that which is offered by the priest is far more durable, definitive and unambiguously benevolent.
This phenomenon is not limited to the indigenous peoples of South America. I have written elsewhere about the appeal of traditional Catholic spirituality and liturgy to the peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, and to the traditional religious sensibility of China and the Islamic world. A cynic might suggest that the Church is offering traditional societies a more powerful form of superstition, but when Dr. Dolley’s community identifies baptism, for example, as having “exorcistic” power, the community is perfectly correct. Particularly in its traditional form, the Rite of Baptism makes very clear that it exorcises the candidate, because the Church teaches that without baptism, mankind is in the power of Satan.
It is not, indeed, just what these peoples get wrong that leads them to the Church; it is what they get right. If, as Pope Francis has urged us, we are to learn from them, we must allow ourselves to be reminded that the fallen world is full of spiritual dangers. Pope John Paul II wrote in praise of Africans what could equally be applied to traditional societies elsewhere: of their “sense of the sacred,” “of a spiritual world,” and “the need for rites of purification and expiation” (Ecclesia in Africa , 42).
Dr. Dolley notes:
If the changes advocated by some participants in the Amazon synod were to be implemented, they would amount, ironically, to one more kind of spiritual colonization, in this instance by a Western ideological agenda whose end, as we are seeing in the West, is ultimately secular, materialistic and spiritually destructive. It is also entirely alien to the spiritual traditions of the peoples of Amazonia.