Vodou altar celebrating Papa Guédé in Boston, Massachusetts, featuring offerings to Rada spirits, the Petwo family, and the Gede. In the center is a golden monstrance.

Folk Catholicism can be broadly described as various ethnic expressions and practices of Catholicism intermingled with aspects of folk religion. Practices have varied from place to place and may at times contradict the official doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church as well as Christianity in general.[1]


Some forms of folk Catholic practices are based on syncretism with non-Catholic or non-Christian beliefs or religions. Some of these folk Catholic forms have come to be identified as separate religions, as is the case with Caribbean and Brazilian syncretism between Catholicism and West African religions, which include Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé.

Similarly syncretism between Catholic practice and indigenous or Native American belief systems, as are common in Maya communities of Guatemala and Quechua communities of Peru are typically not named as separate religions; their practitioners generally regard themselves as good Catholics.

Other folk Catholic practices are local elaborations of Catholic custom which do not contradict Catholic doctrine and practice. Examples include compadrazgo in modern Iberia, Latin America, and the Philippines, which developed from standard medieval European Catholic practices that fell out of favor in Europe after the seventeenth century; the veneration of some local saints, and pilgrimages in medieval and modern Europe. Folk Catholic practices occur where Catholicism is a major religion, not only in the oft-cited cases of Latin America and the West Indies. Folk accommodations between Catholicism and local beliefs can be found in Gaelic Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria, the Philippines, and southern India.

In Ireland, openly Catholic worship was banned due to the Penal Laws. This led to storytellers inventing their own tales to teach the Gospel or add further lessons. These further lessons however often ended up contradicting the teaching of the Catholic Church. Within these stories a variety of recurring characters and themes appear such as the Virgin Mary, priests, Paul the Apostle, Satan, and Jesus himself.[2]

In the Philippines, the custom of Simbang Gabi developed from the farming community.[3] Simbang Gabi is a devotional nine-day series of Masses leading up to Christmas. On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo (Spanish for "Rooster's Mass"). It has an important role in Philippine culture. It has its origins in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. Despite being exhausted by a long day's labor, the people would still attend the customary evening novenas. In 1669, the priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. This cherished Christmas custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and became a symbol of sharing.[4]

The Catholic Church takes a pragmatic and patient stance towards folk Catholicism. For example, it may permit pilgrimages to the site of reported apparitions (e.g. Međugorje) without endorsing or condemning belief in the reported apparitions and will often declare Marian apparitions and similar miracles "worthy of belief" (e.g. Our Lady of Fatima) or will confirm the cult of local saints without actually endorsing or recommending belief. When the Catholic Church considers that there is a blatant heresy occurring, it actively rejects it and tells Catholics to stay away from such practices. This is the case of the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death, a personification and veneration of death). The Church has condemned the cult as blasphemous, calling it a "degeneration of religion".[5][6][7]

Popular Catholicism in the world

Participants at one of the Simbang Gabi masses.


One of the biggest and well-known folk religions is Vodou.[8] It first appeared in Haiti in the 17th century, and has grown to a large religion which has over 60 million worshippers globally.[9]

It began in tribal regions of the Dahomey Kingdom which is near present-day Nigeria.[10]

Vodu is from the Fon language of Dahomey and means "god" or "spirit". Vodu and was the religion for many people in this part of West Africa. It is also the origination of the rhythmic drum beating which became a big part of worship and lwa.

Once they arrived in Haiti, the enslaved people were forbidden from practicing any religion except Christianity by their new owners. Many slaves were baptized. In order to continue worship, they adopted Catholic saints and traditions. The saints became stand-ins for their lwa; St. Peter, for instance, was Legba.[11] In this manner, they were able to practice their faith and please the slaveowner at the same time.[12] Something similar happened with enslaved Africans brought to other countries as well, though Vodou is one of the best examples of the syncretism that occurred between Catholicism and native West African beliefs.


In the Philippines, among the most relevant celebration of popular Catholicism is the novena Christmas known as Simbang Gabi, which arose within the farming community and consists of a nine-day devotional gesture of masses in preparation for Christmas. On the last day of Simbang Gabi, which coincides with Christmas Eve, the most important service is held, called in Spanish Misa de Gallo ("Mass of the Rooster").

This is an ancient tradition celebrated since 1669, brought to the Philippines by Spanish missionaries: originally, the nine masses were held very early in the morning, because most of the country's inhabitants were farmers who had to go to work before dawn, to avoid being in the fields during the hottest hours of the day.

While evening novenas were more common in the rest of the Hispanic world, this Christmas custom eventually became a distinctive feature of Philippine culture and a symbol of shared participation of popular faith.[13]



Neapolitan crib figures.

In Italy, the spread of popular Catholicism is due to three main factors:[14]

Events that contributed to the formation of popular Italian Catholicism include the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, and then the social and civil commitment of the Catholic movement between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[14]

Candelore for the feast of Sant'Agata in Catania.

Among the most popular saints and patrons in Italy are San Pio (Padre Pio), Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco), Santa Rita of Cascia, St. Joseph, St. Michael, Mother Teresa, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Rosalia, Januarius, St. Agatha, St. Ambrose, and St. Catherine of Siena.[15] Simon of Trent is also amongst popular figures of Italian folk Catholicism.

To the Italian peasantry, the presence of the sacred was associated with rites of traditional magic called benedicaria.[16] This form of magic was practiced by the strolghe (Italian: le streghe, 'witches'), combining knowledge of herbs, formulas and spells with the sacraments and prayers of the Catholic Church.[17]


Ireland has a rich heritage of folk Catholicism. Among the many customs and practices is the tradition of holy wells. These sacred wells are scattered throughout Ireland and are visited by people seeking bodily cures, for example eye ailments.[11] The holy wells contain water blessed by a Catholic priest or bishop and are usually dedicated to one of a myriad of native Irish saints, for example St. Senan's holy well on Scattery Island.[12]

Another tradition is the holy ribbon. The most famous being the Brat Bhride in honour of St. Brigid.[8] This is a piece of cloth or ribbon which is left over night on a windowsill on the eve of the saint's feast day. The belief is that the saint will pass through Ireland that night and touch the ribbon which is then kept by individuals and venerated as a holy object which may be used to help the sick or for protection.[9] Other examples of the holy ribbon include the Ribin Cainnear[7] in honour of St. Cainnear and St. Gobnait's Measure.[5] Another custom in Ireland sees people take a piece of straw from the crib in a church at Christmas and this is supposed to bring financial security for the year ahead.[18]


The Amorsbrunn chapel in Amorbach, Franconia, Bavaria, has a fountain that is purported to help in conceiving children if bathed in and is a pilgrimage site for both Christians and non-Christians, who share the water. The water's purported powers and the pilgrimage to them predates the construction of the chapel; the pre-existing sacred site was intentionally incorporated into the new building and its associated religion, i.e. Catholicism, creating a "cult of continuity". The water's powers were then attributed to "some medieval Catholic saints", but these "appear as spurious, being poorly motivated." The site's power was previously attributed to a German goddess called Mother Holle/Holda and she was venerated there.[19] More generally, she lives on as a fairy tale character, weather, specifically snow, maker, and general cultural figure, even appearing in movies based on the fairy tale named for her.

See also



  1. ^ Vergote 1982.
  2. ^ O Suilleabhain, Sean (2011). Miraculous Plenty: Irish Religious Folktales and Legends. University College Dublin. pp. 17–21. ISBN 978-0-9565628-2-1.
  3. ^ Ordonez, Minyong. "Why folk Catholicism keeps our faith alive", Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 11, 2012
  4. ^ Roces, Alfredo (1 October 2009). Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Marshall Cavendish Reference. ISBN 978-0761456711.
  5. ^ a b "'Saint Death' Comes to Chicago". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 8 September 2016.[dead link]
  6. ^ Garma, Carlos (10 April 2009). "El culto a la Santa Muerte". El Universal (in Spanish). Mexico City. Retrieved 8 September 2016.
  7. ^ a b "Vatican Declares Mexican Death Saint Blasphemous". BBC News. 9 May 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Haiti: The Spelling Voodoo". faculty.webster.edu. Retrieved 2022-09-21.
  9. ^ a b "Inside the Voodoo Rituals of Haiti". Culture. 2004-07-07. Archived from the original on February 21, 2021. Retrieved 2022-09-21.
  10. ^ Long, Carolyn Marrow (May 31, 2001). Spiritual Merchants: Religion Magic & Commerce. University of Tennessee Press. p. 46.
  11. ^ a b "Haiti: Matches of Lwa with Catholic Saints". faculty.webster.edu. Retrieved 2022-09-21.
  12. ^ a b "Haitian Vodou". MOVING FICTIONS. 2019-11-12. Retrieved 2022-09-21.
  13. ^ Alfredo and Grace Roces, Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, Marshall Cavendish Reference, October 2009 ISBN 0761456716.
  14. ^ a b c "Di popolo o d'èlite: la Chiesa italiana al bivio". Vita e pensiero: 55–60. March 2003.
  15. ^ "Santi più invocati d'Italia". 2006.
  16. ^ Vito Quattrocchi, Benedicaria: Magical Catholicism, 2006.
  17. ^ Andrea Bocchi Modrone, Lo Stivale Magico: magia popolare e stregoneria del buon paese, Il Crogiuolo, 2011.
  18. ^ "Wexford's Christmas traditions". Independent.ie. 2018-12-29. Retrieved 2023-06-07.
  19. ^ Kleinhempel, Ullrich R. "Divination: Mother Holle as Goddess of Seerdom - From Walahfrid Strabo up to Martin Luther". In: Idunna (2021): 1-4. https://www.academia.edu/49362123/Divination_Mother_Holle_as_Goddess_of_Seerdom_From_Walahfrid_Strabo_up_to_Martin_Luther


  • Allen, Catherine (1999). The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Badone, Ellen, ed. (1990). Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Christian, William A. Jr. (1981). Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Johnson, Paul Christopher (2002). Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nutini, Hugo (1984). Ritual Kinship: Ideological and Structural Integration of the Compadrazgo System in Rural Tlaxcala. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  •  ———  (1988). Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Expressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Taylor, Lawrence J. (1995). Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Reyes, Dominic; et al. (2013). Folk Catholicism in Iligan City. Iligan, Philippines: MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology.
  • Vergote, Antoine (1982). "Folk Catholicism: Its Significance, Value and Ambiguities". Philippine Studies. 30 (1): 5–26. ISSN 2244-1638. JSTOR 42632594. Retrieved 21 July 2018.