Saints without a halo*

Mighty Anastácia

They were not canonized. They are controversial. There is even doubt if some of them really existed. Nevertheless, Brazilian popular saints generate deep devotion, pilgrimages and flourishing commerce.

Take, for example, Escrava Anastácia. This beautiful slave of blue eyes, that supposedly lived in the 18th century, was obliged by her master to wear a mask covering her mouth, because she refused to, you know, accept his sweet love. Apparently, this device was commonly used in the gold mines, so the slaves wouldn’t ingest (and steal) the metal. There is almost no evidence that Anastácia really existed, but she is still considered a big miracle worker.

Another powerful popular saint is Padre (Father) Cícero, a priest, landowner and conservative political leader of Juazeiro, in the Northeastern state of Ceará. Also known as Padim Ciço, he was excommunicated in the late 19th century by the local bishop after a series of supposed miracles that his superior considered a fraud: the host offered by Cícero would systematically turn into blood when ingested by one of the priest’s followers. Later his excommunication was invalidated by the Vatican but he was never allowed to return to his parish. His popularity never diminished, though. He amassed a huge fortune, including 34 rural properties, and became the state’s vice-governor.

Today, most families from that region christen their boys with his name and crowds of pilgrims visit Cícero’s 17-metre (56 feet) statue in Juazeiro. Check this video where his followers walk six times around his statue’s cane and write messages asking for miracles. The soundtrack is a repente, an improvised song about his life and sanctity, typical of the Northeast.

Most of Juazeiro’s economy is based on his cult. You can buy hundreds of products that carry his name, such as Pomada Padre Cícero, a cream that is supposed to cure from rheumatism to acne.

If Anastácia is a favorite of the  black community, and Cícero’s cult is stronger among nordestinos (Northeasterns), Antoninho da Rocha Marmo, who died of tuberculosis in 1930 at the age of 12, is biggest among São Paulo’s high society. Very religious, he was known for celebrating mini-masses at his home’s backyard and for his ability to forecast the future, his own death included.

How can we explain this predilection for unofficial saints? Maybe it is because there are so few Brazilian saints – Frei Galvão is the only one born in the country. Madre Paulina lived all her life in Santa Catarina, but was born in Italy. And the almost forgotten Saint Roque Gonzales, Saint Afonso Rodrigues and Saint Juan del Castillo, killed in the 17th century by Guarani natives that they were trying to convert, were also foreigners.

Maybe it is because most Brazilians cannot relate to  mainstream saints, mostly white and from a very distant pasts. Or maybe it is just a form of rebellion against established religion? What are your thoughts about it?

* This post was published simultaneously by the really, really cool The Good Blood blog.