Pope Benedict XVI is touring Benin in West Africa. While in Europe Catholics are leaving the church in record numbers, West Africa's Catholic population is thriving and Benin boasts the world's fasted growing Catholic population. Indeed, the next Pope may be African as high ranking bishops and monsignors from this region move into important leadership positions in the Catholic Church.
However, Benin also recognizes Voudoo as its official religion and high ranking Voodoo priests were invited to meet the Pope on his current visit. While 22% of the people in Benin identify themselves as Muslims and 27% as Christians, 40% follow Voodoo. In Benin as well as in Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, people have no problem syncretizing Voodoo with Islam or Christianity, especially during times of stress. Voodoo is however, more than a religion. It comprises culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music and medicine. Ordinary people ask Voodoo priests to intervene for them with the gods. These divinities are specialized, similar to Catholic saints, who intervene for people in times of need. For example, there are over 5,000 saints and some examples include: Saint Christopher, patron of travel; Saint Francis of Assisi, patron of animals; and Marie Bernadette, patron of the sick. In Voodoo, Gou is associated with war and blacksmiths, Sakpata with illness, healing and earth, Heviosso with storms, lightning and justice and Mama Wata-with water. Locals in Africa insist their religion has nothing to do with sorcery or black magic.
West Africans brought Voodoo to Haiti where it continues to blend alongside French colonial Catholicism. Some of the 100 Voodoo gods and goddesses have mirrors in particular saints who, while similar, are not exactly the same in their myths and abilities. For example, Mary is Ezili the Voodoo love spirit, Saint Patrick is Danbala the serpent spirit, the peasant farmer Azaka is Saint Isidore and Saint James is the warrior Ogou. On the altars in priestesses' homes one can see images of these Catholic saints side-by-side with candles, powders, herbs, oils, roots, perfume and a variety of liquors, all important elements of Voodoo ceremonies.
And in New York, you can also find a Voodoo priestess in Brooklyn - Mama Lola. For an in depth look at this contemporary Voodoo healer, read Karen McCarthy Brown's fascinating ethnography of Mama Lola.
As a Catholic by birth but not by practice, I find it interesting that the fastest growing populations of new Catholics reside in Africa, emerging from peoples whose own Voodoo beliefs involve the literal sacrifice of animals, theatrical ceremonies filled with pageantry, the consumption of alcohol and the worship of supreme beings. While I found the guilt and patriarchy of my own childhood Catholicism overbearing and frightful, I may be willing to sit with Mama Lola in her home and see if her approach to the gods feels more welcoming.
|Africa has the Roman Catholic church's fastest growing congregation.|