Anomalies From the Rooftop

Theology from Anomalies. One story a day from the world of Christianity that is just a little off-beat. Sometimes, in shouting the good news from the rooftop, Christians do some strange things.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Virgin of Charity

The Washington Post today ran a fascinating article about a small wooden statue that washed up on the shores of Cuba 400 years ago with the label, "I am the Virgin of Charity." What is so interesting is that many people believe in the Virgin, but claim they are not Catholic:
...many of her most fervent devotees say they follow the Virgin, but not the faith, and some use her shrine as a place to make anti-government statements."I am not Catholic. I just believe in the Virgin," Marleny Faria, 50, a seamstress from the city of Santiago de Cuba, said as she visited the statue's shrine.

It is unclear from the article whether such people would claim to be Christian, but not Catholic or whether their spirituality revolves entirely around the Virgin, specifically around the statue itself.

The Roman church has always been relatively willing to take culturally symbolic elements of popular piety and adapt them to the Catholic system--witness the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. But it seems that there is a difference between popular piety focused on the Virgin and popular piety turned against Christ. In this case, the Roman Catholic Church has more on their hands than they have successfully been able to appropriate to the faith.

On the one hand, it's tempting to argue that since the spirituality surrounding the Virgin of Charity is attached to, or derivative of, elements of the Christian narrative, such spirituality is better than nothing from a Catholic point of view. But still, with IV bags and Economics disserations strewn at her feet, and people inside the church announcing themselves as having rejected the Church, perhaps the Virgin of Charity has become an seductive idol more than a holy image of Christ's mother.

I think that what is really going on here is that the statue addresses the earthly needs of her followers. In some ways, it is like the health and wealth gospels preached by televangelists. From an orthodox theological standpoint, it's easy to decry such a message. But the need is very real. Preaching (and statues) that address this need have a power that mainline churches, at least in the US, have failed to address. Maybe what's really going on in Cuba is that the mainline church there has failed to address these needs as effectively as the wooden statue. I don't think statues in church or such a bad idea, but if people abandon the church and keep the statue--something has gone wrong.


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