Since its earliest days, the Roman Catholic Church has walked hand in hand with pagan religions, often absorbing pagan beliefs and rituals into her doctrine and practice. Much of what the RCC today promotes as doctrine had its origins in the ancient Persian religion as modified and filtered through the Babylonian Mystery Religion. Other religions, notably the animist religions of Europe, also provided grist for the RCC doctrinal mill.
In the early days of the Roman Church, its version of Christianity was almost strictly an urban phenomenon, filtering into the countryside only incidentally to the country homes owned and enjoyed by wealthy city dwellers. With notable exceptions, the early Catholic prelates tended to be of the privileged class, as much determined to maintain their own comfort as to carrying the Gospel to the nations.
In other words, in the dawn of Roman Catholicism, the peasantry were more or less ignored and so continued to practice their pagan religions unmolested by the standard bearers of the new religion that was making itself felt in the Roman Empire. While some of the great bishops of the early church were making advances in spreading the Gospel in such places as Rome, Alexandria, Hippo, Antioch and elsewhere, soldiers on Rome's far-flung frontiers continued to worship Mithras. The peoples over whom they maintained Rome's administration continued worshipping rocks and trees and sacrificing to the powers of the air and the sea and the earth.
Eventually, after Constantine legitimized Christian worship by the Edict of Milan, and Theodosius forbade practice of the pagan religions, it became the "in" thing to do to go about tearing down temples and burning pagan altars while bringing in "converts" to the Christian faith. The Conversion process was an easy one, just rename the pagan temple and give the pagan deity a new name, preferably taken from the growing list of Catholic "saints" and martyrs. Voila! What had been a pagan community now was "converted" to Christianity. Following is a contemporary account of one such "conversion:"
Lemme see now. How did that work? The pagans used to gather at the lake to sacrifice, throw goods into the water and party for three days. Then, the bishop built a church and put some of Hilary of Poitier's body parts under the altar and told the peasants they should throw their goods into the church and instead venerate the body parts in the hope the ghost of the dead man would represent them before God. Which they did. Yeah, reckon that was what conversion is all about. Did anyone but me notice the Gospel was not mentioned in this account? Did anyone besides me notice the similarity between this "conversion" and the "name it and claim it" conversions of the Word of Faith preachers who today corrupt the Word? You reckon the blab it and grab it boys are taking lessons from Rome?
Let us now look at some of the practices and sacramentals the Roman church adopted from the pagan religions it supplanted.
It was a simple enough matter for rustic villagers to re-interpret the sacramentals to suit their still pagan – though renamed – religion. Mass often was viewed as a magic ritual and the sacramentals were used as talismans, though this practice supposedly was not approved by Rome. Candles were blessed in the church, then taken home to be used to protect the home and those who lived in it from evil. Waxed tapers served to protect newborn babies from harm.
These practices continue today, at least in the Latin America version of Catholicism. Here in the southwestern United States, even the more urbane malls and supermarkets provide a surprising amount of shelf space to votive candles – with those whose glass container is imprinted with a picture of a saint and some syrupy prayer occupying most of the display.
Blessed palm fronds were great for warding off evil. They could save crops from fire, storm and lightning. Every Palm Sunday, my wife and just about all our neighbors return from Mass clutching a bit of palm frond in their hands. Soon, these are twisted into the shape of a cross and displayed on the home altar, along with the votive candles, rosaries, pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, coins, a glass half-filled with water, etc. Powerful stuff. Good magic.
For really powerful protection, the "converts" would serve communion bread. This bread could make the user invisible and could be used to conjure against harm, to recover lost objects. The sacred host could even put out fires.
It was difficult for the laity to get their hands on some of these things, so they made recourse to the more immediately accessible sacramentals, like prayers and the sign of the cross. Which could be used to good effect and brought power and assistance to those who were in need of it.
Folks could also make their own holy objects to be used as talismans and healing amulets. One way was to hide something under the altar during Mass. In some arcane way, the objects would acquire magical or miraculous healing properties. Why, the magic of the altar was so powerful that just touching the altar cloth could effect a cure for epilepsy.
The ancient pagan religions long considered salt a powerful protection against demons and the evil they bring. According to folklore, it can keep a person safe from witches and their evil craft, break spells and block the evil eye.
Water has just about always been associated with all that is pure and holy. Add a little salt to the water and repeat an encantation--oops!-- I mean blessing over it and you have that wonderful magical material able to do almost anything: holy water.
Is it not clear that the Catholic church, in adapting itself to the pagan beliefs during the "evangelizing" process, retained many of the superstitions and pagan practices the new "converts" brought with them. Eventually, these pagan beliefs became legitimized in the rubric of Catholic doctrine.
Of course, there likely will be some who would argue that these doctrines and practices no longer are pagan, having been conformed to Roman Catholicism. I would submit that, quite to the contrary, Roman Catholicism has conformed to the pagan religions she so eagerly absorbed and called her own.
Others might say that the vestigial remnants of the pagan ways are harmless, in that they do not impact on a person's core faith. They are, one might say, amusing little anachronisms without meaning. Besides, another might posit, the Church does not support such practices at all these days.
A well-known Catholic media personality, Rita Rizzo, told an audience of some 32 million American Catholics how to sell their homes in a Catholic manner. Here's the trick: First, one must acquire a small statue of St. Joseph, which is to be placed inside a mason jar or bottle. After being sealed, the jar is buried, with Joseph's head down, in the front yard of the home to be sold. This will guarantee a quick sale. Once the house has been sold, the seller must exhume St. Joseph and ensconce him in some prominent location in the new residence. Of course, the seller must then pray to the statue – erh, to the ghost the statue represents.
Witchcraft? Voodoo? I would certainly call it that. But Rita Rizzo offered this as a serious suggestion. Who is Rita Rizzo? You may know her better by her working name, Mother Angelica. This bit of homespun Catholicism was aired in October of 1995 on her Eternal Word Television Network.
Catholicism is dynamic, changing with the times and the perceived needs of the moment. The Word of God is constant and varies not with changing social needs. And what does the Word have to say about some of these Roman innovations? Before they entered the Promised Land, the Lord warned the Hebrew peoples to not fall into the evil ways of the people they would be displacing. Just as Israel was unable to adhere to God's command, so also has been the case with the Romish church, which absorbed the pagan systems into her own practice and called it evangelization:
Paul warned the people in Thessalonica to "Abstain from all appearance of evil." (1 Thessalonians 5:22)
Would it not be wise for us to do the same?
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