Surrounded by animal skulls, sacrificial knives and paintings of African saints, Juan Gonzáles makes an unlikely papist.
The 60-year-old spiritual healer and practitioner of muerterismo — one of the island’s many Afro-Cuban religions — said he’s eager to catch a glimpse of the pontiff when he comes to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Charity, the country’s patron saint.
“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” he said of Francis’ visit on Monday and Tuesday. “That’s how powerful it is.”
In Gonzáles’ worldview the yellow-clad 16-inch virgin that sits in the shrine just a few blocks from his home is inextricably linked with the Yoruba goddess Oshun.
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In that sense, the pope’s homage does double duty — paying tribute to the Catholic icon and the African deity.
Religious syncretism is common throughout the Caribbean and Latin America — where the combination of Catholic colonization and African slavery gave birth to rich religious traditions of intermingled images.
In many ways, it was a cultural-preservation mechanism, said Raúl Ruiz, a sociologist at the Universidad del Oriente and a researcher at the Casa del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba.
It allowed slaves to go through the motions of Christian conversion “but when they were behind closed doors they could celebrate their own African traditions,” he said.
While strict Catholics might consider the practice tantamount to sacrilege, for the followers of the Cuban traditions, including muerteros, santeros and paleros, there’s little dissonance.
“It’s not uncommon for people who consider themselves Catholic to also practice santería and spiritualism,” Ruíz said. “This is a country where continents have converged and you see that in the religious symbols more than anywhere.”
Images of Our Lady of Charity, also known as Our Lady of El Cobre, are ubiquitous here. And it’s no coincidence that the two previous pontiffs — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — also paid homage to the icon. Benedict even visited the shrine. Francis plans to visit the shrine twice: Monday night for a meeting with bishops and for a Mass on Tuesday morning.
“If you come to Cuba and you don’t go see the virgin, you haven’t done anything,” Ruíz said.
Jose Millet, an ethno-historian who has studied Afro-Cuban religions, said there’s no historical evidence to link Our Lady of Charity to Oshun. The goddess, in her original manifestation, was more akin to a life-force or energy than an anthropomorphic figure, he said. But the connection has been made so often in literature and in the popular imagination that it’s an idea that is often repeated.
“These are religions that are so open to contact,” he said of Cuba’s beliefs. “They have almost an infinite capacity to accept and adopt outside ideas.”
“Acceptance” might be a good way to describe Gonzáles’ cosmological view. His house is both home and shrine: the walls are painted in an eclectic mix of jungle scenes and religious symbols, his office is crammed with Catholic icons, pictures of Che Guevara, and animal bones.
It’s there that he channels the dead and uses his clairvoyance to help heal supplicants and interpret dreams.
Like a village doctor, Gonzáles is well known and respected in El Cobre. He said he first began having visions when he was 13 and they only got more powerful when his parents died when he was in his 20s. But island life was harsher then. He wasn’t allowed to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and profess his religious beliefs. He tried giving up the practice but it was too painful, he said.
“I had to hold onto my religion and give up the party,” he said. “But in my heart I was still a militant member of the party.”
Starting in the early 1990s the government became more open to religion, and Gonzáles got to embrace his inner diversity.
“I believe in the church, I believe in the virgin, I believe in the pope and the priests and the saints,” Gonzáles said. “I believe in everything.”