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Religion in Guatemala: Mayan Spirituality, Catholicism, and Christianity

A wooden cross and figurines of saints in orange robes propped against a wall.
Saints displayed in Santiago de Atitlan’s Catholic church. Photo © Valery Shanin/123rf.

Religion in Guatemala is fairly complex, with traditional Mayan spirituality still very much a presence, particularly in the highlands, along with Catholicism and the more recent incursions of Evangelical Christianity. In much smaller numbers, Guatemala’s Jewish population is centered in Guatemala City. There is also a small Muslim population with at least one mosque in Guatemala City.

Mayan Spirituality

Mayan spirituality has its origins in pre-Columbian religious practices and a cosmology that venerated natural phenomena, including rivers, mountains, and caves. The soaring temples built by the Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilizations were built to mimic mountains and were usually built in alignment with the cardinal directions. The solstices were very important in this regard and many of their temple pyramids and observatories were built in precise fashion so as to mark these events. Caves were also sacred to the Mayans and believed to be passages to the underworld, a belief that persists to this day. Archaeologists speculate that at least one powerful economic center, Cancuén, lacked buildings of strictly religious significance because of its proximity to the massive Candelaria cave network nearby.

The Mayan calendar is still in use in parts of Guatemala today, particularly in the Western Highlands, and is pegged closely to the agricultural cycle. Maize is a sacred crop and is believed to have been the basis for the modern formation of man by the gods, as told in the K’iche’ book of myths and legends, the Popol Vuh, discovered by a Spanish priest in Chichicastenango in the 18th century. Although the vast majority of the Mayans’ sacred writings were burned by Bishop Diego de Landa in a 16th-century Yucatán bonfire, three Mayan texts, known as codices, survive in European museums. The Chilam Balam is another sacred book based on partially salvaged Yucatecan documents from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Modern-day Mayan religious practices, also known as costumbre, often take place in caves, archaeological sites, and volcanic summits. They often include offerings of candles, flowers, and liquor with the sacrifice of a chicken or other small animal thrown in for good measure.

Another curiosity of the Western Highlands is the veneration of a folk saint known alternatively as Maximón or San Simón, with a particularly persistent following in Santiago Atitlán and Zunil. The cigar-smoking, liquor-drinking idol is a thorn in the side of many Catholic and Evangelical groups, whose followers sometimes profess conversion to Christianity but often still hold allegiance to Maximón, who is thought to represent Judas or Pedro de Alvarado. Syncretism, combining Mayan religious beliefs and Catholicism, is a major player in highland Mayan spirituality.

The cult following of folk saints is also tied to the presence of cofradías, a form of Mayan community leadership with roots in Catholic lay brotherhoods wielding religious and political influences. The cofradías are responsible for organizing religious festivities in relation to particular folk saints and a different member of the cofradía harbors the Maximón idol in his home every year.

The Catholic Church

Catholicism has played an important role in Guatemala ever since colonial times, though the state increasingly took measures to limit its power starting in the late 19th century, when liberal reformers confiscated church property and secularized education. More recently, the Church wrestled with its official mandate of saving souls and its moral obligation to alleviate the misery and injustice experienced by many of its subjects, particularly the Mayans. Many parish priests, faced with the atrocities and injustices of the civil war, adopted the tenets of Liberation Theology, seeking a more just life in the here and now and officially opposing the military’s scorched-earth campaign throughout the highlands. Many clergy paid for their beliefs with their lives or were forced into exile. Even after the civil war ended, Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered in the days after his issuance of a scathing report on civil war atrocities perpetrated mostly by the military. The Church remains a watchdog and defender of the poor, which is evident in the ongoing work of the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office.

Although there are many churches throughout the country, the Catholic Church often has trouble finding priests to fill them, a factor that has contributed to the explosive growth of Evangelical Christianity. Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala three times during his term at the helm of the Vatican; the last visit was for the purpose of canonizing Antigua’s beloved Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur.

Catholicism can still draw a big crowd, though, most noticeably during Holy Week, with its elaborate processions reenacting Christ’s crucifixion, and the annual pilgrimage to Esquipulas on January 16 to pay homage to the Black Christ in the town’s basilica.

Evangelical Christianity

According to some estimates, a third of Guatemala now claims adherence to Protestantism and, more specif ically, Evangelical Christianity. The growth of this sect will become obvious as you travel around the country and hear the sounds of loud evening worship services, known as cultos, emanating from numerous churches, particularly in the highlands. The trend toward Evangelical Christianity dates to the aftermath of the 1975 earthquake, which destroyed several villages throughout the highlands. International aid agencies, several of them overtly Christian, rushed in to Guatemala at a time of great need and gained many grateful converts in the process. During the worst of the civil war violence of the 1980s, many Guatemalans sought comfort in the belief of a better life despite the hardships of the present. Other factors making Evangelical Christianity attractive to Guatemalans include the tendency toward vibrant expressions of faith, spontaneity, and the lack of a hierarchy, which makes spiritual leaders more accessible to common people.

A notorious legacy of Guatemala’s trend toward Protestantism was the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, a prominent member of Guatemala City’s Iglesia El Verbo (Church of the Word), who sermonized Guatemalans on subjects including morality, Christian virtues, and the evils of communism via weekly TV broadcasts. Meanwhile, a scorched-earth campaign aimed at exterminating the guerrilla presence raged in the highlands, though violence in the cities was widely curtailed and order somewhat restored. He faces charges of genocide in a Spanish court, though it’s doubtful he will ever be brought to justice. Also disturbing was the brief presidency of Jorge Serrano Elías, another self-proclaimed Evangelical now exiled in Panama after he dissolved congress in a failed autocoup, which ended in his ouster a few days later. His government faced widespread corruption charges.

On a more promising note, it is a well-documented fact that some Guatemalan villages have converted to Evangelical Christianity almost in their entirety with astounding results. The town of Almolonga, near Quetzaltenango, is a particular case in point. Alcoholism, which once ran rampant (as in other parts of the highlands), is now virtually unheard of and the city jail has been closed for years. It is hailed as a “miracle city” by Evangelical leaders, who like to point out that it was once a hotbed of cult worship for the folk idol Maximón. The town exports its fantastic fruits and vegetables to El Salvador, including carrots the size of a human arm, making it very prosperous.

Evangelicals these days, while still adhering to the belief in a better afterlife, are also very much focused on making things better in the here and now. There is a growing movement toward producing a generation of morally grounded political leaders with a vision to develop the country along inclusive lines that address Guatemala’s substantial needs and challenges, though it remains to be seen if they can overcome the unfortunate legacy handed to them by the substandard Christian leadership experienced by Guatemalans thus far.

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