“I believe that we are all walking towards the divine along parallel paths, and that one day our paths will converge, and we will walk the final distance together.”— Mae Stella of Oxossi, priestess/ medium of a Candomble terreiro in Salvador, State of Bahia, Brazil.
In 1999, I was privileged to be at a history making meeting of the Black Priests, Bishops and Deacons of Brazil in Salvador. The meeting is an annual event, but what made this one so special was the presence for the first time of Mae Stella, the most prestigious figure of Candomble in Salvador.
Candomble is a widely-followed Afro-Brazilian religion, the origins of which are found in the “religion of the orixas” located in the tribal Yoruba regions of Nigeria and Benin today. The orixas are Yoruba spirits brought across the Atlantic ocean in the fetid holds of the slave ships during the 350 years in which Brazil received 40% of the Atlantic slave traffic. Each of the orixas (spirits created by the all supreme deity Olorum) has divine attributes associated with ecological and cosmological forces, and all human beings have a guardian orixa, whose presence is often gauged from the personality of the individual person. The faith experience of millions was confi ned to secret celebrations under the cover of night until three Nigerian women founded the fi rst offi cial terreiro (sacred space where the spirits – the orixas – could be honored and invoked) in Salvador in the 1880s. Throughout decades of repression — Candomble was only legitimized by the government in 1976 — faith in the Yoruba orixas was channeled into the figures of Catholic saints so as to preserve it. Hence, Xango, Yemanja, Iansa, Oxossi, Oxum and Ogum, to name but a few, all have their equivalents among Catholic saints (St. George, the Immaculate Conception, St. Barbara, St. Sebastian, Our Lady of the Candles, St. Anthony, etc.) and elements in nature— lightning and thunder, sea, tempests, the forest, fresh water, iron and steel.
The government repression of Candomble and other forms of it, which today we refer to as Afro-Brazilian religions, was, of course, sanctioned and promoted by the Church (the government being nominally Catholic). Many of today’s “purist” Brazilian Catholics still have trouble seeing these religious expressions as anything other than sects, or, worse still, devil worship. Yet a great majority of Brazilian Catholics would have some belief in, if not fear of, Candomble practices. We refer to it as dulpa percena or double belonging. Due to the abominable history of African slavery, an evergrowing number of priests, bishops, nuns and lay Catholics today would understand and be tolerant of this phenomenon and see it as a necessary part of our interreligious dialogue. Fortunately, the CELAM conferences (the various bishops’ conferences of Latin America and the Carribean) have finally come to specifically deal with the cultural and religious experiences of peoples in the Americas of African and indigenous descent, both of whose traditions were formerly seen as little more than superstition.
Given this background, it was so moving to see Mae Stella seated on the same level between the Cardinal Archbishop of Salvador, Dom Geraldo Majella Agnelo, and his auxiliary bishop, Dom Gilio Felicio. Dom Gilio, the first black bishop appointed to Salvador (his arrival at the airport in 1998 from the south of Brazil was greeted like a mini-version of Nelson Mandela’s arrival in 1991), was the person responsible for this historic meeting. During his all-too-brief five years in Salvador, Bishop Gilio made strong inroads towards dialogue with Candomble, visiting all the major Candomble terreiros and meeting with the ialorixas (female priest/mediums) and the babalorixas (male priest/ mediums). Personnel from Mae Stella’s terreiro, Ile Opo Afonja, told us afterwards, of her (and their) unease at participating for the first time in such an official Catholic Church meeting. They would be wary of the Catholic Church’s possible use of the term interreligious dialogue as a tactical weapon to win over and control Afro-Brazilian religions.
The meeting was groundbreaking, but, unfortunately, failed to see any official follow-through on the part of the Church. An attempt was made to form an archdiocesan commission for Interreligious Dialogue with Candomble in Salvador (myself and Marcelo Batista, one of the married deacons from our parish, were invited to be part of this commission), but it lacked real direction from the appointed coordinator and finally floundered. Once again, it was left to us, the foot-sloggers to take it further! Fortunately, for those of us in the Brazilian Black Priests, Bishops and Deacons’ Conference, inroads have been made due to the strong participation of the black Jesuit, Fr. Clovis Cabral, whose mother Mae America, was a recognized Mae de Santo (mother of the saint, the Portuguese title given to Candomble ialorixas, who regularly receive a particular orixa). All of Clovis’ brothers and sisters (with the sole exception of himself) have been initiated into Candomble. I am a close friend of their family, since Antonio Cabral, one of Clovis’ brothers, was the administrator of our Cena Um theatre project.
A year after their mother’s death, I was invited to participate in a closed ritual of the commemoration. It was a great honor, and started to get really interesting, but, unfortunately, most Candomble rituals, especially the closed ones, take place very late at night and continue until the early hours of the morning. Since the next morning was Sunday, and I had a couple of early Masses in parish communities, I had to excuse myself in the middle of the celebration. Since I am a good friend of Antonio, I can only hope my leaving was not considered insulting by the presiding babalorixa, his brother, Balbino. Other more regular Candomble fiestas that are open to the public do not occur on a weekly basis like Christian liturgies but are celebrated during a cycle of dates that are considered important to the various orixas/spirits. And therein lies the problem! If we are really serious about dialogue, how can we liberate people for it, or are we talking about what we can do in our spare time?