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Why are Catholics celebrating the Day of the Dead?

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An ancient practice called 'inculturation' was also used by the Apostles.

Catholic churches and parishoners, especially in Latin America, are celebrating the Day of the Dead. For some, this is a frightening tradition that looks like paganism. Many are asking why Catholics are involved with the holiday at all. Because we get a lot of questions about this, we wanted to take a moment to explain what is going on. 

Day of the Dead is celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

Day of the Dead is celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

Highlights

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
11/2/2022 (1 year ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Day of the Dead, Catholic, inculturation, celebration, pagan, okay

LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - The Day of the Dead is a distinctly Catholic tradition in Latin America. 

The Church has a rich history of meeting people where they are. Local cultural traditions are constantly adapted to Christian practice. This does not make these practices pagan. On the contrary, it converts these traditions to Christian. The church calls this practice, "inculturation."

The early apostles and bishops of the Church frequently converted local holidays and other customs to Christian practice, turning them into powerful tools for evangelization. They allowed people to better understand the Gospel. This is seen in Acts of the Apostles when St. Paul addressed a group of Greeks in Athens:

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:

"You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.

For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.

(Acts of the Apostles, 17:22-23)

St. Paul is explaining to the Athenians that through their pagan practices, they have some knowledge of God already, but have no understanding. It's a powerful and effective means of evangelization, and is much better received than telling a host of people, "Look how wrong you are, now let me preach to you something different."

One great example is Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose artistic symbolism on Juan Diego's tilma made sense only to the Indigenous people who were subsequently converted by her apparition. Our Lady appeared to the Indigenous people in a way they would understand. Her icon is rich in Indigenous imagery.  

There is a long list of Christian traditions which are so mainstream, few realize they have the similar origins. The halo is one example. All Christians use the halo as an artistic convention to indicate sainthood or an angelic nature. However, this tradition comes from the ancient practice of indicating divinity by "crowning" the figure with the sun. This was done in ancient times because people would not otherwise know the image they saw depicted a divine character. 

And so it is with many other Christian practices, kneeling/genuflecting, the Sign of the Cross, and other Sacramentals, along with many Christian holidays including Halloween, and Christmas. These origins are also why some Christians and atheists, who lack understanding, refuse to celebrate these holidays or use them to wrongly accuse the Church of embracing paganism. Again, they just lack understanding. 

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Few people today accuse Christmas as being a pagan holiday. That's because the date of December 25 was a known Roman holiday (Sol Invictus), but today we celebrate the birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Halloween is from All Hallow's Eve, and is not only Christian, but distinctly Catholic in that until the last century it was almost exclusively observed as a religious holiday by Catholics. It has recently been secularized, but again, it is an opportunity for us to evangelize. Deacon Keith Fournier has some excellent advice on this topic. He speaks of transforming culture from within, "as leaven in a loaf."

Day of the Dead is similar. However, it is Christian. Many Catholic Churches in Latin America host celebrations on that day. 

Catholic Online School has an excellent course on Purgatory which includes discussion of Halloween, All Saints', All Souls', and Day of the Dead. You may enjoy the course and it may provide you with a fresh perspective this holiday and others. 

Take heart! The Church is not giving way to paganism. On the contrary, it is converting cultures by speaking to people in ways they better understand. 

Catholic Online School's courses of All Saints', All Souls', and Day of the Dead can be found here.

Catholic Online School's Purgatory Course (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!)

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