Catholic Superstitions and Extreme Prayer Claims

animal, art, backlightSuperstitions exist in many cultures, but I don’t think enough has been said about the very superstitious and bizarre things people do in mainstream religions.

A Catholic relative told me recently about something she’s doing to try to sell her house faster, and it reminded me of the many weird things I used to do as a kid, and that I saw my parents doing.

She said, “I haven’t had any offers yet, but my friend told me when she was selling her house, it helped to take a pot of dirt and get a statue of St. Joseph. You put the statue in the pot upside down, and then you put dirt over it, and he helps you sell your house.”

I’m very proud of myself for not laughing at her in that moment. Apparently, this practice is so widespread that there are “kits” for it, sold at various Catholic websites. Here’s one I found at discountcatholicproducts.com

st joseph kit

There’s even a whole website dedicated to this St. Joseph statue nonsense: https://st-josephstatue.com

My parents’ house is full of similar Catholic paraphernalia, and you can find many of these things in the homes of other devout Catholics too.

Scapulars – most notably the brown Carmelite scapular – may promise special priveledges to those who wear them and devote themselves to certain prayers and practices. This one, in particular, is said by some Catholics to keep a person out of hell.

Image result for brown scapular

Brown scapular

 

Relics – these are some of my personal favorite freaky Catholic artifacts. There are 3 classes of relics. A third class relic is an article that the tomb of a saint has touched. A second class relic is usually an article the saint wore or used. I had a 2nd class one for Blessed Kateri, and it was a minuscule scrap of turquoise fabric, so small it was barely large enough to make out the color, encased in a shiny metal relic-holder. First class relics are usually a tiny bone fragment, supposedly from the saint him or herself.  Apparently, Catholicism does not promote or really allow the buying and selling of relics in most instances, however, it is permitted for a Catholic to buy one to “rescue” it and bring it back to Catholic use. This loophole, when you think about it, creates a market where non-Catholics sell to Catholics. As a result, “relics” may or may not actually come from the saint in question, and need to be vetted. This article on Forbes has more information on the sale of relics. Granted, this is from 2008, but a search online for relics today does list some eBay results, so they are definitely still being bought and sold.

 

Prayer cards and prayer candles are also common Catholic paraphernalia, and people like my parents tend to collect a lot of them over time, as they each pertain to a different saint. In Catholicism, different saints are patrons of different things. For instance, St. Lucy, usually depicted holding eyeballs on a plate, is the patron saint of the blind. So if a family member has vision trouble, prayers to St. Lucy for her intercession (in other words, for Lucy to go talk to God on your behalf) are a very normal behavior. You might bring a relic of St. Lucy to someone getting eye surgery if you should be lucky enough to have one, or you might light a St. Lucy prayer candle for them.

 

Image result for st lucy

St. Lucy

 

When you read into some of the saints’ stories, you kind of have to wonder how people can believe this stuff. Even the Wikipedia page for St. Lucy currently points out that there are several different versions of her story circulating.

 

Novenas are another type of prayer that sometimes come with extreme claims. When a family friend from church was out of work, my parents prayed a special novena (9-day prayer) that was supposed to help her magically find work. This is a common practice you can see recommended on Catholic forums, with people often completely attributing their success to the prayer.

Then there was a special prayer my family always said to St. Anthony while we looked for lost items. (St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost items and lost souls). I can’t write the prayer here because it’s in a lost Italian dialect that’s not a written language, but the only part of it I knew the English translation for was the beginning, where it calls to “St. Anthony, naked.” Not sure why naked is in there, (and who’s supposed to be naked, St. Anthony, or the person praying?) but my family and I would run around the house searching for our cell phone, or missing report card or baseball game tickets, reciting the prayer over and over. When we eventually found it, we’d yell, “Thank you St. Anthony!” As if our searching had nothing to do with it turning up.

Do you have any stories about weird superstitions or religious practices? Feel free to share them.

As always, all opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

 

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15 thoughts on “Catholic Superstitions and Extreme Prayer Claims

  1. I went to Catholic schools for 12 years. Most of what you write about was not emphasized at all, neither in my home or at church/school. I guess you learn something new every day.

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    • Thanks Kate! Yeah, the St. Joseph statue thing really threw me for a loop. The more I blog here the more I’ve discovered that Catholicism is practiced very differently by different people and in different ares than you’d expect from a religion that likes to brag about how unchanged it is.

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  2. I recently read about an ancient Roman belief that actually makes this stuff make more sense to me. The Romans believed in “numen,” a divine force. Of course the gods had lots of numen, but it also was concentrated in holy people, and in holy places, and sacred objects. And it was transmissible – you could acquire numen just by associating with a person or place or object that had a lot of it. And when ancient Rome went Catholic, it seems that they held onto this old idea. A shrine picked up numen from the relics in it, so you could get some just by touching the shrine. (There’s certainly nothing in the Bible or the practice of Judaism that corresponds to this.)

    A non-religious friend of mine was trying to sell her house, and somebody gave her one of those St. Joseph kits. It had instructions to bury the statue in the yard. I had never seen one before, and had quite a laugh at the silliness of such a superstition. I wonder how many new homeowners are mystified when they dig one of these things up in their new garden? (Or are they biodegradable?)

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    • The statues of St Joseph are not biodegradable. They’re cheap plastic, so they’ll be around until the world ends! Plenty of people dig them up in their gardens around here, and then rebury them because they’re “holy objects.” Such is life in a catholic community.

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    • Ubi, I did have a belief in relics as a catholic, and now that you mention it, there *isn’t* anything in scripture that supports it. How interesting that this belief could have come from ancient rome. Of course catholics have all sorts of magical beliefs that have nothing to do with scripture, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

      The the list of things I still “haven’t thought about” is 100 miles long, and I’ve been an atheist for three years already. I suspect I’ll never be able to extinguish all the superstition. Beliefs like burying statues is so automatic and ingrained in me I don’t pinpoint them as “weird” unless someone else points it out. Of course as an atheist I don’t do these things anymore, but I don’t even blink that other people do them, and I haven’t really reasoned my way out of them yet. This is good stuff to think about to get my brain ironed out!

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      • It’s very interesting to me the way Catholicism picks up traditions and just incorporates them. Like in Peru, where the Incas used to have processions where they carried their mummified kings on litters. They still do the processions, but now it’s catholic statues instead of dead kings.

        Or “crossing yourself”. Where did that come from? It’s not in the bible. It’s not Jewish tradition. Protestants mostly don’t do it. There was a schism in Russia over how you were supposed to hold your hand for it! I wonder if that tradition is originally borrowed from somebody else too.

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      • That’s a great question Ubi! I’m not sure myself. This is the Catholic explanation (this comes from the website for EWTN, or as my husband likes to call it, the Catholic channel: http://www.ewtn.com/Expert/answers/sign_of_the_cross.htm

        Wikipedia also attributes it as a development from the early church.

        A surprising amount of Catholicism comes from “church tradition.” which as a skeptic I have to admit could really be from anywhere since all we know is it’s too old for us to know for sure. Catholic tradition is supposed to have been passed down from the apostles, but let’s be honest: without supporting evidence, who really knows? Some priest in the 3rd century could have started a trend that caught on and then written it down.

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    • Wow, numen reminds me of my parents’ belief in demons. Like a bad version of it. I was told if you touched something a psychic had touched (like tarot cards or a ouija board) you could become posessed.

      Haha, I bet it’s happened with those statues. They’re usually ceramic so I assume there are a ton just buried in random yards.

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  3. O lordy! I am stunned. This is really a thing and it’s taken seriously? Golly.

    That said, way back when, in my Christian days, a girlfriend showed me a letter from her mother which mentioned the number three in relation to prayer. Apparently prayers are more affective if you pray on the hours that are divisible by three.

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    • Thanks for the comment Limey! What a weird idea. I never heard that before but I guess the bible does have a thing with 3’s and numbers divisible by it: (trinity, 12 apostles, Jesus supposedly breathed his last at 3:00, Peter denies Jesus 3 times.)

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  4. This post made me gasp. Apparently since my deconversion three years ago, I haven’t yet confronted and expunged my beliefs about these superstitious practices. I’m also aghast that you, Nancy, and two other commenters, don’t think these things were commonly practiced. Really, that me feel like I was falling through my chair and the world had gone all sideways. Perhaps it’s because I’m older (44), but these things were apart of my everyday life as a devout catholic…everyone I knew believed and did stuff like this. That there are catholics out there who do NOT ascribe to these practices is real news to me.

    My family was not “lucky” enough to own any relics, however, other families did have (*cough*) “vetted relics.” We were amazed by them certainly believed they had special powers.

    Myself and everyone I knew buried st. joseph statues in our yards when we sold our houses. You can buy them at all the stores around here.

    In my family, every single member prayed multiple novenas each day. Novenas are very time intensive (we spent many hours per day in prayer), but they had to be prayed for the “big things” you wanted from god…it was left to the individual to ascertain if what they wanted was “big enough” for a novena. So novenas were said for healings, for good grades, for a new bike, for family problems, for divine protection over those we loved, etc. If what we wanted didn’t happen, it was because there was something wrong with us personally; perhaps we had unconfessed sin, were making a technical error with our prayer, we didn’t want it enough, god had said “no,” etc. Unsurprisingly, it was the efficacy of prayer that made me lose my faith when I was 41. Once I realized my beliefs about prayer did not hold up under scrutiny, the whole house of cards came tumbling down and I became an atheist.

    Here’s the shocking part: neither I nor anyone I knew considered these practices “weird,” it was just a part of daily life. God was real and could work magic…this was fact that we believed. Of course as an atheist I now see it as ridiculous, but when I was a believer, these things were such a part of everyday life no one ever *considered* scrutinizing them.

    And that, my friends, is the danger of indoctrination. You accept beliefs and practices without question, you want these practices to have special protection from those who think differently, and you believe there is no harm that comes from them. Yet there is harm…giving up the power to think for yourself and believing in magical solutions (instead of practical ones) is harmful in almost every possible way. 😦

    Thank you Nancy for bringing this particular issue to my attention…somehow it slipped under the radar in the landslide of my deconversion.

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    • For me, I grew up as much without that sort of thing as you grew up with it. I was raised Presbyterian, and there was none of that. Repeating ritualistic prayers was not done, when you prayed you told god what you wanted. The lord’s prayer was said during Sunday services, but only once. There was no point repeating it over and over, he heard you the first time. Church spaces didn’t have any statuary or images, they were a distraction. And objects didn’t have power. I remember our assistant pastor throwing a bible on the floor to make that point. It was just a book made out of paper, it was the words that had the meaning. I even had a fundamentalist youth adviser (not sure how she wound up there) who was super paranoid about any kind of superstition, because that might lead to involvement with (gasp) the occult! Recently I visited our local Basilica of Our Lady of Conspicuous Consumption, and was just stunned by how much time and effort and money was sunk into statues and marble and mosaics and lighting candles and buying tchotchke’s at the gift shop. That stuff’s all very alien to someone from a mainline protestant background.

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      • Yeah, the catholics and the protestants think very, very differently about these things. After deconversion I had several protestants tell me the entirety of catholicism is a cult and our interpretation of the bible is demonic. This was the first time I had to confront the idea that many protestants won’t even acknowledge that catholics are christians…a thought which dumbfounded me, since in my mind catholics were the original christians. It all makes me laugh now!

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    • Thanks for your thoughts, Violet.

      Wow, my family prayed novenas every so often but it sounds like for your family it was pretty much constant. There’s so much convenient rationalizing when it comes to prayer. You’re asking God for something, but God has a plan and will decide what’s best for you, but if you pray hard enough you’ll get it, unless it’s not God’s plan. I never once encountered the attitude that something was wrong with us if we didn’t get what we prayed for, though I did occasionally see people think that they hadn’t prayed hard enough. Again though, even in the context of the religion it makes no sense. In the context of the religion, God does what God plans to do regardless of what we do, and we’re to accept whatever God decides because it’s best. But also we should pray all the time so that good things happen.

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