BYLINE: Beverley Roos Muller
Ancestors are part and parcel of every tradition in the world. There is no culture which does not have a special place for them, including the ancient impulse to leave our offerings and names, and the names of our ancestors, inscribed at sacred places such as shrines, cemeteries and monuments to the "glorious dead".
Academic writer Simon Coleman suggests that saints and holy ancestors anchor a sense of tradition by facilitating "communities of memory", and have traditionally served as God's mediators, signs of the divine presence even at the level of the trivial, local and everyday.
It is therefore puzzling and not without some irony that the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference last month warned priests not to adopt the traditional African practice of calling on ancestors for healing. The bishops' pastoral letter told them that "the belief that ancestors are endowed with supernatural powers borders on idolatry" (Cape Times, August 16).
This, from a church which has a two-millenia tradition of venerating saints? A church whose current Pope has vowed to fast-track the elevation to sainthood of his predecessor? When Pope John Paul 2 died in 2005, more than one million pilgrims from his homeland of Poland attended his funeral. To those pilgrims, he was an intimate and "universal ancestor"; their call for immediate canonisation reflected their personal loss, for to be a saint is to be a communal ancestor, accessible and capable of personal intercession.
As it is a commonly held belief that "ancestor worship", as it is often and inaccurately called, is somehow part of Africa's waywardness, it would be useful to remind ourselves that this is by no means solely the custom of African and other developing countries. The spirits of the ancestors were propitiated in Roman (and Greek) times and the belief that they were easy to contact was a lesson carried over into Christianised Europe, in the figures of saints.
The habit of venerating heroes and other "universal ancestors" is part of our collective culture. The annual ceremony at the Cenotaph in London on November 11, attended by the queen and political and religious leaders to commemorate the end of World War 1 and all those who have fallen in battle, is conducted in a spirit of reverence, and rightly so. (After WW1, a call for such a respectful silence on every November 11 was made independently by both Sir Percy Fitzpatrick of South Africa, and an Australian journalist, Edward G Honey. The first Armistice Day was held in 1919; in South Africa it includes the liberation struggle.)
Visiting the memorial of Hector Pietersen, the cell in which Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island, or the ancestral heritage of Mapungubwe not only honours our past but creates links between us, in a personal and reflective way, and those who are "greater than us", or who are no longer with us but who remain part of us.
All heroes and saints become, to use a catchphrase, "gods of the locality", human beings who were once just like us, full of frailty and hope, who know what it is like to struggle, but who managed to rise above it and contribute something special, often as a sacrifice, for their fellow beings. The critical part of the relationship is that they care about us. That is why there seems nothing strange in visiting them, or their shrines, to ask for help.
Many travelled to meet Gandhi while he was alive, and, since his death, to the places he frequented in what Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as "Gandhiolatry". He points out that, ironically, Gandhi, a Hindu, was considered by many in the West to be more "Christ-like" than other Christians: "Gandhi lifts the Cross", proclaimed a press headline in The Christian Century of 1933. He was acclaimed by many, of all denominations, to be a universal saint.
Though Christ is not seen, theologically, as an "ancestor" by Christian scholars, it does not mean that all of the reverent (Catholic) flock share this view. …