Major religions of Guatemala

Religion in Guatemala: Mayan Spirituality, Catholicism, and Christianity
October 25, 2023 – 08:45 am
A wooden cross and figurines

A wooden cross and figurines of saints in orange robes propped against a wall.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

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.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.

Mam Northern Language / Version: 1993 Bible Society of Guatemala / It is spoken by the Mam people of the highlands of western Guatemala. There are at least three major divisions in the language: Northern Mam spoken in the department of Huehuetenango
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