What the Catholic Church did do for Pagans

052310 029 Stained Glass Window in Northeast Minneapolis
stained glass windows in Northeast Minneapolis

Please forgive the late posting of this – Solstice season got away from me this year.

During Solstice season it’s often brought up among us Pagans how the Christian celebration is actually borrowed from ancient Pagan tradition. The tree and Santa – those are obviously Pagan. The Solstice timing? Another co-option. Most of this in the Pagan community is written with a sound of “Ha!” behind it.

A few days ago one of the members of my poetry meetup asked me exactly what I celebrate at Yule. Rather than get complicated – my interpretation of the Sabbat cycle is a step off from the common one and I knew she didn’t want to dig that deep – I told her we celebrate a virgin mother giving birth to a son, and we celebrate the sun being seduced back to the earth.  ((In my own practice, I see the Goddess discovering her pregnancy at this time and giving birth at Imbolc. It just makes more sense to me.))  I added the anecdote that the early Christian church co-opted our gods as their saints as a means of getting more Pagans in the door.

“Meanies!” interjected another companion. He is a devout, liberal Catholic. I don’t know how much exposure he’s had to Pagans that aren’t me.

“Not at all,” I said. “It actually doesn’t upset me.” It really doesn’t. It got me thinking in more detail about the saints – especially since I pray to a few:

Saint Anthony, for my childhood lost; Saint Michael for protection from those who would harm or exploit me; Saint Expedite (who is Hermes in his delivery uniform) and Saint Joan of Arc for the betterment of the condition of women throughout the world. There is no chafing between my prayers to them and my offerings to my patron and Holy Father, Eros. ((I know seeing Eros as a father figure is unusual but it kind of worked out that way.)) The Virgin Mary looks a lot like Psyche to me, or like any girl unfortunate enough to get knocked up by Zeus. ((You up there. No means no – and unconscious also means no.))

While there was some definite political intent behind the co-option of the gods and their conversion into saints, there is also a benevolent aspect to the practice: it granted safety to devout Pagans unwilling to abandon their gods and through the saints it preserved these traditions. While the conversion-to-saints thing is generally painted as an act of Christian manipulation and oppression there is another point of view: the conversion of gods to saint is also an act of Christian mercy.

It’s never been 100% clear to me what happened to the Pagan priests of Ancient Rome and Greece. Certainly many were murdered under the rule of Constantine. But Christianity, just like Paganism, has a long history of people of conscience finding a way around their rulers-gone-mad. To me it would make a devious sense to give some of those old Pagan priesthoods the vestments of monks and nuns and to bring their gods into a church, allowing these people who had done no wrong a way to hide in plain sight from those who had become so power mad that the memory of this particular Christ became twisted into weaponry.

Yes, it’s undeniable that the adoption of saints began as a means of getting butts in the pews. But it also seems possible that it might have also been a way of preserving the lives and priesthoods of those who had known no other life and who only committed a sin according to standards not their own.