Irene and her teenage daughters, Margaret and Madeleine, are devoted members of their parish. Both girls are active in Girl Scouts, where they became drawn to Jess, a member who spoke openly of having left the Church for the practice of pagan witchcraft or “the Craft,” also known as Wicca.
“I told both girls to keep their distance,” Irene told me. She could not believe her children had to deal with witches in their Girl Scout troop. Jess, however,is part of a rapidly growing trend: She is one of thousands of Americans who practice Wicca today.
Most Wiccans believe in communication with the spirit world through the practice of magic, clairvoyance, rites, rituals, and spells. A spell is a word, formula, or incantation thought to have some magical power, and usually is performed in an altered state of consciousness in order to bring about a desired change. There are spells to overcome loneliness, to attract money, to bring inner power, and so on. In one common ritual called “drawing down the moon,” the coven — a group of witches — sits in a circle as a Wiccan priestess enters an altered state, relaying messages and wisdom that Wiccans believe come from the Goddess.
Most scholars agree that modern Wicca originated in England in the 1950s with a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner. He coined the term “Wicca,” and claimed it was the ancient pagan religion of the British Isles that he had simply revived. In truth, Wicca is not an ancient practice. Gardner simply picked and chose elements of older pagan practices and combined them. Wicca has no central doctrine and can be shaped according to the will of each practitioner. This lack of moral restraint appeals greatly to young people.
Wicca has grown in popularity during recent years. In 1990, the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by the City University of New York, reported 8,000 Wiccans in America. By 2001, that number had swelled to 134,000. Covenant of the Goddess, America’s largest pagan group, reports that there are almost 800,000 people who practice Wicca or some other form of modern pagan spirituality. More than two-thirds of those practitioners are women.
Why has Wicca crept into the mainstream? Why are young Catholics leaving the Church to practice it? What is driving the hunger behind the rise of modern witchcraft and pagan spirituality?
We are created for the holy and the mysteries of God, and those that seek Wicca are looking to fill that longing with the supernatural element of witchcraft.Young people told me they want a religion that is “real” — something they can experience or feel.They are looking for beauty and creativity in their spiritual practices; they were tired of “sitting in pews.”
Laura, a junior at a California high school, told me that it was the draw of the supernatural that got her interested in Wicca. She and her friends had watched “The Craft,” a 1996 thriller in which four high-school students form a coven and receive special powers. The ability to tap into real spiritual forces seemed empowering.
Because Wiccan rituals often take place outdoors, within a community of friends, and are closely linked to the change of seasons or changes in a person’s life, participants feel Wicca is authentic, or something beautiful that they can experience in every part of their lives. Sadly, many young people don’t think the Gospel is real, or that Christian practices are filled with beauty. This provides a challenge to Christian parents and youth leaders to present the Gospel and the Church’s rich liturgical traditions in new and accessible ways.
Women’s particular interest in Wicca goes back to the early days of the women’s movement, when Wicca gave some feminists spiritual sustenance for their political movement. To some feminists, the Church was an “oppressive patriarchy” to which Wicca, with its deification of the Earth and female-oriented rituals, provided a nurturing alternative. Today’s young women are still drawn to Wicca due to its focus on the Goddess, the place of honor it grants women, and its female centered rituals.
Many young people who care about environmental issues feel an affinity with Wicca. Raised in a Christian home, Margaret Ann had a deep love for animals and the environment, but rarely heard the message in church that it is part of Christian stewardship to care for God’s creatures and nature. In college, she heard about Wicca and felt like her heart had arrived at home. Instead of reaching out to her in love, however, her family ostracized her, and her Christian friends refused to speak to her. “Imagine losing all your friends at once,” Margaret Ann told me with tears in her eyes. Confused and saddened, she found kinship with her Wiccan friends.
When Irene’s sister called me for advice about how her daughters should interact with Jess, I was reminded of Margaret Ann’s story. Margaret Ann’s friends and family likely thought they were being good Christians by distancing themselves from her. But this can further alienate young people from the Gospel message. Knowing that, by prayer, we can ask God for protection, we can boldly reach out to others with Wiccan beliefs in love, just as St. Paul did to the pagans in Athens in the Book of Acts. Here are some suggestions for handling the question of Wicca with your teen:
Engage in discussion.
Our young people may come across Wicca online, at school, or through popular culture, so if your teen shows interest in Wicca, engage in discussion. Watch the films and programs with them and ask what they find attractive about witchcraft.
Do some homework.
Learn what you are talking about before broaching the subject so you have some credibility with your child: Don’t assume you know what Wicca is all about. It is important for parents to be able to give an articulate response about what they believe and why they believe it provides meaning.
Make sure that you research tenets of Wicca and doctrines of Christianity with your child. If a young person is interested in Wicca, build on that intellectual curiosity and challenge him or her to think equally hard about Christian doctrine and what it means.
Find links to Church groups for your teen.
If your teen’s attraction to Wicca comes as a result of a concern for the environment and social justice, talk to him or her about the Church’s rich history of advocacy for the poor and less fortunate. Encourage your teen to link up with Christian conservation and social justice groups in your area. A Rocha (http://en.arocha.org), a wonderful Christian environmental group based in Europe with offices in Maryland, has conservation projects in 15 countries and is always looking for volunteers.
Show your teen the Church’s respect for nature.
Young people may be surprised at the wealth of Christian poetry and art devoted to celebrating nature. Pointing them to the Celtic poetry about nature penned by the monks of Ireland, and encouraging them to learn more about saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, who had a deep regard for animals and nature, can open a window into the rich traditions of the Church.
Connect your daughter with other Catholic women.
Women would benefit from reading about women mystics and leaders such as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, as well as biblical figures including Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Encourage girls to join or lead women’s prayer groups, participate in prayer at a nearby convent, or attend retreats where they can spend time learning about God with other women. Point out that Jesus treated women with the highest respect unheard of in the ancient pagan world.
Even if your child is the last person you could imagine being interested in Wicca, it is likely he or she will have a classmate who is. Equipping our young people with compassion and understanding for Wiccans will allow them to reach out to their friends with love and provide a good example of holistic Christian living — something many Wiccan teens have never encountered.
Irene discussed with her daughters how to keep their faith strong and reach out to others in love without being influenced by Wicca. Margaret and Madeleine befriended Jess and started gently sharing their faith with her. One Saturday after a troop meeting, Margaret called her mom to ask if Jess could spend the night because she wanted to go to Church with them. Through her encounters with Margaret and Madeleine, Jess felt God was calling her back to Christianity. Soon Jess began to pray to St. Patrick, since he converted the pagan druids to Christianity in Ireland. She ended up leaving Wicca behind and coming back to Church. Of course, not all Wiccans will convert and some will continue to reject Christianity, but it is important to reach out to them in love.
“I was so scared that [Jess] would have an influence on my girls,” Irene told me. “But it was the other way around. They ended up having an influence on her.” CD
Do Wiccans worship The devil?
Contrary to a popular misconception, Wiccans do not worship Satan. In fact, they don’t even believe he exists. Satan worshippers, Sanders writes in her book, may call themselves witches, but they are not Wiccans. And though there is a figure called the Horned God in Wiccan tradition, he is the male consort of the Mother Goddess, not the devil of our Christian heritage. “Wiccans have no belief in absolute good and evil,” Sanders writes, “which explains why they disavow Satan. …They acknowledge that bad things can happen, that evil exists, but they don’t believe that it exists as a result of the presence of Satan. This may sound strange to Christian ears, but as studies have shown, six out of ten Americans don’t believe in the person of Satan — only that he is a symbol of evil.” Most Wiccans, she says, do follow an ethic called the Wiccan Rede: “If it harms none, do what you will.”
Catherine Edwards Sanders is the author of Wicca’s Charm:Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality, released in September 2005 by Shaw/ WaterBrook Press (a division of Random House). For more information, visit www.catherinesanders.com.