The New Evangelization and Popular Piety

Since the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in 1974, the question of the place of popular piety in the life of the Church and its role in evangelization has garnered steadily increasing attention from many bishops’ conferences and of succeeding Papal Magisteriums.  Based on that Synod, Pope Paul VI included a section on popular piety in his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii nuntiandi in 1975.  Saint John Paul II commissioned the Congregation for Divine Worship to produce a rather substantial Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, which it published in 2001.  Prior to his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI studied the role of popular piety in the context of culture and interculturality in a number of his theological works.  During his papacy, he emphasized the importance of popular piety, of particular significance is that he called it “a precious treasure of the Catholic Church” in his 2007 opening address to Fifth General Council of the Bishops of CELAM at Aparecida, Brazil. Benedict indicated to the bishops of CELAM that in popular piety, “we see the soul of the Latin American peoples.” 

It is important to note that the Argentinian School of liberation theology prized and developed a theology of popular piety as a central element of its “theology of the people.”  The Argentinian school took Evangelii nuntiandi as its starting point for its theology of the people (a document, by the way, which condemned the Marxist schools of liberation theology).  This is in contrast to the Marxist schools of liberation theology, which due to their elitism generally eschewed such popular devotions.  The Argentinian School had significant influence on Jorge Bergoglio, and it was his leadership at Aparecida that ensured popular piety was a major element in the post-synodal Aparecida Document (AD).  The continuing importance of popular piety to Pope Francis is clear by his inclusion of it in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium.

We might begin with a definition of popular piety.  The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (Congregation for Divine Worship [CDW], DPPL, 2001) defined it saying: “The term ‘popular piety’ designates those diverse cultic expressions of a private or community nature which, in the context of the Christian faith, are inspired predominantly not by the Sacred Liturgy but by forms deriving from a particular nation or people or from their culture” (DPPL 9).  It distinguishes popular piety from popular religiosity in that the latter is used in reference to a universal experience of the religious dimension of any people (not necessarily Christian) through which they give expression, through religious cult, to their understanding of the transcendent and its relationship to nature, society and history.  Thus, popular piety is distinguished as being a product of specifically Christian faith (though it must be admitted that not every Church document always maintains this precision).

The Aparecida Document provides specific examples of popular piety in the Latin American context, including “patronal saint celebrations, novenas, rosaries, the Way of the Cross, processions, dances and songs of religious folklore, affection for the saints and angels, solemn promises, and family prayer” (AD 258).  Of particular interest are pilgrimages because it sees these as manifestations of the baptized (or the People of God) in their earthly pilgrimage of faith.  Evangelii nuntiandi makes a point about Baptism that becomes decisive for the Argentinian school, and so it becomes the same for Pope Francis.  Evangelii nuntiandi draws attention not simply to baptismal dignity, but to baptismal efficacy, when it warns against the false distinction between sacramentalization and evangelization, reminding the Church that Baptism brings about “a permanent and unbroken intercommunication, between the Word and the sacraments” (EN 47).  While the efficacy of Baptism may be reduced through a lack of proper formation, it still can be effective. This point cannot be understated for the relevance of popular piety to the New Evangelization.  Francis is convinced that popular piety is a fruit of the Holy Spirit working in a particular segment of the People of God; therefore, he considers it a locus theologicus (an authoritative source for doing speculative theology), saying that it has much to teach us (EG 126).  Not surprisingly, this is a central tenet of the Argentinian School’s “theology of the people” (for more on the theology of the people, see Keith Lemna & David H. Delaney, “Three Pathways into the Theological Mind of Pope Francis,” Nova et Vetera Vol. 12, No. 1 [2014]: 25-56).

            Popular piety usually arises among the poor and marginalized.  For this reason, it is often dismissed as superstition, though it is true that popular piety often requires purification.  More will be said about the need for purification shortly.  Pope St. John Paul II explains rather that popular piety is a “treasure of the People of God” (cited in DPPL 9).  Paul VI elucidates the matter, saying that popular piety “manifests a thirst for God known only to the poor and to the humble, rendering them capable of a generosity and of sacrifice to the point of heroism in testifying to the faith while displaying an acute sense of the profound attributes of God: paternity, providence, His constant and loving presence. It also generates interior attitudes otherwise rarely seen to the same degree: patience, an awareness of the Cross in every-day life, detachment, openness to others and devotion” (EN 48). This provides insight into Francis’s desire for a poor Church for the poor.  It is the Christian who conforms himself to the self-emptying example of his Lord who is the most fruitful evangelizer.

Francis describes the nature of popular piety as “the people’s mysticism.”  It is a popular spirituality that, he says, citing the Aparecida Document, is “incarnated in the culture of the lowly” (EG 124).  The content of popular piety is discovered and expressed through the use of symbols, rather than through speculative thought.  It emphasizes more the act of faith over the intellectual understanding of the content of faith.  He says, “[I]t is a legitimate way of living the faith, a way of feeling part of the Church and a manner of being missionaries…” (EG 124).

Popular piety is not an impersonal, mass spirituality. Neither is it individualistic sentimentality (see EG 70). Rather, if it is to be authentic, it is at once a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and a communal response to authentic, human spiritual needs (see EN 48).  This theme of encounter is one that is dear to Pope Francis, and it is perhaps key to understanding his view of the value of popular piety.  The human person is made for authentic relationships with God and with one another; popular piety is a concrete expression of the simultaneity of one’s personal encounter of communion with Jesus Christ and Christians through His Church.  That is to say, popular piety helps one to understand that a personal encounter with Christ is not so much “me and Jesus” as it is “we and Jesus.”  This simultaneous “we and Jesus” does not remove any of the intimacy of the encounter, rather it directs one outward, toward others.  This is the mark of authentic discipleship, being other-oriented; or said in another way, being other-oriented means being missionary. 

Popular piety is a manifestation of what Pope Benedict XVI describes as interculturality (see The New Evangelization and Culture).  In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that the primary place that interculturality occurs is in popular piety because this is the location in which authentic culture and cultural development occur (Spirit of the Liturgy, 201).  Popular piety is the primary vehicle by which there begins an exchange of cultural treasures between Christianity and the newly evangelized culture.  Pope Francis affirms Ratzinger’s description of the relationship between interculturality and popular piety.  Citing John Paul II, he repeats that man is both son and father to one’s culture, he both forms it and is formed by it.  Popular piety is a central medium by which this reciprocal exchange occurs in terms of Christian cult.  Francis says that after the Gospel has been adequately infused into a culture through popular piety, popular piety then becomes the vehicle by which the people of that culture evangelize themselves and evangelize those who are in contact with it.  Thus, he says, “Herein lies the importance of popular piety, a true expression of the spontaneous missionary activity of the people of God. This is an ongoing and developing process, of which the Holy Spirit is the principal agent” (EG 122).  However, interculturality implies a mutual purification of two cultures encountering one another.  An authentic theology of popular piety is not naïve in this regard, and pastoral concern must take into account the need for vigilance about the need for purification of popular piety and of culture. 

Popular piety is often intermixed with aboriginal distortions and superstitions, and so it is frequently in need of purification.  Paul VI identifies a particular distortion being an overriding concern over the particular form the piety takes, rather than on a real assent of faith.  Moreover, as with all human endeavors, it can be a cause of fragmentation of a group from the community and the forming of sects which can endanger ecclesial communion (see EN 48).  Pope Francis adds to these dangers the fact that certain forms of popular piety can be taken advantage of by people who are not interested in the good of society and the person, but see in it the opportunity for economic gain or exercising power over people.  This can especially be the case when the forms of piety surround inauthentic claims of private revelation (see EG 70).

It is the responsibility of pastors to help guide and purify popular piety.  But such guidance must have a solicitous character.  Pope Paul VI indicated that pastoral charity must rule the hearts of pastors in regard to popular piety.  The pastor must recognize that popular piety is both rich and vulnerable.  For this reason, one needs to be “sensitive to it, know how to perceive its interior dimensions and undeniable values, be ready to help it to overcome its risks of deviation” (EN 48). Cardinal Ratzinger, says of popular piety that the hierarchy needs to “love it, purifying and guiding it where necessary, but always accepting it with great reverence” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 202). 

The benefits of understanding and fostering authentic forms of popular piety are manifold for the Church and the New Evangelization.  Recall earlier Pope Paul VI’s recitation of the benefits of a properly guided popular piety: generosity, sacrifice to the point of heroism in showing faith and an awareness of God’s solicitous nature for man.  Well before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was already pointing to Latin American popular piety as an indicator of the deep roots of the Catholic faith in the souls of People of God in the Latin American Church.  He asserted that popular piety serves as the soil for a thriving liturgy, and so it is no surprise that those who are involved in retrograde attempts at liturgical reform are the same elitists who treat popular piety with contempt (see Spirit of the Liturgy, 201-202).  Pope Francis adds to these benefits that authentic popular piety can and should be employed as a catalyst for purifying cultures that are distorted by a plethora of deformations, and this is true of long-time Catholic cultures, of formerly Catholic cultures and of newly evangelized societies (EG 69).  Purified forms of popular piety, once firmly established, will continue to evangelize the culture and the culture, the people, in a reciprocal manner.  However, the question arises, how is one to foster authentic popular piety?

Popular piety must arise spontaneously from among the baptized in response to the Gospel.  Therefore, promoting it is not a matter of invention or manipulation of various forms in an attempt to accommodate them to societies in which popular piety is missing.  In newly evangelized societies, forms from the native culture might be offered.  If accepted, they may become catalysts for further development through an exchange of cultural richness between the evangelizing culture and the one being evangelized, but only after the latter has adequately adopted Gospel values.  Such an approach may also be helpful in secular societies, but here the added challenge is developing an attitude of spiritual poverty, of humility and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit (which is likely the reason that popular piety is a phenomenon associated with the poor and oppressed).  Yet one would expect a reciprocal affect.  That is, the more these forms are practiced by those affected by wealth and secularism, the more humble and open the people will become to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the less self-sufficient they will recognize themselves, in fact, to be. In societies with long-standing Catholic forms of popular piety, the challenge will primarily be purification. 

However, helping to purify distortions is a delicate matter.  It is not a matter of controlling, but of guidance.  This guidance can be provided, in part, through kerygmatic preaching and kerygmatic catechesis.  It also can be efficaciously achieved by participation of the clergy in the various forms of popular piety active within a parish or diocese, gently guiding the community away from any distortions.  This clerical involvement can also help to prevent fragmentation of groups from the parish and to prevent the high-jacking of groups by those whose intentions are not in accord with the Gospel.  Evangelii nuntiandi emphasizes the importance of pastors taking popular religiosity seriously if they are to help guide it to maturity and so deepen the faith of its practitioners (see EN 48).  The Aparecida Document also provides some specific suggestions.  The Bishops of CELAM suggest that guidance can be effective by putting these forms to be purified into more direct contact with Scripture, by assisting the practitioners to enter into a life of greater participation in the Sacraments, especially in devotion to the Sunday Eucharist, and through a greater expression of love and service to others (AD 43).  

Latin American popular piety is primarily Marian in spirit.  This is, perhaps, an observation that CELAM provides us that can help us to focus our research.  In that popular piety is aimed at fostering a personal encounter with Christ and enriching the people’s experience of the liturgy, one might suppose that the most effective forms of popular piety would be Marian in that this preparation for a personal encounter with her Son is the Blessed Mother’s sole purpose.  The Blessed Mother’s humility and docility together with her solicitude for her children are features that resonate with the materially poor and are attributes that all Christians must endeavor to foster in their own lives.  Mariology’s influence on popular piety is an area of research MAI would like to promote.

In terms of the contribution of popular piety to the liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger says that once all of the elements of a particular form of popular piety have been adequately purified and integrated into the daily life of a culture, those elements which have been sufficiently “tried and tested” may then be eligible for discernment for their appropriateness for incorporation into the liturgy.  Of course, these elements must accord with the nature of the liturgy.  He warns that one must avoid inorganic manipulation of either the popular piety or the liturgical rite, much less hastily fabricate forms for incorporation.  He suggests that the key is patience in allowing the forms to grow, to be purified and tested, and this always must be done within the rubrics and approval of the bishop and of the pope (Spirit of the Liturgy, 202).   Much more research into the theology of popular piety and its pastoral application is needed.  This is a central concern of the Institute.

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