Church Communion and Evangelisation

Popular Piety and Liturgy

Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estévez

The “Directory on popular piety and liturgy: Principles and Directives” is well worth reading in its entirety. The following are extracts from a talk given by Card. Jorge Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Worship, at the press conference launching this directory.
As Vatican II reminds us, along with the liturgical celebration “source and summit of the Church’s life”, Tradition bears witness to a great variety in the forms of private and communitarian prayer.  This general area is called popular piety or popular or devotional religiosity, since it has a significant impact in the spiritual life of the faithful…

The Church sensed the need to issue a Document that would recall the principles and provide directives with a view to strengthening that harmonization between liturgy and popular piety desired by the fathers of Vatican II.

To understand this, it’s enough to imagine just how poor the history of Western Christian spirituality would be without the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross.  These are but two examples, but they are sufficiently obvious to indicate what’s at issue here.

Someone might raise objections against the value of popular piety, citing against it practices of superstition dressed up as religiosity.  It was precisely to help reflection and a wise discernment in this matter that the Directory was prepared.  The issue of the relationship between liturgy and popular piety that had been touched upon by Sacrosanctum Concilium, still needed to be tackled after Vatican II.

In affirming the primacy of the Liturgy “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed… the fount from which all her power flows” (SC, 10), the Council recalled also that “the spiritual life is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy” (ibid, 12).  “Popular devotions of the Christian people” nourish the spiritual life of the faithful, especially those recommended by the Apostolic See and practiced in particular Churches with the mandate or approval of the Bishop.  In recalling how important it is that such expressions of worship be in conformity with the laws and norms of the Church, the Council fathers outlined their theological and pastoral understanding: “Popular devotions…should be so drawn up… that they accord with the sacred liturgy, (they) are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them” (ibid., 13).

This issue of popular piety was re-proposed as one of the tasks of post-Conciliar renewal by John Paul II himself in the Apostolic Letter, Vicesimus quintus annus: “popular devotion cannot be ignored nor treated with indifference or disregard because it is rich in values and in itself it already expresses a religious attitude towards God.  But it needs continuously to be evangelised so that the faith it expresses becomes an increasingly mature and authentic act.  Popular devotions of the Christian people as well as other forms of devotion are to be welcomed and recommended so long as they do not substitute and do not get mixed up with liturgical celebrations.  An authentic liturgical pastoral will know how to rely on the wealth of popular devotion, purifying it and directing it towards the Liturgy as the offering of the peoples” (n.18).

So it is important to know the value of popular piety, guard it in its genuine essence, purify it were necessary, enlighten it with the light of Holy Scripture and direct it towards the Sacred Liturgy without setting these devotions against it.

It is well known that faith is not so much measured by the intellectual knowledge one has of it, but rather by its practice in concrete circumstances of life.  In this perspective, many forms of genuine popular devotion are above all a testimony to the faith of the simple hearted, a faith expressed in a spontaneous manner by emphasising one or other aspect without claiming to embrace the whole content of Christian faith. 

The “sensible”, “corporeal”, “visible” elements that characterise popular piety are the sign of an interior desire of the faithful to proclaim their own adherence to Christ, their love for the Virgin Mary, and their invocation of the saints.  To touch an image of the Crucifix or Our Lady of Sorrows means wanting in some way to be a part of that suffering. To go on pilgrimage on foot, with all the effort and expense involved, is a sign that manifests the interior desire to draw near to the mystery made visible by the shrine.

Genuine manifestations of popular piety always have their roots one way or the other in the mysteries of Christian faith, even though sometimes their elements are of pre-Christian origin.  The Directory assists in making the lines of convergence with Christian revelation to emerge or it helps to bring about an “evangelization” of these forms.  If the passage of time, change of mentality and change in society have sometimes clouded their “Christian” recognisability or have emphasised the exterior aspects to the detriment of the interior, it is the task of the pastors of the Church to help people rediscover in these manifestations their vital link with believing and living in Christ…

The Holy Father recalled this recently in the Message addressed in September 2001 to the Plenary session of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: “Genuine forms of popular piety, expressed in a multitude of different ways, derives from the faith and, therefore, must be valued and promoted. Such authentic expressions of popular piety are not at odds with the centrality of the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, in promoting the faith of the people, who regard popular piety as a natural religious expression, they predispose the people for the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries.  The correct relationship between these two expressions of faith must be based on certain firm principles, the first of which recognises that the Liturgy is the centre of the Church's life and cannot be substituted by, or placed on a par with, any other form of religious expression. Moreover, it is important to reaffirm that popular religiosity, even if not always evident, naturally culminates in the celebration of the Liturgy towards which it should ideally be oriented. This should be made clear through suitable catechesis” (nn 4-5).

Does it still have any meaning to wear a votive habit, kiss a sacred image, go on pilgrimage to a shrine, hang a cross on the walls of homes or in the work place, offer prayers for the soul of the deceased?  And what is their authentic meaning, so that it is the holiness of life that becomes manifest through these signs and gestures?

The pages of the Directory help (us) to respond to these questions, by looking at issues and problems, emphasising values and dangers, and recalling the theological-liturgical criteria in the light of which we can make concrete choices.  In outlining this complex topic of popular piety, the past and the present, theology and pastoral (aspects) as well as the lived (experience) of individual and Christian communities have been kept in mind, while respecting their traditions and the cultural context that varies from country to country.  It is the task of the Bishops, with the help of their direct collaborators, in particular the rectors of shrines, to establish norms and give concrete directives while keeping the local situations in mind…

Forty years of the renewal desired by the Second Vatican Council have now passed.  The hope is that this directory will contribute to a maturing in the Christian people of that authentic spiritual life that develops in a fruitful manner through the liturgical celebration of the mystery of Christ and other forms of prayer that draw inspiration from it and lead to it.

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