Popular Piety in the Spiritual Life

Issue: What place does popular piety have in the spiritual life? Does the Church promote popular devotions?

Response: While participation in the liturgy is the preeminent form of worship, popular piety manifests a thirst for God in ways that help sustain a life of faith.

Genuine forms of popular piety, expressed in a multitude of different ways, derive 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 [1]. According to the Second
Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See” (no. 3).

Discussion: All people have been created by God with religiosity and a tendency to give expression to that interior sense of the transcendent in words and action. In the context of the Christian faith, the sacred liturgy, in the offering of sacrifice and praise, surpasses all other sacred actions. There is no better way for the faithful to place themselves before God, to be heard by God, and to receive God’s blessings. “Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by
the same title and to the same degree” (SC, no. 7).

At the same time, the liturgy does not exhaust the religiosity of the faithful. There is a welling up of piety that finds expression in multiple ways, usually according to the specific culture and environment of a group of people. In turn, these expressions sustain and challenge those who live in that same environment [2]. The term used by the Church for such pious expression is “popular piety,” which the 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy [3] calls “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” (no. 9).

The Superiority of the Liturgy

While distinct from the liturgy, popular piety properly maintains a harmonious relationship with the liturgy to the betterment of both. The liturgy, “a sacred action surpassing all others,” is primary. While participation in the liturgy is necessary for the life of faith, the various devotions (such as chaplets, novenas, medals, scapulars, etc.) emanating from popular piety are optional. Furthermore, the liturgy is the font and summit of Christian
activity (SC, no. 10). Thus, popular piety is both subordinated to and directed toward the liturgy. Subordination to the liturgy ensures that forms of piety benefit from the fruits of the liturgy. Directed toward the liturgy, popular piety promotes the liturgy, ensuring a deeper level of participation in the sacred mysteries. As Sacrosanctum Concilium instructs, “These devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (SC, no. 13).

An excellent example is the Rosary, in which meditation on the mysteries of Christ can be a “preparation for the celebration of the same mysteries in the liturgical action and can also be a continuing echo thereof” [4]. The Rosary, however, is not recited during the celebration of the liturgy.

If the Liturgy Is Far Superior, Why Do We Need Devotions?

Many of the following principles can be found in the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy as notated:

1. Popular piety informs and enriches the liturgy. Throughout the centuries, the liturgy has had to various degrees a cultural element. The first liturgies were a composite of precepts given by Jesus Christ and His Apostles and popular piety in its beginning forms. Various expressions of praise and thanksgiving that were already present outside of the liturgy spontaneously found their way into the liturgy. Later, many liturgical rites were added that honored Mary and the saints, who had always been objects of popular piety. The earliest declarations of sainthood for martyrs were generated from popular piety and ratified by bishops and incorporated into the liturgy (see inset on devotion to the Divine Mercy).

2. By being ordered to the liturgy, popular piety extends the liturgical life of the Church. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc. “These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it” (nos. 1674-75).

3. Popular piety, called by Pope John Paul II “a treasure of the people of God” (no. 9, footnote 14), imparts great virtue. In their thirst for God, focusing on God’s paternity and providence, the faithful are capable of generosity, sacrifice, and suffering. The documents of the magisterium highlight certain interior dispositions and virtues particularly consonant with popular piety that, in turn, are prompted and nourished by it: patience and “Christian resignation in the face of irremediable situations”; trusting abandonment to God; the capacity to bear sufferings and to perceive “the cross in every-day life”; a genuine desire to please the Lord and to do reparation and penance for the offences offered to Him; detachment from material things; solidarity with, and openness to, others; “a sense of friendliness, charity and family unity.” (no. 61)

4. Popular piety preserves cultural heritage while enculturating Christian principles. As there is a harmonious relationship between popular piety and the liturgy, each acting on the other, so there is a relationship between popular piety and the particular culture in which the faithful live. The faithful, formed by language, culture, and custom, express the Gospel message in forms particular to their culture. These cultural forms can be assimilated and thus preserved in the traditions of that particular Church. At the same time, the Gospel is made more accessible to the culture. The transmission of this cultural heritage from father to son, from generation to generation, also implies the transmission of Christian principles. In some cases, this fusion goes so deep that elements proper to the Christian faith become integral elements of the cultural identity of particular nations. (no. 63)

5. Popular piety preserves faith when pastoral care is lacking or where sects are particularly active. It is impossible to overlook “those devotions practiced in certain regions by the faithful with fervor and a moving purity of intention”; that authentic popular piety “in virtue of its essentially Catholic roots, is an antidote to the sects and a guarantee of fidelity to the message of salvation”; that popular piety has been a providential means of preserving the faith in situations where Christians have been deprived of pastoral care; that in areas in which evangelization has been deficient, “the people for the most part express their faith primarily through popular piety.” (no. 63)

6. A lack of authentically Christian popular piety can lead to interest in oriental practices. While necessary, the liturgy does not provide all forms of pious expression conducive to the spiritual life: Moreover, liturgical action, often reduced to participation at the Eucharist, cannot permeate a life lacking in personal prayer or in those qualities communicated by the traditional devotional forms of the Christian people. Current interest in oriental “religious” practices, under various guises, clearly indicates a quest for a spirituality of life, suffering, and sharing. The post-conciliar generation- depending on the country-often has never experienced the devotional practices of previous generations. Clearly, catechesis and educational efforts cannot overlook the patrimony of popular piety when proposing models for the spiritual life, especially those pious exercises commended by the Church’s Magisterium. (no. 59)

What Are Some Vital Elements of Popular Piety?

We turn again to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. Popular piety, an expression of the faithful, has as its source the Holy Spirit, is focused on the mystery of Christ, and ultimately directs the faithful to God and salvation. Authentic popular piety incorporates the following values:

1. A sense of the transcendent-experiencing the infinitude and perfection of God beyond man’s natural existence. Popular piety is a response to God’s presence:

“Popular piety has an innate sense of the sacred and the transcendent, manifests a genuine thirst for God and ‘an acute sense of God’s deepest attributes: fatherhood, providence, constant and loving presence,’ and mercy.” (no. 61)

2. Focus on the Passion of Christ and the afterlife: “Popular piety can easily direct its attention to the Son of God who, for love of mankind, became a poor, small child, born of a simple humble woman. Likewise, it has a particular sensibility for the mystery of Passion and death of Christ. “Contemplation of the mystery of the afterlife is an important feature of popular piety, as is its interest in communion with the Saints in Heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Angels, and suffrage for the souls of the dead.” (no. 62)

3. Emphasis on the Trinity:  “From the principles already outlined above, popular piety should always be formed as a moment of the dialogue between God and man, through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Despite some deficiencies- such as confusion between God the Father and Jesus Christ-popular piety does bare a Trinitarian mark.” (no. 79)

4. Based on Scripture: “The Bible offers an inexhaustible source of inspiration to popular piety, as well as unrivalled forms of prayer and thematic subjects. Constant reference to Sacred Scripture is also a means and a criterion for curbing exuberant forms of piety frequently influenced by popular religion which give rise to ambiguous or even erroneous expressions of piety. “Prayer should ‘accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man.’ Thus, it is highly recommended that the various forms of popular piety normally include biblical texts, opportunely chosen and duly provided with a commentary.” (nos. 88-89)

5. Theocentric:  “‘You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.’ Let everything, therefore, have its proper place and arrangement; let everything be ‘theocentric,’ so to speak, if we really wish to direct everything to the glory of God through the life and power which flow from the divine Head into our hearts.”5

6. Guided by the Holy Spirit: “Christian worship originates in, and draws impetus from the Spirit. That same worship begins, and is brought to completion, in the Spirit. It can
therefore be concluded that without the Spirit of Christ there can be neither authentic liturgical worship, nor genuine expressions of popular piety.” (no. 78)

Possible Dangers of Devotions

The Church in her history has seen devotions arise that led to a lack of balance in the spiritual life, either through deficiencies or use. Sometimes undue weight is given to one aspect of the Christian mystery to the exclusion of others. Sometimes particular devotions were practiced to the neglect of liturgical, family, and community life. Some practices were simply not pious, either in intent or through error. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (no. 64) presents dangers that can affect popular piety:

  • Lack of a sufficient number of Christian elements such as the salvific significance of the Resurrection of Christ, an awareness of belonging to the Church, the person and action of the Holy Spirit
  • A disproportionate interest between the saints and the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ and his mysteries
  • Lack of direct contact with Sacred Scripture
  • Isolation from the Church’s sacramental life
  • A dichotomy between worship and the duties of Christian life
  • A utilitarian view of some forms of popular piety
  • The use of “signs, gestures and formulae, which sometimes become excessively important or even theatrical”
  • In certain instances, the risk of “promoting sects, or even superstition, magic, fatalism or oppression”

The primary concern with popular piety throughout the history of the Church has been in relation to the liturgy. Popular piety does not substitute for the liturgy but rather enriches and extends it. This relationship can become distorted. Problems arise when the faithful weaken in their sense of what actually takes place in the liturgy. The importance of the Paschal Mystery, made present in the liturgy, is diminished, and less central mysteries are favored. The faithful’s sense of their priesthood weakens, as does their participation in the Church’s worship. Much is due to a lack of catechesis, including in the language and prayers of the liturgy. The faithful turn to more familiar or comfortable forms of spiritual expression or practices they feel better meet their daily needs.

In response to these problems, some pastors resort to simply oppressing popular piety and presenting the liturgy as a sufficient form of pious expression. This ignores the reality of popular piety as naturally emanating from the faithful as a legitimate expression of worship in harmony with the liturgy. The appropriate approach to popular piety by pastors is presented by Pope John Paul II in his 1988 Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus:

Popular piety can neither be ignored nor treated with indifference or disrespect because of its richness and because in itself it represents a religious attitude in relation to God. However, it has to be continually evangelized, so that the faith which it expresses may become more mature and authentic. The pious exercises of the Christian people and other forms of devotion can be accepted and recommended provided that they do not become substitutes for the Liturgy or integrated into the Liturgical celebrations. An authentic pastoral promotion of the liturgy will know how to build on the riches of popular piety, purify them and direct them toward the Liturgy as an offering of the people. (no. 18)

[1] John Paul II, Address to the Plenaria of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (September 21, 2001), no. 4, as found in the September 2001 Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001), available online at <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_ con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html>.

[4] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation for the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marialis Cultus (February 1974), no. 48. 5 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, Mediator Dei (1947), no. 33.

Devotion to the Divine Mercy

Incorporation of Popular Piety and Devotions into the Liturgy

Sr. Faustina’s spirituality was summed up in the inscription on the image Jesus had asked her to paint: “Jesus, I trust in you”-simple, childlike trust in the compassionate love of God. Not only was she to practice this herself, but she believed Jesus had entrusted to her the mission to spread devotion to His merciful love.

After several years of testing and discernment, Sr. Faustina’s confessor, Fr. Michael Sopocko, became more and more convinced of the supernatural authenticity of her prophetic revelations. Later, Christ gave St. Faustina the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy, a prayer said on simple rosary beads that extends the offering of the Eucharist with an intercessory intention.

Devotion to the Divine Mercy spread throughout Poland-and then throughout the world with the dispersion of the Poles during and after World War II. After a Vatican ban on the devotion from 1958-78 (based on faulty translations of her diary received by the Holy See) the devotion reemerged with renewed vigor.

On the Sunday after Easter, Mercy Sunday, 1993 , Sr. Faustina was beatified by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Then on Mercy Sunday, 2000, she became the first canonized saint of the new millennium. The following month the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree proclaiming the Second Sunday of Easter also as Divine Mercy Sunday. In 2002 a plenary indulgence was attached to the devotions honoring the Divine Mercy on Mercy Sunday, “to ensure the faithful would observe this day with intense devotion.”

Excerpted from “A Sign for the New Millennium” by Robert Stackpole in the March/April 2002 issue of Lay Witness magazine, available online at www.cuf.org/LayWitness/online_view.asp?lwID=972.

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