Popular Piety and the Liturgy

September 02, 2008


Passing of the CrossIt is a commonplace that what the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called the pii exercitii— the so-called “popular devotions”—did not get, both at the council and in its aftermath, the attention proportionate to the important role they played in the life of ordinary Catholics. True, the council did affirm that “popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly recommended” but only if “they conform to the laws and norms of the Church.” Given the ambiguous state of popular devotions, the council mandated that there should be guidelines for their practices. It went on to give important principles for an eventual ordering of popular devotions: “Such devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some ways 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” (Sacrosanctum concilium [SC]: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 13).

Rosary ProcessionThis neglect of popular devotions was even more pronounced and widespread in the post-conciliar liturgical reform. Due to the pressing need to educate and form the people of God for liturgical celebrations by means of new texts and rites, so that they may “understand them [liturgical celebrations] with ease and take part in them fully, actively, and as a community” (SC, 21), little attention was given to the role of popular devotions. “Popular” was often derided as unsophisticated, superstitious, emotional, individualistic, reactionary, and even anti-liturgical. Meanwhile, popular devotions, despite being marginalized on the theological and liturgical scenes, did not die a quiet death. On the contrary, for the many Christians whose emotional, cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual needs are not met by the Roman liturgy with its sobrietas, brevitas, simplicitas, “popular”—that is, originated with and practiced by the common people— devotions have continued to be a “popular”—that is, well-loved—source of spiritual nourishment. In recent years they have even enjoyed a noticeable revival, not least among the so-called Evangelical Catholics. In the United States this renascence of popular devotions is due in no small part to the coming of new Catholic ethnic groups from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, whose Catholicism is heavily stamped by both pre-Tridentine and post-Tridentine popular devotions.

VenerationIt comes as no surprise then that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments should be concerned with restoring the role of popular devotions in the lives of the faithful. On September 21, 2001 the Congregation issued a document on popular devotions titled Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines. It is to be noted that it is called a “directory” with the subtitle of “Principles and Guidelines.” Its purpose is not doctrinal but pastoral, namely, “to offer guidelines and, where necessary, to prevent abuses or deviations” (4). Its addressees are primarily bishops and their immediate collaborators, that is, “episcopal vicars, priests, deacons, and especially the rectors of sanctuaries” (5). It also important to note that the theme is “popular piety and the liturgy.” The conjunction “and” is operative here. The Directory intends to treat neither popular piety nor the liturgy in themselves but rather their mutual relationship.

Eucharistic devotionAccording to the Directory, this relationship should be governed by three principles: first, the preeminence of the liturgy over popular devotions: “The faithful should be made conscious of the preeminence of the liturgy over any other possible form of legitimate Christian prayer. While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional” (11). Secondly, popular piety needs to be evaluated and renewed, taking into account changing times and different places. Thirdly, harmonization between the liturgy and popular devotions and not substitution and integration: “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” (2).

Stated in the abstract and in general terms, these three principles no doubt will meet with agreement, perhaps with some juxta modum. But how the liturgy and popular devotions have been related to each other in the past and how the harmonization between them can be implemented in concrete situations today, the answers to these two questions require a sophisticated knowledge of the history of liturgical development and extensive pastoral experience and sensitivity.

TaizeAmong the many popular devotions highly recommended by the Directory are those intimately connected with the liturgical year, e.g., those celebrated during Advent, Christmastide, Lent, and the Easter Season. Next come the many and varied devotions to Mary the Mother of God. The third group of popular devotions include those addressed to the saints. The fourth group concerns the prayers for the dead. The last are those taking place during pilgrimages and at the shrines.

Popular devotions are unfortunately still associated with conservative Catholics or with ethnic groups such as the Mexicans, the Filipinos, and the Vietnamese. Yet, there are encouraging signs. As the official liturgy fails to stir the hearts and nourish the souls, Catholics, conservative or liberal, young and old, turn to popular devotions as resources for their spirituality. Traditional devotions are enjoying a special revival among young Catholics who having grown up without them and without their abuses find them spiritually nourishing and even quaintly counter-cultural, especially in the anti-rationalist postmodern age. Even non-Catholic Christians have been reported to adopt Catholic devotions, especially devotions to Mary, and try to justify Marian devotion biblically.

Mary The greatest challenge in promoting popular devotions on the parish level remains that of grounding them in a solid and healthy sacramental, liturgical, and communitarian life. There is always the tendency toward the supernaturalistic (e.g, claims of Mary’s apparitions in various locales), the miraculous (physical healing), and individualism and emotionalism (lack of social commitment). But these dangers are by no means endemic to popular devotions. Indeed, popular devotions can be harnessed for social and political causes, as witnessed by the so-called People’s Power in the Philippines, and can lead to a vigorous ecclesial and sacramental life. There is a basic truth in the old adage Ad Jesum per Mariam, not in the sense that one cannot reach God except though Mary as the necessary and indispensable bridge or mediatrix, but in the sense that a love and devotion to Mary and the saints is both a help and a fruit of one’s love for the Triune God.

Rev. Peter C. Phan, who holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., is a widely respected expert on Catholicism in Asia and author/editor of several books and numerous articles.  Among his books are: Mission and Catechesis: Alexandre De Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam (Faith and Cultures Series) (Orbis Books, 2006); The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines--A Commentary (Liturgical Press, 2005); Vietnamese-American Catholics (Pastoral Spirituality Series) (Paulist Press, 2005); Christianity With an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making (Orbis Books, 2003); and Responses to 101 Questions on Death and Eternal Life (Paulist Press, 1997).

Credit for photos of devotional practices:  Mike Jensen, Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Credit for photo of people praying in a Blessed Sacrament Chapel:  Frank Coady, Salina, Kansas.

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