Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Popular Piety And The Life Of Faith

by Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez


Cardinal Medina Estevez's presentation of the Directory On Popular Piety.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, 4 September 2002

At 11:30 on Tuesday, 9 April, in the John Paul II Hall of the Holy See Press Office, the Directory on Popular Piety, Liturgy, Principles and Guidelines, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was presented to the media.

Taking part in the press conference were: Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, O.S.B., Secretary of the same Congregation, as well as Mons. Mario Marini, Fr. Anthony Ward, and Fr. Corrado Maggioni, respectively undersecretary, office head, and official of the same Congregation. Here is a translation of the comments of Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez and Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, O.S.B..

The subject matter of the Directory we present is well known: it concerns a reality which is part of the living tradition of the Church. Certainly, through the centuries, the People of God have passed through different historical periods which have left their impact on the way of expressing the mystery of Christian worship which defines them. In fact, it is not enough to cultivate just any relationship with God, since the Church expresses in prayer her faith in the God of Jesus Christ, and is careful to translate the inspirations of the Holy Spirit into a living reality. If the common denominator of the liturgical economy in its full understanding uninterruptedly pervades every Christian community beyond time and geographical space, from the first apostolic communities to those of today, it is no less necessary to recognize the influence of the ecclesial, cultural, and social sensitivity of each historical period on the ways and forms of prayer.

Directory: Principles And Guidelines For Popular Piety

Together with the liturgical celebration, "summit and source of the life of the Church", as Vatican Council II recalls, tradition also witnesses to a great many ways of private and communal prayer. It is the realm usually called "popular devotion" or "popular religious practice" or the "devotional", which is very important for the spiritual life of the faithful. The Church has always been aware that devotion has to remain in contact with the liturgy, which she respects the special character of popular devotion, since it is less guided by norms without falling into total spontaneity. In a simplification of history, it is said that we can contrast the codification of the liturgy with the creativity of popular devotion, which allows the simple people to feel more at home. As in every generalization, there is a kernel of truth in the statement, but there is something that is untrue. This is why it was necessary to draft a Document to recall the principles, indications and guidelines for popular piety in order to help establish the harmony between liturgy and popular devotion that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wished.

Proper Relations Between Liturgy And Popular Piety

1. Popular piety is a treasure of the Church. To understand this, think how the history of Western Christian spirituality would be impoverished without the Rosary or the Way of the Cross. These are only two examples, but they clearly illustrate what is at stake. Some might question the value of popular devotion, referring to it as a set of superstitious practices falsely clothed with a veneer of religious devotion. It is precisely to help reflect and discern wisely in this field, that we have prepared the Directory. After Vatican Council II, there was still a need to take up again what Sancrosanctum Concilium said about the relation between the liturgy and popular devotion.

Teaching Of II Vatican Council

In affirming the primary place of the liturgy, "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows" (Sancrosanctum Concilium, n. 10), the Council also recalled that "the spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy" (ibid., n.12). In fact, to nourish the spiritual life of the faithful there are also the "popular devotions of the Christian people" (ibid., n. 13), especially those recommended by the Apostolic See and practiced in the particular Churches with the mandate or the approval of the Bishop. In recalling how important it is that such devotional expressions conform to the laws and norms of the Church, the Counciliar Fathers set forth the underpinning of theological and pastoral understanding: these "devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, 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., n.13).

Mandate Of John Paul II

The subject of popular piety was also re-presented among the tasks of the post-conciliar renewal by John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Vicesimus quintus annus: "Popular devotion should not be ignored or treated with indifference or contempt, since it is rich in values, and per se gives expression to the religious attitude toward God. But it needs to be continually evangelized, so that the faith which it expresses may become an ever more mature and authentic act. Both the pious exercises of the Christian people and also other forms of devotion are welcomed and encouraged provided that they do not replace or intrude into liturgical celebrations. An authentic pastoral promotion of the Liturgy will build upon the riches of popular piety, purifying and directing them towards the Liturgy as the offering of the peoples" (ORE, 22 May 1989, n. 17d, p. 10).

This shows the importance of knowing the value of popular devotion, of caring for its genuine substance, of purifying it it where necessary, of enlightening it with the light of Sacred Scripture, and of directing it toward the Liturgy, without opposing one to the other.

Popular Piety And The Mysteries Of Faith

2. Popular piety is an expression of faith. It is well known that faith is not so much measured by the intellectual knowledge one has, as by the way it is lived in the events of daily life. From this viewpoint, the many forms of genuine popular devotion are primarily the witness of the faith of the simple of heart, expressed in an immediate way, emphasizing one or another facet of the Christian faith without claiming to embrace the whole. The same "sensible", "corporal", "visible" elements, which characterize popular devotion, are the sign of the inner desire of the faithful to express their loyalty to Christ, their love of the Virgin Mary, and the invocation of the Saints. To touch an image of the Crucified Lord or of Our Lady of Sorrows reveals an instinctive desire somehow to share in that sorrow; to make a pilgrimage on foot, despite fatigue and expense, is a way of showing the inner desire to draw near to the mystery made visible at the shrine.

Genuine manifestations of popular devotion always have deep roots in the mysteries of the Christian faith, even if at times there are elements of pre-Christian origin. The Directory helps to highlight the elements of convergence with Christian revelation or how to "evangelize" these forms. If the passage of time, the change of mentality and of society have been able to conceal the "Christian" recognition, or emphasize the external at the cost of the internal, it is the role of the Pastors of the Church to help to rediscover, in the forms, the vital link with faith and life in Christ. First, in the prayer formulas and acts of devotion made by Christians, what has to be recognized is the Christian faith, regulated by the necessary reference to biblical revelation, and, yet one must not expect to find the fullness of Revelation expressed in every single practice of devotion. For the rest, popular devotion is not an end in itself, but serves to prepare the heart, by disposing the spirit to receive the divine grace granted to us by the liturgical celebration of the mystery of Christ. If popular devotion must not replace the liturgy, the liturgy does not eliminate other legitimate ways of expressing faith in Christ our Saviour.

In the Message he addressed in September 2001 to the Plenary Session of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Holy Father recently recalled: "Authentic popular devotion, expressed in a variety of ways, takes faith as its source and for this reason must be appreciated and respected. In its most authentic forms, popular piety is not opposed to the centrality of the Sacred Liturgy, but rather, it fosters the faith of the people who consider it to be a connatural religious expression and disposes for the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. The correct relationship between these two expressions of faith must keep present a few fundamental points, and among these, particularly, that the Liturgy is the center of the life of the Church and no other religious expression can replace it or be considered equivalent. It is also important to repeat that popular religious forms find their own natural completion in the Liturgical celebration; although they do not usually flow into the Liturgy, they must be ideally moving in this direction. This must be made clear with an appropriate catechesis" (nn. 4-5).

Popular Piety Desires To Translate Faith Into Life

3. Popular piety has implications for both private and public life. Does it make any sense to wear a votive habit, to kiss a sacred image, to go on pilgrimage to a sanctuary, to hang a Crucifix in one's home or workplace, to pray for the soul of a deceased person? And what is their authentic meaning, in such a way that it is the holiness of life that is manifested through such signs and gestures?

The pages of the Directory may help answer these questions, by gathering examples and problems, emphasizing values and dangers, and by recalling the theological-liturgical criteria by which to orient concrete choices. In explaining this complex subject of popular piety, one has had to consider the past and present, theology and pastoral care, the experience of the individual members of the faithful and Christian communities, in respect for their traditions and the cultural context that differs from country to country.

It will be the mission of the Bishops, with the help of their closest collaborators, especially the rectors of shrines, to establish norms and give concrete guidelines, keeping in mind the local situations. Besides the Bishops, priests, and those with responsibility for the care of souls, the Directory is addressed to families, movements, associations, and confraternities . . .

Already 40 years have passed since the renewal that the Second Vatican Council wished to see. It is our hope that the present Directory will contribute to helping to bring to maturity in the Christian people that authentic spiritual life that is developed in a fruitful way through the liturgical celebration of the mystery of Christ and the other forms of prayer which draw inspiration from it and lead to it.

(See Website for Congregation for Divine Worship)

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