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The Unfinished Agenda: Popular Piety in the Season of Light

What can Christmas teach us about the importance of popular piety in our prayer and liturgical life?

Those of us who have any recollection of Roman Catholic worship before Vatican II, remember a prayer pattern filled with devotions, populated by statues, and seasoned with endless sacramentals. As a Catholic grade-schooler I remember the rosaries, the scapulars, the medals, — even once possessing a third-class relic of Dominic Savio, the patron saint of choir boys.

While a relatively uninformed but wholehearted supporter of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II as I experienced them, in retrospect it is shocking not only how much the official worship of the church changed, but also how much my devotional life was changed. As a young Capuchin, traditional devotions like Stations of the Cross still marked Lent, but more often than not they were scripturally based, thus more closely aligned with the council’s emphasis on God’s word. Other devotional practices quickly faded, with bible study more in vogue than the rosary, and reflective recitation of the revised Liturgy of the Hours filling the time previously occupied by endless litanies and prayers of reparation.

Then as now, “experts” sometimes make it very clear what we should and should not be doing in liturgy, despite what people actually feel or believe.

Later studies would explain to some extent why my devotional life not just changed but, in one sense, sort of evaporated. Previous to Vatican II I do not remember people talking about the official liturgy of the church as different from or superior to my prayers or devotions. To the contrary, the official liturgy of the church was intimately wed to my devotion, and during the holy sacrifice of the Mass I recited my rosary. The liturgical movement and the Constitution it spawned rightly turned the emphasis back onto the primary: the celebration of the Eucharist, the other sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other “official liturgies” of the church. This is where our active participation was to be rehearsed, exercised, and tested. This move especially made sense in the relatively elite contexts of the male dominated, Northern European and U.S. monasteries, schools, and religious centers which were the hotbed of the reform.

Of Inculturation and Practical Theology

Popular devotions did not get great attention in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The one paragraph that promoted such devotions was quite insistent 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” (no. 13).

One of the sections of that document that did get great attention, both in its writing and in the discussions after the Council, was “Norms for Adapting the Liturgy to the Temperament and Traditions of Peoples.” This section, comprising paragraphs 37-40, spoke of the “qualities and talents of the various races and nations,” “legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples,” “adaptations, especially as regards the administration of the sacraments, sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music and the arts,” and even “more radical adaptation of the liturgy.” Liturgical visionary Anscar Chupungco called this the Magna Carta of liturgical adaptation (Cultural Adaptation of the Liturgy, 42).

Increasingly I have come to appreciate popular piety as a valid, grass roots expression of fundamental belief often in a quite contextualized, inculturated manner.

Like many others, I was gung-ho for increased cultural adaptation of the liturgy (I still am). At the same time, my broadening study of, and advocacy for, cultural adaptation made me rethink the role of popular devotions. Teaching at a school with ministerial students from around the world, I found it interesting that traditional tribal practices or beliefs from Papua New Guinea or Uganda were the stuff of “inculturation,” but traditional practices of Polish or Mexican Roman Catholics in a nearby Chicago neighborhood were not. While the former were “native expressions of belief,” the latter were easily dismissed as “pious old devotions.”

Over the past two decades I have also been immersed in a study of theology called “practical theology.” One of the tenets of this form of theology is that peoples’ experiences are a valid, even primary theological resource. While not a dominant strand in liturgical studies, it does challenge some of the elitism that marked early phases and continuing strands of the reform. Then as now, “experts” sometimes make it very clear what we should and should not be doing in liturgy, despite what people actually feel or believe.

This unexpected convergence of inculturation with practical theology has reshaped my approach to devotions. Increasingly I have come to appreciate popular piety as a valid, grass roots expression of fundamental belief often in a quite contextualized, inculturated manner. That does not mean that popular devotions should be exercised without sound theological principles or without due regard to the official liturgy of the church. On the contrary, the directive of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is that popular devotions need to harmonize with the liturgical seasons and the official liturgy of the church. Happily there is a largely unexplored document which provides splendid direction for just such a conjunction.

An Undervalued Document

In December of 2001 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published their Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (on-line at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html). This is a substantial document—288 paragraphs, over 400 footnotes and an extensive index—that is worthy of serious study and consideration. It is divided into two parts, and eight chapters:

Introduction [nos. 1-21]

Part I: Emerging Trends: History, Magisterium and Theology

Ch 1: Liturgy and Popular Piety in a Historical Perspective [nos. 22-59]

Ch 2: Liturgy and Popular Piety in the Church’s Magisterium [nos. 60-75]

Ch 3: Theological Principles for an Evaluation and Renewal of Popular Piety [nos. 76-92]

Part II: Guidelines for the Harmonization of Popular Piety with the Liturgy

Ch 4: The Liturgical Year and Popular Piety [nos. 94-182]

Ch 5: Veneration of the Holy Mother of God [nos. 183-207]

Ch 6: Veneration of the Saints and the Beati [nos. 208-247]

Ch 7: Suffrage for the Dead [nos. 248-260]

Ch 8: Shrines and Pilgrimages [nos. 261-287]

Conclusion: [no. 288]

There are many riches waiting to be excavated in this document. The introduction, for example, offers a series of useful distinctions between pious exercises, devotions, popular piety, and popular religiosity. This historical section offers some interesting reflections about the interconnection between emerging Christianity and popular piety, as well as a brief chronicle how and why liturgy and popular piety separated in the Middle Ages. The paragraphs on magisterial teaching offer strong insight into why popular piety is so important to believers and the church, especially its ability to manifest “a genuine thirst for God” (no. 61). Chapter three on theological principles is very strong in underscoring the ecclesial dimensions of piety and devotions. In many ways, however, I find chapter 4 on the liturgical year and popular piety the pastoral gem here. There are 25 paragraphs alone on the Advent-Christmas cycle. It is worthy of consideration as the opening of the liturgical year looms.

Christmas Piety and Mystagogy

While the official teaching of the church is that the Triduum is the center of the annual liturgical cycle, one could reasonably argue that in the minds and hearts of ordinary Christians Christmas wins that category by a landslide. Part of the anecdotal evidence for this assertion is the plethora of popular religious symbols and decorations that populate store windows, neighborhood lawns, and untold family rooms during this season. Angels abound, crèches are omnipresent, Magi often make a delayed appearance, Christmas trees are de rigeur, and many a nativity set is graced with a kneeling Santa Claus. We do not find anything near a parallel during the Triduum or the Easter Season.

While the official teaching of the church is that the Triduum is the center of the annual liturgical cycle, one could reasonably argue that in the minds and hearts of ordinary Christians Christmas wins that category by a landslide.

Many of these symbols reappear in our churches, even though they are not an “official” part of the liturgy. While the liturgy in no way excludes crèches, Christmas trees or angelic forms from populating our sanctuaries—and even includes blessings for crèches and Christmas trees in the official Book of Blessings (nos. 1541-69 and nos. 1570-1596)—they are not required for worship. The cross, on the other hand, is essential for the celebration of the Triduum.

A consistent theme rehearsed in my teaching is the power and importance of mystagogy. From my perspective, this is an aboriginal form of Christian catechesis, and the first liturgical method. Mystagogy, as I have noted before, is a type of theologizing which takes seriously our experiences of worship. It is not just about our “ideas” but about the way we taste, hear, sing, and touch the liturgy—and how in turn that liturgy tastes, sings, hears, and touches us. It has clear connections with “practical theology” mentioned above.

Previously I have stressed how the official liturgy of the church—and people’s experience of that liturgy—needs to be a mystagogical source and fount of our preaching, teaching, prayer, and reflection. What the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy reminds me of, however, is that our popular devotions, exercises, and religiosity are also an apt source for the mystagogical enterprise. In fact, the very popularity of such practices strongly recommends them for mystagogical consideration.

Reverse Mystagogy

One obvious way to employ the Directory on Popular Piety is to share some of its principles and suggested practices through parish bulletins, religious education programs, preaching, or even new devotional practices. This is an opportunity to introduce more of our Anglo communities to the devotional practices around the Feast of Guadelupe which the recognizes as “intimately united with the birth of the church in the Americas” (no. 102). It also provides the impetus to evangelize about the crèche and especially help young families shape devotions around home nativity scenes that can spark the participation and imagination of small children (no. 104).

Mystagogy, as I have noted before, is a type of theologizing which takes seriously our experiences of worship.

Besides introducing, guiding, or evangelizing about devotions outside of public worship, the more challenging task may be for musicians and preachers, liturgists and presiders, to figure out what makes popular devotions so “popular.” Step two in this process of reverse mystagogy is then trying to discover what this religious popularity might have to say about the way we shape our worship, music, and preaching. This is not to suggest that worship should be designed and executed simply according to the whims and desires of the baptized, and I am not advocating placing a kneeling Santa at the center of your parish nativity scene. On the other hand, if the religious instincts of the baptized do manifest “a genuine thirst for God,” it seems incumbent on those of us responsible for the official worship of the church to help quench that thirst. This seems one of the unfinished agendas from Vatican II. Besides, it is surprising what you can learn from that kneeling Santa.

Have a great Advent-Christmas!

 


About Edward Foley, OFM Cap

Fr. Foley is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality, and Professor of Liturgy and Music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, a noted author and speaker.