Popular religiosity: faith or culture?
Some time ago, a Jesuit, who at that time was working with a parish in a working-class neighborhood, confided to us his concern about the drastic decrease in the number of faithful attending celebrations, catechesis and parish activities. In contrast, he noted the enormous number of people who, gathered by the confraternity of the neighborhood, filled the parish on the occasion of its celebrations and, above all, flocked en masse whenever it carried its images in procession through the streets.
Our colleague gave a clear explanation for this imbalance, stating that while parish activities were part of the context of faith (and therefore suffered a reduction in attendance due to secularization), the events of the confraternity fell within the orbit of culture, and this, in his opinion, accounted for their popularity.
We believe that this explanation is rather simplistic, since, as we know, Jesus Christ preached the Gospel in the context of a specific culture and then evangelization took place within the framework of different cultures, without identifying completely with any one of them. Therefore, in order not to fall into the idealistic error of imagining that the purity of the faith is contaminated by contact with cultures, or that there exists a culture that can fully identify with the Gospel, it is necessary to reflect on what is meant by “culture” from the Christian point of view.
Although there are many excellent definitions of culture, from our perspective the most significant is the one given by Cardinal Avery Dulles. He affirmed that culture is a materialization of the human spirit and, at the same time, a spiritualization of matter which, consequently, performs the function of making our world more human. This definition is, in our opinion, in harmony with the following words of Pope Francis:
“In the same way, we can see that the different peoples among whom the Gospel has been inculturated are active collective subjects or agents of evangelization. This is because people in general are the creators of their own culture and the protagonists of their own history. Culture is a dynamic reality which a people constantly recreates; each generation passes on a whole series of ways of approaching different existential situations to the next generation, which must in turn reformulate them as it confronts its own challenges. Being human means ‘being at the same time child and parent of the culture to which you belong.’ Once the Gospel has been inculturated in a people, in their process of transmitting their culture they also transmit the faith in ever new forms; hence the importance of understanding evangelization as inculturation. Each portion of the people of God, by translating the gift of God into its own life and in accordance with its own genius, bears witness to the faith it has received and is capable of enriching it with new and effective expressions. One can say that ‘a people continuously evangelizes itself.’ Herein lies the importance of popular piety, a true expression of the spontaneous missionary activity of the people of God. This is an ongoing and developing process, of which the Holy Spirit is the principal agent.”