Popular religiosity rarely leaves people indifferent. For some it is a great opportunity for the Church as well as a sign of her vitality, showing how the desire for God is present in our society. For others, on the contrary, it manifests the obvious decadence of a Church no longer able to transmit the profound truth of the Gospel, and so generating substitutes that distance people from the message of Jesus Christ, leading them to superstition, heterodoxy and superficiality.
Be that as it may, popular religiosity in the Catholic world moves the masses, both in old and secularized Europe, in Latin America and other continents, constituting one of the strongest “megaphones” the Church can count on at this time. It serves as a particular “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” a “theological place” from which to address the new evangelization, a solid wall or weapon against secularization, or simply constitutes a community in which to live and spread the faith. However, at the same time, it risks becoming a danger that can weaken the ecclesial body or sometimes even attack it directly.
Popular religiosity poses many questions to the Church and society, such as those expressed by Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo: “Is the religious dimension sought for reasons of faith, or is it a substitute for a belief that has disappeared? Is it a refuge and an extreme foothold against what is believed to be the collapse of religious practice? Can it be a veiled criticism of the way the Church operates? Can it be suspected of being an evasion of the social commitment that the Church itself supports? Of what does popular religiosity consist? What is it that must remain, and what must be renewed? Is popular religiosity a help to or an evasion of true Christian commitment?”
In search of a definition
It should also be noted that the meaning of the term “popular religiosity” is not entirely clear, nor is its definition univocal, and this gives rise to difficulties and misunderstandings that affect our way of approaching it. As far as the term is concerned, in the first place, in relation to “religiosity,” not a few perplexities emerge because a pejorative meaning is often perceived, as if there were an official “religion,” a serious and true way of access to the God of Jesus Christ, and then a surrogate or a consolation prize, in the form of this “religiosity,” valid in some ways, but insufficient in others.
Faced with this reality, there has been no lack of proposals for new terms, but none of them has succeeded in prevailing and being accepted. Paul VI decided to call it “popular piety,” in order to overcome the negative interpretation that was given to it, highlighting its potential. Later, the Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy distinguished religiosity and piety, showing that the latter is a manifestation of the former. More recently, theologians have proposed various qualifications and emphases. Jorge Seibold speaks of “popular mysticism” as an inner reality of “popular piety.” Victor Codina uses the provocative expression, “religion of the people,” which can give rise to misunderstandings, perhaps leading one to think that it is based on a different creed from that of the Church. These proposals reveal to us how, despite our attempts, we cannot find a better term than “religiosity.”
Then there is the adjective “popular,” which, either because it is joined to the noun “religiosity” or because of the influence of the reality to which it refers, has for many a pejorative meaning. This is curious because in both the ecclesial and secular spheres “popular” is generally not something negative: (think what it means to be “popular” among adolescents and young people). In particular, this adjective should be understood in a positive sense in the Church context, given the importance that the “people of God” has for Catholics, even more so after the Second Vatican Council.
As we can see, it is a difficult concept, in which it is not so much a matter of words as the meaning and the weight that the dimensions and practices of popular religiosity have on them. For this reason, in our opinion, perhaps the best way to refer to this reality is to continue to use this expression, as long as we know that with it we are not referring to a second-rate reality, but to the faith of the people, which is no different from that of the “holy faithful people of God,” of which Pope Francis speaks.
As for its definition, popular piety is one of those concepts whose meaning is as easy to intuit as it is difficult to delimit. We all have in mind an idea of popular piety and, in many cases, it is not a simple intellectual notion, but is complementary to what we have experienced in the field of feelings and lived through faith. However, when it comes to defining it and establishing its boundaries, we realize the great difficulty that this involves. In fact, popular religiosity refers to a series of realities that go from the mass gatherings of people manifesting their faith to a candle lit in front of a sacred image in the intimacy of a home. These and many other expressions are gathered under the broad umbrella of “popular religiosity” or the faith of the people, showing the difficulty and insufficiency of any attempt to define it.
In search of a context
In recent years popular religiosity has aroused interest in the European Catholic world. It has become the object of reflection seeking to understand it, and thus welcome it into the ecclesial community. Much of this process has taken place during the pontificate of Pope Francis, as he frequently makes reference to it in various magisterial documents. Significant are those in the encyclical Evangelii Gaudium and its inclusion among the “concrete and qualifying experiences of the life of faith” in the new Directory for Catechesis.
However, even though they are obvious consequences of a change, these references are not innovative, since they are inherited from a series of documents and reflections on the subject. In the first place, they are found in the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN) of Paul VI, who already in 1975 spoke of popular religiosity – or rather, piety – as an instrument for evangelization (cf. EN 48). Secondly, they are found in the documents of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), among which those of Puebla, Santo Domingo and Aparecida stand out. In the specific case of Spain, they occur in the writings of the bishops of the dioceses of the south of the country, as well as in some publications and talks by pastors.
Up to that stage, however, the attitude of many members of the European Church toward popular religiosity had been one of suspicion. In fact it was thought some elements lurked within it that, either because they were alienating or archaic, clashed with the drive for renewal of Vatican II.
It is singular that this suspicious European view of popular religiosity considered the manifestations of popular faith on the Latin American continent differently. It was not uncommon to meet pastors and faithful who, while criticizing European popular religiosity and seeing it as a legacy of the past to be overcome, admired and praised the “purity” of the manifestations of the faith of the Latin American people.
This has meant that in many cases it was thought that the directives and inspirations of the CELAM documents had value only for that Latin sphere and, in particular, that they referred to a type of popular religiosity different from that of Europe. So, in the imagination of many Christians there were – and there are – two distorted representations of popular religiosity: an excessive view, that idealizes a “very pure” faith of the Latin American people, characterized by the desire for transcendence of the poorer faithful; and another of deficiency, that sees European popular religiosity as empty, backward and archaic. However, as soon as one gets to know these two realities, one realizes that, although their contexts and manifestations are different, there are many presuppositions and elements in common. Both in fact have great potential and can be that “theological place” of which Pope Francis speaks, but both are surrounded by dangers and abuses that can impair them.
The point is not merely anecdotal or trivial, because it has concrete consequences at the moment of rediscovery, appreciation and rapprochement that the European Church is making toward popular religiosity. In fact, in recent years as popular religiosity has gained a certain consideration in the life of the Church, we observed that, in the European sphere, there was no theological and pastoral framework in which to place it. And so many scholars, especially after Evangelii Gaudium, have tried to find it in the documents of CELAM and in the so-called “theology of the people” of Argentina, especially in the writings of Juan Carlos Scannone, Jorge Seibold and Carlos María Galli.
The recourse to this form of Latin American theology has been of great help in dealing with a reality so complex and elusive in its apparent simplicity. These writings and thoughts have illuminated the new consideration of European popular religiosity, as well as its insertion in the ecclesial structure. However, there are many of us who think that these inspirations are not sufficient if we want to try to face, understand, appreciate and integrate from the ecclesial point of view the faith of the European people. In fact, although the general lines and inspirations of the Latin American documents can help us to understand what is most vibrant and intimate about our popular religiosity, we must not forget that they arise from a theology that is fundamentally contextual, that is, constructed from the specific circumstances and experiences of a people. From this we can deduce the need to apply this theology to our European context with an appropriate discernment, in order to succeed in highlighting the signs of the times present in it. Otherwise, we will end up falling into a new form of theological formalism.
Therefore, we believe that, without abandoning the general framework of the copious Latin American documents and the theology they express, it is necessary that, as Europeans, we question ourselves about the conditioning and characteristics of our popular religiosity. Only in this way will we be able to understand the Spirit of God who is active within it, and therefore to elaborate a theological approach that will illuminate pastoral actions so that they insert popular religiosity within the ecclesial community and at the same time succeed in including it in the new evangelization.
Possible defining lines of popular faith in Europe
Before beginning to propose what, in my opinion, are some of the defining lines of the context that characterizes the popular religiosity of Europe, I would like to recall that my experience of the manifestations of the faith of the people is marked by the environment in which I myself have known and lived them, specifically, the Spanish environment. I say this because, on the one hand, it is a context in which popular religiosity contains significant variations, connected to the different characters and modes of expression that permeate the reality of the country. But, on the other hand, I believe that in this diversity one can trace a series of great contextual lines similar, mutatis mutandis, to those present in other European areas, such as, for example, the south of Italy.
The first of these contexts is closely related to what I said earlier, and that is the fact that our popular religiosity in recent years has experienced a rapprochement with much of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In this sense, it is opportune to remember that this phenomenon has been not only the fruit of the pontificate of Pope Francis, but rather that a process, already underway, has increased. The fact is that, although our popular religiosity had always had a complex relationship with the clergy, in the post-Conciliar years this relationship had experienced a mutual distancing. At the risk of falling into reductionism, it could be said that, on the one hand, popular religiosity found it difficult to insert itself in the process of the aggiornamento of Vatican II – and in some circumstances did not have the will to do so – and, on the other, the Church did not know how – and at times did not want – to include these expressions of faith in this dynamic of renewal, because in many cases it considered that they were one of those realities of the past that had to be purified or transitioned from in favor of other experiences more suited to the times.
It remains surprising that, while secularization caused a decrease in the numbers of the faithful and their adherence to the Church, popular religiosity experienced a considerable and unexpected growth. This meant that at first the Church turned to it with an attitude at times more interested to find in it the young people they could not find elsewhere, and at other times more profound, namely, to rediscover a challenging reality, sensing that the Spirit was at work in it. Thus began what some call the “synodal journey,” in which Church and popular religiosity once again met and walked together, smoothing out the rough edges and realizing that, despite their differences, both were seeking the same Christ, to bring him to this world as Church.
Thus we come to the second contextual line, that is, the challenge that popular religiosity poses to the Church. It is a challenge because this reality has been one of the mediations thanks to which in recent years the Church has been able to reach those at a distance. But in this case the singular and unexpected element is that it was not the ecclesial institution that went out to society to seek out those at a distance, those who think differently, those who do not agree with her, in order to establish a dialogue and propose the Catholic faith to them. Rather, it was the distant who, through popular religiosity, knocked on the doors of the Church, often posing uncomfortable questions by their mere presence. What is this apparently atheist and anticlerical person looking for in a procession? Is it mere folklore, or must there really be something more? Why do these people reject all the proposals we make to them from the parishes, but are always present at the manifestations of popular piety? Can popular religiosity perhaps help us to ensure that those who find themselves in irregular situations feel that the Church does not reject them, but welcomes them?
This presence of the distant and the challenge they present question the European Church in a profound and significant way, above all for the implications involved: “The evangelization which is carried out on the basis of popular religiosity follows a different process from that of conventional catechesis […]. It no longer begins with proclamation, continuing with conversion and culminating in the manifestation and externalization of the latter, but usually begins with externalization, and then sometimes continues with acceptance and conversion, and concludes with proclamation. The classical path of conversion ‘kerygma-catechumenate-celebration’ in popular religiosity is inverted and becomes ‘celebration-catechumenate-kerygma’.”
The third contextual line is the paradoxical character of popular religiosity. In fact, behind its old-established forms, which at first sight seem to involve the spirituality of other times, in many cases there hides a desire for renewal similar to that of other religious movements: “Faced with the crisis that is crossing the project of modernity, faced with this bewilderment […], people, in order to satisfy their spiritual needs, have not turned to the institutional Church, but to the different forms of popular religiosity, especially Marian, or to new religious movements in search of spaces different from the usual ones. It is an unprecedented fact and touches the most varied people, without distinction of social class or culture. These people ‘no longer seek dogmas or catechisms, or norms to be followed slavishly. They want personal experiences; they want to know other spiritual dimensions and feel in their own flesh that in their innermost being something is moving, that they are alive and are touched from within or from without.’ Or, as another author says: ‘They are annoyed by the symbolic and conceptual dimensions that have been imposed on them up to now. And here is the paradox: God? Of course, but in another way’.”
The fourth contextual line is the ambiguous character of popular religiosity. In our opinion, this is not a feature exclusive to this phenomenon, but rather an inherent element of the human condition. However, in popular religiosity such ambiguity can be shown in a much more obvious way than in other areas. In other words, in this form of religiosity one realizes that some people are not interested in the aspect of service, but rather pursue their own affirmation and are animated by the search for power (which in other areas would be done in a more subtle way); even in it, then, clashes and divisions are generated that are contrary to the spirit of fraternity that should characterize it. Nor is there a lack of those who find in it a pretext for committing all kinds of excesses. In fact, at times there are elements of superstition, and it is also possible that these elements convey a false image of God.
Therefore it is important to remember that popular religiosity “cannot be canonized without question, nor can it be believed that everything in it is the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, as in every human activity, human, intellectual and moral limitations, selfishness and sin are mixed with the action of the Spirit.” Precisely because we must approach it “with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love” (EG 125), we must learn to discern where, within this ambiguity, God’s action is to be found in the faith of the people, to distinguish it from that “Christianity made up of devotions, reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic ‘popular piety’” (EG 70).
This fourth contextual line has to do with the relationship between popular religiosity and secularization. This is an extremely complex point, situated by its nature in a gray zone, which in the European context manifests itself in a different way from that of Latin America. If one starts from the negative aspects, it must be said that popular religiosity is, to some degree, secularized. Therefore, we can observe how this process – which seeks to reduce to culture, folklore or tradition what a few years ago was undeniably religious – has invaded it, in a similar way to what has happened in the world of art, and literature, and how it has become more secular.
Just as it is usual to find explanations of Christian works of art that talk about artistic forms, technique and historical events, but ignore theology, liturgy and the Bible, so we can come across people who approach popular religiosity from the point of view of culture, anthropology, history and so on, banishing from it the God of Jesus Christ or reducing him to a legendary character like Jupiter, Ra or Shamash. On this point, the relationship between popular religiosity and tourism is also risky, because focus on the latter can make it lose its Christian specificity in favor of the search for subsidies or paying participants.
In the face of this danger, popular religiosity can represent a powerful weapon to confront and stop the advance of secularization. This is quite evident in the case of Spain, because it can be seen that the areas of the country where secularization has caused the greatest damage coincide with those in which popular religiosity has been allowed to die. However, in those areas where it is in good health, the process of transmitting the faith has not been interrupted. As proof of this, in those places where popular religiosity impregnates the culture, children learn almost by osmosis who Jesus Christ is, because they learn him from the environment, from the family and from the religious culture. Instead, in the more secularized areas, the teachers of religion are faced with the fact that by now some young people do not even know what kind of death Jesus was condemned to. This does not mean that knowledge and experience of Christian culture lead to automatic adherence to the faith, but certainly popular religiosity, despite all its ambiguities, facilitates the creation of an ecosystem in which faith can develop. In our view, this is what Pope Francis is referring to when he calls popular religiosity the “immune system of the Church.”
The fifth contextual line to which we refer concerns the fact that, despite all their dangers, these manifestations of the faith of the people are a “theological place to which we must pay attention, especially when we think of the new evangelization” (EG 126). In fact, if there is one thing that seems to be in the process of clarification in theological and pastoral reflection on popular religiosity, it is that in it palpitates the action of the Holy Spirit, who, in a surprising way, has awakened the longing for transcendence in many of our contemporaries, leading them on a path to Christian community. This has also disconcerted many believers, since this path is not formalized either by the models according to which we understand the “new evangelization” or by the “purity” which we ascribe to desire for God. Nevertheless, the good fruits of popular religiosity make us recognize in it the action of the Holy Spirit, but also a call to collaborate with him in his work. These fruits are ultimately the union of people with God, through devotion and the sacraments, and the union of people among themselves, through the fraternity of Christian communities and their solidarity with those brothers and sisters who, near or far, find themselves in every kind of need.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.10 art. 5, 1021: 10.32009/22072446.1021.5
. Cf. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), No. 126; Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis (DC), 2020, No. 37.
. Cf. C. M. Galli – S. Movilla López, Fe y piedad popular. Fuerza evangelizadora de la piedad popular. Las imágenes. Las bendiciones, Barcelona, Centre de Pastoral Litúrgica, 2015, 24f.
. Cf. A. F. Bohórquez Colombo, “La piedad popular: agente y sujeto de evangelización,” in Sal Terrae 108 (2020) 920-925.
. Cf. D. M. Molina, Oportunidades y debilidades del mundo cofrade para una vida cristiana, ibid., 893-898.
. Obispos del Sur de España, El catolicismo popular en el sur de España. Documento de trabajo para la reflexión práctica pastoral, Madrid, PPC, 1975, 9.
. C. Amigo Vallejo, Religiosidad popular, ibid., 2008, 20.
. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), No. 48.
. Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. Principles and Guidelines (2002), Nos. 6-10.
. Cf. J. Seibold, La mística popular, Buenos Aires, Ágape, 2016.
. Cf. V. Codina, La religión del pueblo. De cuestionada a interpelante, Santander, Sal Terrae, 2019.
. Cf. EG 69-70; 122-126.
. See DC 37; 262.
. These are, respectively, the General Conferences of the Latin American Episcopate of 1989, 1992 and 2007.
. Obispos del Sur de España, El catolicismo popular. Nuevas consideraciones pastorales, Madrid, PPC, 1985; Id., Las Hermandades y Cofradías. Carta pastoral de los obispos del Sur de España, ibid., 1988.
. Cf. J. C. Carvajal Blanco, “Introducción: La religiosidad popular, un fenómeno tan antiguo y tan nuevo”, in Id. (ed), La religiosidad popular, ámbito evangelizador. II. Jornadas de actualización pastoral para sacerdotes, Madrid, Ediciones Universidad San Dámaso, 2019, 15f.
. Cf. D. Cuesta Gómez, La procesión va por dentro. En busca de una espiritualidad cofrade, Bilbao, Mensajero, 2019, 40-46.
. Cf. E. Guevara Pérez, “El renacimiento cofrade del siglo XXI: el caso de las hermandades y otras asociaciones de vísperas en las capitales de Andalucía”, in F. J. Campos (ed), Religiosidad popular: Cofradías de penitencia, vol. I, San Lorenzo del Escorial, Real Centro Universitario Escorial-María Cristina, 2017, 43-58.
. J. J. Brosel Gavilá, Muerte y Resurrección de Cristo en la religiosidad popular valentina. Análisis y aproximación catequética, Rome, Pontificia Università Salesiana, 2001, 47.
. J. Seibold, La mística popular, op. cit., 57f.
. V. Codina, La religión del pueblo, op. cit., 160.
. Cf. J. Seibold, La mística popular, op. cit., 57-69.
. Obispos del Sur de España, El catolicismo popular…, op. cit., 6,4.3; Id., El catolicismo popular. Nuevas consideraciones pastorales, Madrid, PPC, 1985, 2; 3.
. Aparecida Document, op. cit., 64.
. Francis, Address to participants at the First International Conference for Rectors and those working at Shrines, November 29, 2018.