Devotions in the Old and New Continent during the Pandemic
“O mia bela Madunina che te dominet Milan” [“O my beautiful Madonnina who overlooks Milan”]. On that March 11, the sky above Lombardy was of an unexpected blue. “So beautiful when it is beautiful”, to cite Alessandro Manzoni, to make one forget for a moment the high-pitched cry of the sirens with which the ambulances wound the deserted city. These are “the days scourged by the coronavirus”, and Manzoni himself is so often reread and cited for his words on the plague in 1630 that decimated Milan, recounted in his Betrothed.
Today, four hundred years later and throughout the world, incredulous and confused women and men are holed up in their houses, looking for protection from evil. Whom can they turn to for help?
The Archbishop of Milan has no doubt: the city is no orphan. Up there, on the Duomo’s highest spire, the little golden Madonnina watches over what is considered the economic and financial capital of Italy. This city may be competitive and rich according to the economic indexes, but enveloped in a thousand contradictions and social inequalities and now bent by the pandemic. And so, Mario Delpini climbs up to the terraces of the Basilica, and at the foot of the Madunina, words flow old and new. “Mary, virgo fidelis, encourages perseverance in serving, / perseverance in prayer, / firmness in faith, / our familiarity with Jesus help us to recognize God who is Father, / to reject the images of a distant, indifferent, vengeful God”.
April 10, 2020, Good Friday. The first since time immemorial without processions in the Mexican State of Queretaro, an area that is undergoing increasing industrial and entrepreneurial development, and is considered the cradle of Mexico’s independence. For it was here that the 1917 Constitution, which is still in force today, was signed. The Sorrowful Virgin cannot walk the streets in search of her Son, resigned to losing him in order to find him, Risen, three days later. The faithful do not follow her, to weep with her, they wait to rejoice together. The pandemic has paralyzed the celebrations just when the people mourning for the too many dead from the virus need it most. Father José Martín Lara Becerril had a bold idea. He loaded the statue of Mary onto a helicopter “lent” to him by the authorities. When the aircraft hovers in the air, the image of the diocesan Patroness is placed next to the window so that her eyes can see the municipalities flowing one after the other, while the priest gives his blessing. The video of the blessing enters Queretaro’s houses via Facebook. While gathered in front of their PCs, families interrupt their isolation by saying the Hail Mary in unison, the prayer of the simple folk, of the little ones. From one side of the Atlantic to the other, there are countless testimonies of devotion to Our Lady during this Covid era. There have been aerial processions, rosaries and virtual consecrations. On one hand, decrees stipulating quarantine and the prohibition of assemblages, on the other hand, the spread of technology has stimulated creative solutions. “I have met several women from religious associations who have used Zoom to pray together to their Madonnas” says Emma Fattorini, a historian at the La Sapienza University in Rome and acute scholar of the religious phenomenon in contemporary society, to whom she has dedicated, among others, the well-known essay Italia devota. Religiosità e culti tra Otto e Novecento [Devout Italy: Religiousness And Cults In The Nineteenth And Twentieth centuries] (Carocci 2012).
Resorting to innovative forms is, however, an ancient tradition. The faithful have always turned to the Mother at the most dramatic moments, and especially women, at the forefront of birth and death rites. And, for this reason, she is the pivot of the “religion of the people” that accompanies the history of Catholicity, flanking, integrating, emancipating itself, from the liturgy too. Secular, spontaneous, critical, at times, and anti-hierarchical, and certainly a creative space, but it is not easy to coin an exhaustive definition of popular religiosity. After all, it is a phenomenon associated with the South - of Europe and the world - but also widespread throughout the North, as demonstrated by the great Marian Shrines of Aasebakken, 25 kilometers from Copenhagen, and Bergen, Norway.
According to Emma Fattorini, the common thread between the Madonna’s various forms is her “proximity”. For, she seeks a direct relationship with God, which is less mediated and institutionalized than traditional liturgical experiences. This happens through emotional closeness, and is emphasized by the use of the senses, from touch to smell, to one’s own Saint, to a relic, to a Shrine. A dimension to which women, by clichés and by reality, are particularly sensitive. Emma Fattorini continues, “throughout history they have had a more direct relationship with God and corporeity, for example the mystics”, she stresses. According to the Uruguayan María del Pilar Silveira, a visiting assistant professor at the Theology and Ministry School at Boston College, and a specialist in popular Mariology, popular religiosity seems to shorten the distances between genders, and breaks down established stereotypes. As the scholar explains, “behaviors considered ‘feminine’, such as crying in front of the icon of the Virgin or Jesus or contemplative abandonment are adopted by both men and women, without distinction”. They can find in the rite, in the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary, in the procession, a new framework of communication.
Popular piety develops with the social and cultural context via osmosis. In the Old Continent, its relationship with modernity, with which it has always been confronted, is crucial. Although it is often in opposition, it conveys it, and responds to the crisis of meaning triggered by it. Despite arising from an archaic nature, it is not pre-modern, but post-modern, which makes it extremely "resistant" when confronted with secularization. "Popular religiosity has an extraordinary capacity for adaptation - adds Emma Fattorini . Let's consider how Marian apparitions have changed over time; for example, at Lourdes and Fatima, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and how they responded to prophecies concerning the great questions of the time, whether it was peace, war or de-Christianization. The language and forms of Međugorje, where the "scenography" is akin to television are completely different. Here, the apparitions take place in the open air, under a sky reminiscent of a wide screen, and they are repeated serially. The method of communicating her messages has also evolved, from audio cassettes to emails and now the virtual prayer chains of mothers mourning the death of a child. In the New World, the reflection on popular religiosity is enriched by the Latin American Church in the post-Conciliar period’s preferential option for the poor. The most original synthesis is the Theology of the people who see in the lowly, los nadie – which is most Latin Americans - those in whom the profoundest chords of America vibrate, and which are forged by the encounter, which may not always be linear, but certainly real - between cultures and early evangelization. In their popular spirituality, we find, therefore, a symbolic and sensitive personal relationship with God that unites heaven and earth in a yearning for transformation. The historical-cultural dimension is central to understanding the people's concrete expressions of faith. As María del Pilar Silveira points out, “they are the fruit of a historical process. For this reason, popular mysticism is dynamic: it receives contributions from the past and incorporates new elements”.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has been a great accelerator of many social phenomena, shows us extremely clearly popular mysticism’s constant ability to redefine itself.
With the largescale celebrations prohibited so as to stem the contagion, “ ‘the sacred space’ becomes once again the intimacy of the home, says Fattorini. In silence, often after having done two or three jobs, that domestic prayer reminds us of nineteenth-century women praying around the fireplace, now replaced by a TV or PC”.
The emphasis on the feminine is strong. We beg Our Lady for help, but also from sisters, old and new. As shown by the recent growth of devotion to St. Corona in Germany and Austria. This Roman martyr and saint is the historical protectress of butchers, and today invoked in Coronavirus cases.
In addition, at times of emergency, it is the women who “take charge” of the situation. As Carolina Bacher Martínez, a theologian at the Argentine Catholic University (Uca) explains, “In Argentina, we have seen their strength in all the latest crises, including the current one. On every occasion, a sort of social or community maternity is spontaneously activated”. In Latin American shantytowns, it expresses itself in that popular mysticism for which religious practice and commitment are indistinguishable. The faithful intensify their imploration to God for their extended family, which is the community. Moreover, and at the same time, they take care of each other, starting with the simplest, everyday actions, such as sharing meals with children whose parents cannot take care of them for a while. The theologian continues, “In the villas, the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, the lack of space makes it very difficult to stay indoors. In agreement with the government, forms of ‘neighborhood quarantine’ have been decided upon that have allowed for internal circulation. The chapels in ‘the villas’ have therefore remained open and the priests have temporarily transformed some of the spaces into canteens for the many informal workers left without resources. In these canteens the role of women is central in the preparation and distribution of food that the neighbors then collect - concludes the Argentinean theologian - and they do it with the same devotion with which, during the breaks, they recite the Rosary”.
by Lucia Capuzzi
The Pilgrimage for Luján on the Net
Since 1974, on the first weekend of October, the young people of Buenos Aires walk to the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján, 60 kilometers away, to pay homage to the Patroness of Argentina. This time the actual physical pilgrimage could not take place; but, it was not cancelled. Last October 3, the archdiocese reconfigured the event into a marathon on the Web, with prayers and testimonies.
This is “an example of how the practice is remodelled to adapt to reality”, stresses Carolina Bacher Martínez. On one hand, the Internet offers an alternative, while on the other hand it risks excluding others, especially in the Southern hemisphere, the poor and the majority who have no access to technology. The virtual popular faith would become, thus, less “popular”. Fortunately, “this is not happening, thanks to the creativity of the poorest. The house, with its domestic altar, is the space for prayer, with the daily recitation of the Rosary or the Novena” observes the Argentine theologian.