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The words of the Popes

The faith of humble people as a resource for the Church

27 March 2020: historic moment of prayer presided over by Pope Francis on the parvis of St Peter’s Basilica with the empty square plunged into an unreal silence, but followed by Catholics, and many others, from around a world threatened by the spread of covid-19. The Pontiff praying in front of the crucifix of St Marcellus, which the Romans once carried in procession against the plague (© Vatican Media)
28 November 2020

The rediscovery of popular piety commenced with Paul VI

In the centre of Rome, the Pope walks slowly, alone and full of suffering, on his way to the church of San Marcello al Corso. It is there that a fourteenth century wooden crucifix, considered miraculous by generations of Romans, is kept. No one is waiting for him or greeting him along the street, just a few Gendarmerie officers accompany him. A solitary “procession” and precisely for this reason does it carry such an extraordinary symbolic force. A few days pass. The Pope in the evening, under a leaden sky, prays in an empty St Peter’s Square. A small white figure stands out in a space that seems surreal. With him, the Crucifix he had venerated a few days before and the Salus Populi Romani, a Marian icon which has accompanied the events of the people of Rome for centuries. Among the images given to us by this dramatic period we are experiencing because of the pandemic, these snapshots will surely remain impressed in the memories of millions of people.

It should be noted that these two spiritually intense moments are linked to popular devotions created by Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome. As the first public act after his Election, he wanted to pay homage to the Mother, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and has returned there dozens of times during his apostolic journeys. This devotion comes from afar. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in fact, since his years of episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires has always appreciated the devotion of the simple people. For the future Pope, walking together with God’s people to the Shrines - among all of them that of the Virgin of Lujan - has always been a privileged way to take on the smell of sheep that every good shepherd should have. This walking with the people to participate in the manifestations of popular piety is, in Bergoglio’s experience, both an act of evangelization and a missionary impulse.

The Conference of Aparecida of the Latin American Episcopate, from which a Document on discipleship and missionary was written is essential to the understanding of Francis’ pastoral action. The Conference took place in a Marian shrine, and those of us who had the privilege of being there during those days, in May 2007, in Aparecida – “a moment of grace” in the words of the Pope - remember that the work of the bishops took place in a space below the Brazilian sanctuary.

The pastors, therefore, prayed and confronted each other and were accompanied by the songs of the faithful. That assembly, experienced in first person by the then Cardinal Bergoglio, resonates in the pages of Evangelii gaudium, which is dedicated to popular piety. “Its various expressions, writes the Pontiff, have much to teach us; for those who are capable of reading them, they are a locus theologicus which demands our attention”. Faith needs symbols and affections, it needs to be intertwined with a lived life, it cannot be limited to an intellectual exercise. Popular piety, “is the immune system of the Church” Francis has said with an icastic image.

In addition to the theme of popular devotion, as with other fundamental questions, Evangelii gaudium recalls the Apostolic Exhortation of St Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi. It was Pope Montini, after all, who since the Second Vatican Council gave a new impetus to popular devotion and above all “defended” it from the coldness, and at times suspicion, with which it was looked upon in some Catholic circles. In the Apostolic Exhortation cited above, which follows the 1974 Synod dedicated to evangelization, Pope Montini dedicated number 48 entirely to the religiosity of the people, noting that, on this point, it touches on “an aspect of evangelization which cannot leave us insensitive”. Evangelii nuntiandi warns against certain distortions that have bent popular devotion to the logic of superstition, but notes that the expressions of religiosity must be rediscovered as privileged ways of evangelization. Popular piety, writes Paul VI, manifests “a thirst for God which only the simple and the poor can recognize”.

This rediscovery of popular piety was also visually developed and placed at the center of the Pontificate by St. John Paul II. A man from Poland which, thanks also to popular devotion and in particular to the Virgin, resisted first the Nazis and then Communist dictatorships, Karol Wojtyła “brought to Rome” this popular dimension of Christianity which, in his gestures as in his Magisterium, is essential. It expresses the catholicity, the universality of the Church and at the same time the inculturation of the Gospel in a specific national community.Popular devotion also became a common thread of the more than one hundred apostolic journeys he made around the world. On each one, he never missed a moment of prayer in a sanctuary or a gesture of attention to the spiritual roots of the visited Country. Wojtyła is also responsible for the publication in 2002 of the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy by the Congregation for Divine Worship.

With the Pope having inscribed onto the episcopal coat of arms the entrustment to Mary, so therefore the contempt of the elites who consider popular religiosity as a superficial and impure manifestation of faith was definitively overcome. For John Paul II, instead, it was authentically popular “a faith deeply rooted in a precise culture, immersed both in the fibres of the heart and in ideas, and above all widely shared by an entire people”. As noted by the Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Ryłko, Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the pontificate of Pope Wojtyła has “contributed to freeing popular religiosity from the label of residual in extinction” connoting it “as an extraordinary spiritual resource for the Church today”.

On the same wavelength as his is Benedict XVI, who during his long years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith looked favourably on expressions of popular piety. This can also be seen in the Catholic Church’s Catechism, of which Joseph Ratzinger was the main author at the behest of John Paul II. Certainly - as in the case of his Polish predecessor and his Argentine successor - the experience of his childhood in Bavaria when - together with his family and in particular his recently deceased brother Georg - he took part in pilgrimages and other events of popular religiosity influenced this favourable attitude. It is not surprising, therefore, that once he became Pope, he stressed on several occasions that “popular piety is a great patrimony of the Church” and he demonstrated it concretely by making himself a pilgrim to numerous Marian shrines in Italy and in the Countries he has visited on his 24 international journeys.

This theme often returned in Benedict XVI’s teaching, especially in the traditional dialogue with the priests of the diocese of Rome. To them, Pope Ratzinger asked that they not criticize devotional practices or to consider them harmful, but rather to take them up and explain them adequately to the people of God. Then, in his meeting with the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in 2011, he stressed aspects that would later be taken up by Pope Francis. For both, in fact, popular piety cannot be considered a secondary aspect of Christian life, because in the simple prayer of the people it creates “a space of encounter with Jesus Christ and is a way of expressing the faith of the Church”.

by Alessandro Gisotti