The people? Those of God

May 20, 2020: in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Archbishop Matteo Zuppi gave the Blessing of Our Lady of St Luke to the city and the archdiocese (Chiesadibologna.it)
28 November 2020

Zarri: overcoming the concept of popular religion as opposed to that of the elites

As Gabriella Zarri states, “the concept of popular religion from a Marxist and Gramscian tradition, which identified it as the religion of the subordinate classes as opposed to a religion of the elites, is outdated from a historiographical point of view”. This is the first point to be clarified states the director of the magazine Archivio Italiano per la Storia della Pietà, and former professor of Modern History at the University of Florence, a scholar of ecclesiastical institutions and religious life. “The documents show a participation of the subordinate classes in many rites and devotions that are practiced and promoted within the institutional church, a religion that is not connoted from a social point of view. If we want to speak of people, we must speak of them as the people of God”.

Where does the history of this religiosity begin?

It begins with the penitential pilgrimages, which were practiced in the low medieval period by the confraternities of the disciplined. This devotion was so widespread that the anthropologist Ida Magli dedicated the title of her book to medieval culture Gli uomini della penitenza [The Men Of Penance]. With the rise of the Renaissance and then of the modern state, religiosity began to become more individual and devotion to the Virgin Mary was accentuated. Marian images spread throughout churches, houses, city streets and country tabernacles. The reverence and the request for graces were accentuated around these images.  The miraculous manifestations and consequently the erection of sanctuaries, pilgrimages, the posting of votive offerings were multiplied.  The cults reserved, for example to St Anthony of Padua, St Rita, or more recently Padre Pio, are widespread, but e equally popular.

Were these devotions originating from the lowly?

In the medieval period, the Marian cult was mainly linked to the veneration of miraculous images often found by chance by lay people or children.  During the nineteenth century, however, the Virgin became increasingly a protagonist and so began a long theory of apparitions.  The recipients of these were still boys or young women in France, Spain and Italy, and more recent in Eastern European Countries. This phenomenon took shape according to the canons of sanctuary devotion: the erection of a church on the site of the apparition, pilgrimages, and votive offerings for graces received.

And, was there any conflict with the ecclesiastical hierarchies?

For the erection of a church and the consequent concessions to worship there, an investigation into the supernatural nature of the visionary phenomenon and the absence of deception and forgery are necessary. This does not detract from the fact that popular devotion often manifests itself without waiting for authorization from the Church. This is one of the most typical aspects of what we can call popular devotion: attention to the apparition and listening to what Our Lady will say, which is also prophetic and supernatural in appearance. Sometimes the Church does not approve. After all, there have often been episodes of falsehood, even with regard to the saints, as I talk about in my book Finzione e santità [Fiction and Holiness].

Is devotion a factor of cultural identity?

This is especially so for the city’s Marian sanctuaries, which become places of pilgrimages and annual festivals, and which have become a civic tradition over the centuries. However, since the Second World War we have seen a significant decrease in the influx of the faithful, and there is no doubt that these manifestations of worship are still part of the city’s identity. With the pandemic, the recourse to the Virgin that protects the city has returned as an element of collective reassurance. The traditional value of the protection of Mary, like that of Jesus, has been rediscovered. Here we recall the Pope’s pilgrimage with the statue of Christ and, in Bologna, the Virgin brought to the city from the sanctuary outside the walls.

Is there an identity aspect for women too?

Female devotion is more Christological than Marian, for it is not so much manifested towards the Virgin Mary as towards Jesus. As the historian Alessandra Bartolomei Romagnoli demonstrated when examining medieval hagiography, saints, or women venerated as such, have visions of Christ; the Virgin, at most, offers them the Child Jesus. St Bridget had a vision of the Nativity, while Catherine of Bologna, a Poor Clare who lived during the fifteenth century, is one of the first to have had a vision of the concession of the child by Mary. In sacred images, women are mostly portrayed at the foot of the Cross or at the Sepulchre, in prayer or to care for the body of Jesus before burial. Or listening, like Magdalene. It is not by chance that it is men who have spread devotion to the Virgin; here I recall Saint Bernard and the order of the Servants of Mary.

Has there been a feminization of religious life?

Historiography has talked about this since the nineteenth century. It seems to me to be a generalization which has not as yet been sufficiently proven. Certainly, there is greater female participation with the founding of new congregations with simple vows, this after the forced Napoleonic closure of cloistered monasteries. Moreover, it is true that religious practice is beginning to be deserted by men.

Nevertheless, religion remains exclusively masculine, as is much in the management of the sacred in parish administration and the management of confraternities. In some regions, there is a practice in which women specialize, that of the tradition of dressing statues, which are covered with different clothes according to liturgical times or occasions of public display. However, it is the men who carry them in procession. In only one case that I know of can I recognize a gender connotation applied to a devotion. The Oblates of the Child Jesus, a congregation founded in Rome in the 11th century, which based its spirituality on the contemplation of the Baby Jesus. Every religious imagined feeding him with their own prayers and ejaculatory prayers, as taught by Cosimo Berlinsani, founder and spiritual guide of the congregation. The Oblates also took on the task of teaching catechism to the poor girls of the city.

Is it always about caring?

Not only that. Women cannot receive priestly ordination, they do not have any hierarchical priestly role, but Jesus gives them the task of preaching, because women were there at the moment of Resurrection. The only female characteristic is to act and express religiosity outside the hierarchical structure of the Church, but equally within a precept: to be witnesses of the Resurrection and therefore somehow preach, to intervene directly in catechesis, in the sacred.

Are certain saints social as well as moral female models?

Certainly. Saint Catherine of Siena, who is a model both for contemplative cloistered women and for the tertiaries of active life in the service of others. She is at the origin of the formalization of the Dominican Third Order. One of the most important saints from an historical point of view, then, there is Angela Merici, who founded the Company of Saint Ursula in Brescia in the period just before the Council of Trent. There was still no monastic cloister and many young women in the city would like to have become nuns, but they did not have money for the dowry.

So, she invented a confraternity where the girls practiced a written rule by living in their homes, continuing their work. It is the prototype of the bachelorette legitimization, which was inconceivable for the society of the time that forced women to marry or to go to the convent. This had a considerable social impact, which over the centuries has been proposed again with the female congregations of the nineteenth century, with Catholic Action, with all forms of female participation in the life of the Church.

by Federica Re David