Saturday, March 29, 2014

Pope Francis on the evangelizing power of popular piety

I started reading the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis a little late and have been in a slow read.  There is a section on popular piety I read last night that was quite moving.  I'd like to share what the Holy Father said.  Here, I am copying in full text as I don't have time for paraphrasing  (I've eliminated the footnotes, so see the original text for source of quotes.)

The evangelizing power of popular piety 
122. 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 each people is the creator of their own culture and the protagonist 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 it as it confronts its own challenges. Being human means “being at the same time son and father of the culture to which one belongs”. 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 enriches it with new and eloquent 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.

123. Popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on. Once looked down upon, popular piety came to be appreciated once more in the decades following the Council. In the Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI gave a decisive impulse in this area. There he stated that popular piety “manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know” and that “it makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief”. Closer to our own time, Benedict XVI, speaking about Latin America, pointed out that popular piety is “a precious treasure of the Catholic Church”, in which “we see the soul of the Latin American peoples”.

In some quarters of the Church it is still looked down upon so I am glad that Pope Francis devoted a section to it in Evangelii Gaudium.  

When Paul VI talked about the poor and the simple, keep in mind that poor and simple does not mean unintelligent.  Our Lord wanted us to approach the faith as children and popular piety allows even the smallest of children to participate in some way.  Also, when we think especially of those who are materially poor, we see people who are heavily burdened with labor, perhaps with only enough time to make use of pious devotions.  Many people find solace in praying a Rosary when burdened, from every spectrum. It can be prayed while walking or commuting to school or work.  Within a given culture, you can see the impoverished along with the wealthy venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary, the  Eucharist, and various saints - often in huge events.  Some are specific to a particular country as we see in the Philippines, in Latin American and European countries, and in parts of Africa, among others.  Much of that has been brought to countries like the United States and Canada where others have been evangelized by it.

124. The Aparecida Document describes the riches which the Holy Spirit pours forth in popular piety by his gratuitous initiative. On that beloved continent, where many Christians express their faith through popular piety, the bishops also refer to it as “popular spirituality” or “the people’s mysticism”. It is truly “a spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly”. Nor is it devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere DeumIt is “a legitimate way of living the faith, a way of feeling part of the Church and a manner of being missionaries”; it brings with itself the grace of being a missionary, of coming out of oneself and setting out on pilgrimage: “Journeying together to shrines and taking part in other manifestations of popular piety, also by taking one’s children or inviting others, is in itself an evangelizing gesture”. Let us not stifle or presume to control this missionary power!  

125. To understand this reality we need to approach it with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love. Only from the affective connaturality born of love can we appreciate the theological life present in the piety of Christian peoples, especially among their poor. I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of ten- der love directed to Christ crucified. No one who loves God’s holy people will view these actions as the expression of a purely human search for the divine. They are the manifestation of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5). 

Excellent point about busy mothers, which goes to my point further up about the burdened.   Likewise, I have seen many cling to a Rosary when a loved one is dying, even though they don't pray it daily.  Some might scoff at this, but graces come from even small gestures like this.  It expresses faith because one without faith would look for solace in some other way.

126. Underlying popular piety, as a fruit of the inculturated Gospel, is an active evangelizing power which we must not underestimate: to do so would be to fail to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, we are called to promote and strengthen it, in order to deepen the never-ending process of inculturation. Expressions of popular piety have much to teach us; for those who are capable of reading them, they are a locus theologicus which demands our attention, especially at a time when we are looking to the new evangelization. 


I recommend reading Evanglii Gaudium yourself.  I've seen parts of it distorted often by cherry-picking a line or partial paragraph.  People have been wrongly attributing things to the Holy Father that he did not say in this exhortation.  By relying on blogs and websites to tell you what is in it, you risk spreading untruths which opens the door to calumny.  Don't worry about the big words Pope Francis sometimes uses - just use a dictionary the way past generations did.  If you still don't understand something, move on and don't get bogged down in it.


The Holy See created a document containing directives for popular piety in order to curb some abuses, but also to make known it's value and legitimacy.  I you have not read it, I recommend this.  It was written in December of 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship.

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