Recently, in Evangelii Gaudium (Nos. 123-126), Pope Francis emphasizes “popular piety.” He writes that popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on. He recalls Pope Paul VI stating 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 matter of bearing witness to belief.”
In referring to Latin America, Pope Francis notes that the bishops there also refer to it as “popular spirituality” or “the people’s mysticism”; it is not 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 (to believe in God) than on credere Deum (to believe in a God).
A Way of Living the Faith
“It is a legitimate way of living the faith, a way of feeling part of the Church and a manner of being missionaries.” Journeying together to shrines and taking part in other manifestations of popular piety, taking one’s children or inviting others, is in itself an evangelizing gesture.
Only from the affective connaturality born of love can we appreciate the theological life present in the piety of Christian people who cling to a Rosary prayed by candlelight in a warm home with a prayer for help from Mary. These are the manifestations of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5).
It is my opinion that the Holy Father wants us to open our spiritual hearts to the experience of devotions that seem to have been abandoned shortly after Vatican II. Devotions to the Eucharist; devotions to Mary (especially with the Rosary); stations of the cross; days of recollection; prayer and novenas, and prayers and devotions to special saints seem to have gotten lost in the gusto for a reform of the liturgy — especially as this reform centered attention more to the Mass as Liturgy of the Word and Sacrament as the locus for spirituality.
Of special note for Americans is that, in the mid-19th century, a great diaspora from Ireland brought to our shores poor folks looking to their newfound land for freedom. These Catholic Irish folks came mostly from farming areas where less was known of the faith because of the scarcity of the clergy. In the meantime, back in Ireland, Cardinal Paul Cullen initiated a “devotional revolution” that spread through the Catholics of Ireland.
Because so many of the Irish immigrants to the United States had had little catechesis in the faith, bishops in Ireland decided to send missionary sisters and priests who had experienced this “devotional revolution.” As the Irish population in the U.S. increased, so did the devotional aspect, and eventually it changed the face of the American Catholic Church.
Nostalgia for Something ‘Warm’
I personally have noticed in these past 10 years the budding increase in recapturing some of the devotions of our ancestors, especially with Benediction and Adoration among younger people, young adults and some in their 30s or 40s. I see more Rosaries being prayed and more devotions to our Blessed Mother. There seems to be a nostalgia for that something “warm” (Pope Francis’s word) found in these forms of piety. I have noticed this in our Benedictine College and definitely in seminarians who come from different dioceses. There is definitely a yearning for such forms of piety.
I myself grew up (I am now 85) by going to the weekly devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help at our German church of St. Wendelin’s where we had that beautiful icon of Our Blessed Mother before us. It was an understood practice with no questions asked. I carried my Rosary with me in my pocket then and, especially, when I joined the Air Force.
Yes, Vatican II came, followed by some too-eager liturgists who, with some pastors, did not want to share some of the principles of the changes. This resulted in a decline of piety practices. I became a bit mesmerized by it all and abandoned my own formation piety practices. Now, as I see the new buds of piety emerging, I too wish to return to those pious practices which will assist me in my spiritual journey. I hope there are other priests who feel the same.
FATHER BEAVER, O.S.B., is a retired monk at St. Vincent Archabbey located in Latrobe, Pa. Ordained in 1985 (at the age of 56), he was assigned to several parishes before his retirement in 2011. Before entering the Monastery at age 51, he had been an administrator in higher education institutions. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English, an MA in Education and an MS in Theology. He is the author several articles on liturgy, spirituality and sacraments, including two recent articles in The Priest.