During the Year of Faith we should work to revive popular piety and communual devotions.
A friend in Rome, Fabricius Magnus, sent me the following:
Sandro Magister has an article related to the pope’s visit to Loreto and reports of a conference on popular piety of last sept. He quotes an excerpt from Cardinal Vegliò’s address.
I was unable to retrieve a full text as it would have been useful to put what he says in a more defined context and Magister’s transcript does not provide the necessary emphases and quotation marks that would help us with a better understanding of the sense of the spoken Italian. For instance, I don’t agree that popular piety is always “sentimental” and necessarily scarce of biblical grounding, but Card. Vegliò might have said those parts with a tone that clarified his disagreement as well.
Bottom line, it is a comforting speech to hear from a cardinal. At least they know what’s going on here, and they deign to say it in public more often, as of late. Hopefully the young guns will put the necessary measures into practice.
We need a revival of popular (“for the people”) devotions.
Here is the translation my friend sent.
THE DECEPTION OF A “PURE” RELIGION by Card. Antonio Maria Vegliò
The negative evaluation of popular piety was influenced by causes both internal and external to the ecclesial ambit. Among the former there prevailed the existence of partial and selective post-conciliar readings of the conciliar texts as well as a partial and self-serving interpretation of their doctrine. Among the latter causes we must register the important influence exerted by the theories of secularization. The acceptance of the theology of secularization on behalf of many ecclesial circles implied contempt for a Christianity expressed by exterior forms of which popular piety is certainly the most obvious example.
It was considered to be a superficial Catholicism, separated from life and historical engagement.
One of the results of the Council was the definition of the Church as people of God, which encouraged the associations of lay people. In this context, small groups arose which considered themselves more engaged. These “Catholics of engagement” or “progressive Catholics” adopted an attitude of contraposition against those Christians who would participate in the expressions of popular piety, and considered them as simpletons, ritualists, incapable of adapting to the new times, and in need of purification.
At the same time, they accused popular piety of superstitious nuances, of having moved away from reality, of alienating itself from Christian commitment, of being incapable of forming militants and promoting evangelical attitudes fostering development and liberation.
One of the most evident outcomes of the Council was the liturgical reform. And yet the development of such process wasn’t always as appropriate as hoped for. In the first place, and as a fruit of the enthusiasm the Council generated within the Church, it was presumed to be possible to develop such a reform at dizzying speed, without sufficient time to assimilate the conciliar texts and their subsequent implementation by the universal Church. Besides, and in certain initiatives, the conciliar teachings were subjected to erroneous and self-serving interpretations.
In quite a few instances there was the promotion of an excessively pragmatic liturgy, in which pedagogical and didactic elements abounded, to the detriment of its mysterious character, which led to neglect of chant, silence and gestures.
One of the praiseworthy goals was to achieve a purified religious experience in internal motivations as well as the external forms. The problem arose in the concrete way of the development of all this. A “pure”, rootless and abstract religiosity was promoted, which supposed among other things the elimination of religious traditions that were associated with magic, utilitarian or superstitious traits.
The conciliar assertion of the centrality of liturgy and the Eucharistic celebration led quite a few shepherds to suppress many popular practices on grounds that popular piety manifests itself, in various circumstances, under different forms from those envisioned by the official liturgical texts. [An American bishop even went so far as to ban Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.]
The reform stressed the greater importance Sacred Scripture had to have in the liturgical celebration. As a consequence, there was a negative evaluation of the scarce biblical presence in popular manifestations, many of which are poor in theology and biblical citations but rich in sentimentalism.
The promulgation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963 coincided with one the moments when the movement towards secularization had greater strength, and this influenced the application of the conciliar reforms. In such context, the liturgy was given an obvious temporal task, with the acquisition of a prophetic tone, the denunciation of social situations of sin and the call to engagement. Thus, popular piety was judged in a negative way, and charged with anesthetic effects in relation to social problems.
All these elements, which somehow made themselves present during the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy, translated into the indiscriminate and arbitrary suppression of numerous practices of popular piety. In this context, the words pronounced by Paul VI in 1973 during a public audience are eloquent:
“Authoritative voices recommend to us great caution with regard to the process of reform of traditional popular religious customs; to guard against extinguishing religious sentiment in the course of giving it a new and more authentically spiritual expression. A sense for what is true, beautiful, simple, a sense of the community, and also of tradition – where deserving of respect – must preside over the outward manifestations of worship, with a view to preserving the affection of the people for them”.
These popular devotions were and are still important. By eliminating them, we amputated an important dimension of our Catholic identity.
Parish priests would do well to revive popular devotions.
For example, on Tuesdays at my home parish back in my native place, there was a public, communal recitation of the Novena of Our Lady of Perpetual Help by St. Alphonsus Liguori. The translation was thick with all the popular piety of Italians of St. Alphonsus day. People loved. After years they had it memorized. The recitation of long prayers by an entire congregation has a powerful effect. Following the Novena, there was Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. While the Sacrament was exposed, the Litany of the Sacred Heart was recited. And there’s more! After Benediction, people would come forward and kneel at the rail and the priest, together with another of the priest or deacon of the parish, would give individual blessings. When everyone was blessed, priests would get into the confessionals and hear confessions, which would last until at least 9:30 pm.
This was the stuff of comfort and of vocations.
It was regular. People came from all over because they knew it was always going to take place. The chapel was always full.
This is the sort of thing we need to revive in the Year of Faith.
And yet there was a rush to get rid of these devotions. Then the parish guilds and associations died away. People stopped thinking about their church as part of the rhythm of their week. Devotions were repressed with real brutality.
When I was in seminary in Rome, one summer the rector made a tour of some American cities. I had to be involved, of course. I arranged for him to stay for a bit at my home parish. He was there on a Tuesday and saw what happened in the evening. He was shocked. He railed against what was going on and ran it down in no uncertain terms. He scoffed at the Novena, which he knew in Italian. He was very superior and knowing. He was almost angry about the individual blessings after Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Why should people want blessings? Wasn’t Benediction enough? I offered the explanation that the pastor had given me. Many of the people who came each week knew they shouldn’t receive Communion because of the circumstances of their lives. The chance to go forward to the Communion rail was a comfort to them. Devotions helped them remain connected to their Church and not let go. The various things done each Tuesday reinforced each other rather than detract from each other.
We need more popular devotions.