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How do we understand the word popular religiosity? What do we refer to when we use this term?

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Various Ways of Naming It

[1] Different authors use various terms to refer to expressions of religious devotion such as the “processions, pilgrimages, rosaries, novenas, holy medals, scapulars, special local customs and rites incorporated in the official liturgical celebrations.”

French authors prefer to use the term religion. Thus, we have popular religion instead of popular religiosity. Spanish authors instead use the term religiosidad popular [=popular religiosity]. German authors use the term Volkfrömmigkeit [=piety of the people or popular piety] or Volkreligiosität [= religiosity of the people or popular religiosity].[i] From this, we have the English term folk religion. The term “folk” however may suggest people in their “native purity and tradition relatively untainted by modernization.”[ii]

Bernhard Raas, a Swiss SVD missionary who worked in the Philippines for at least fifteen year, prefers to call it popular devotions. However, he intends it synonymous with the term popular religiosity. In his book entitled Popular Devotions, Raas uses popular devotions and popular religiosity interchangeably.

“In spite of the urgent need of a careful study of the popular devotions, theology woefully neglected this field. Theology and people’s religiosity were and often still are today so much apart that they look at each other as estranged brothers and sisters. Theology is done on an academic and intellectual level while popular religiosity is thought of as unscientific and not worth studying carefully. Very rarely we find in a theological study plan a part dedicated to popular devotions…”[iii]

In a seminar held in Manila on January 21-22, 2000 entitled “Filipino Popular Devotions: The Interior Dialogue Between Traditional Religion and Christianity,” Ma. Celilia T. Medina, speaking on behalf of Bishop Honesto Pacana, SJ, then Chairman of the Commission on Culture of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines [=CBCP], uses “popular piety,” “popular religiosity,” “popular religion,” and “popular religious expressions” as synonymous terms.[iv] Moreover, Medina understands “popular religiosity” as

“a term which encompasses a host of behaviors, attitudes and values, from the kissing of statues, feeding of Holy Host to fighting cocks, various forms of penance and sacrifices (panata) during Holy Week.”[v]

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[2] Pontifical and Church documents usually employ the term piety instead of religiosity to emphasize the positive aspects of the expressions of popular religion. Thus, popular piety instead of popular religion.

This is true for the document published by the Pontifical Council for Culture entitled Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture (1999) which talks about “popular piety” as an example of genuine inculturation of faith.[vi] This is also true for the final document of the 5th General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean convened in Aparecida (Brazil), from May 13 to 31, 2007. Nos. 258-265 present “popular piety” as a space of encounter with Jesus Christ. This is also true for the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel (2013). Nos.122-126 talk about the evangelizing power of “popular piety.”

However, this is not the case for the 2014 document entitled Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church published by the International Theological Commission. Nos. 107-112 of the document Sensus Fidei talk about sensus fidei and popular religiosity.”

[3] Recognizing the lack of a uniform definition and a consistent terminology, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy[vii] [=DPPL] attempts to clarify the meaning of the following terms: pious exercises, devotions, popular piety, and popular religiosity.

a. Pious exercises are the public or private expressions of Christian piety which, though not part of the liturgy, are derived from or in harmony with the official liturgy of the Church.[viii]

b. Devotions, in the context of the directory, are external practices – e.g., prayers, hymns, observances attached to particular times or places, insignia, medals, habits or customs – which manifest the devotees’ particular relationship with God, the Virgin Mary, or the Saints.[ix]

Bernhard Raas makes an explicit distinction between the external expressions and the internal attitude when talking about devotions. In a deeper sense, the word devotion refers to the internal attitude of surrender and dedication to God; but it also refers to the external ways by which this internal attitude is manifest or expressed.[x]

c. Popular piety refers to private or communitarian cultic expressions which, in the Christian context, are inspired predominantly by forms deriving from the people and their particular culture, rather from the Sacred Liturgy. They are popular not only because they come from the people, but also because they are loved, cherished and practiced by the people. As the people’s cultic expressions, popular piety manifests the people’s thirst for God, particularly that of the poor and the humble. Popular piety renders them capable of doing acts of generosity and sacrifice for their faith; it also generates in them interior attitudes of patience, detachment, and the awareness of the cross in their daily life.[xi]

d. Popular religiosity refers to the universal “religious dimension to human life found in all peoples – not limited to Christians (Catholics) – that involves external ritual expressions.”[xii]

While it is helpful to make these clarifications, in practice these terms really overlap and are, at times, very hard to distinguish one from another.[xiii]

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[4] Perhaps, it would be more helpful to focus on clarifying the terms “religion”, “religiosity”, and “popular religiosity”.

a. In a narrower sense, religion suggests “an organized group with its clergy, scriptures, and dogma, by which a set of symbols for the ultimate concern is accepted and cultivated in life and thought.” In a larger sense, religion is direction, movement towards the unconditioned, the ultimate. It implies being grasped by an ultimate concern. In the latter sense, religion is synonymous to faith.[xiv]

b. Faith, in the narrower sense, refers to certain beliefs (=from teachings of the faith which are commonly accepted to officially formulated doctrines of the Church). It suggests faith as truths we believe in [=fides quae]. In the wider sense, faith refers to the relationship between human persons who desire to relate with God and God who graciously stirs and fulfills that desire for them by the gift of self-communication.  This understanding views faith not simply as truths we believe in [=fides quae], but as an act of trust [=fides qua].

c. Religiosity is the concrete manifestations of religion, according to different socio-cultural contexts, in terms of varied human behavior and actions – individual and collective.[xv] Popular religiosity refers to the concrete expressions of popular religion.

d. Often, popular religion/religiosity is defined on the basis of its distinction from the official or elite religion. Such a definition tends to view popular religion negatively as a deviation from the norm and generally associated with the poor, uneducated masses.[xvi] At times, popular religion is defined on the basis of what the term “popular” implies: “of the people”. Such definition intends to be inclusive. Thus, the popular does not necessarily exclude the elite, educated, and religious specialists.[xvii] [E.g. Sto. Nino]

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Towards a Deeper Understanding of “Popular Religiosity”

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Popular Religiosity and Official liturgy

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Liturgy and Popular Religiosity: Historical Perspective

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Forms and Traits of Popular Religiosity

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[i] Domenico Sartore, “Le manifestazioni della religiosità popolare,” in I sacramentali e le benedizioni, Anamnesis 7 (Genova: Marietti, 1989), 232n3.

[ii] Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (New York: Orbis Books, 1985), 124.

[iii] Bernhard Raas SVD, Popular Devotions: Making Popular Religious Practices More Potent Vehicles of Spiritual Growth (Manila: Logos Publications, 2006, 4th printing), 13.

[iv] Ma. Cecilia T. Medina, “Dialogue between Faith and Culture and Popular Devotions,” in Filipino Popular Devotions: The Interior Dialogue between Traditional Religion and Christianity, edited by Leonardo Mercado SVB (Manila: Logos Publications, 2000), 11-21.

[v] Ibid., 12.

[vi] Pontifical Council for Culture, Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999) ?

[vii] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (Vatican City: 2001).

[viii] DPPL, 7. “Pious exercise” refers to “those public or private expressions of Christian piety which, although not part of the Liturgy, are considered to be in harmony with the spirit, norms, and rhythms of the Liturgy. Moreover, such pious exercises are inspired to some degree by the Liturgy and lead the Christian people to the Liturgy.”

[ix] DPPL, 8.

[x] Bernhard Raas SVD, Popular Devotions: Making Popular Religious Practices More Potent Vehicles of Spiritual Growth (Manila: Logos Publications, 2006), 15-16.

[xi] DPPL, 9. Rass, Popular Devotions, 15.

[xii] Mark R. Francis, Local Worship, Global Church: Popular Religion and the Liturgy (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2014), 4. See DPPL, 10. “Popular religiosity refers to a “universal experience: there is always a religious dimension in the hearts of people, nations, and their collective expressions. All peoples tend to give expression to their totalizing view of the transcendent, their concept of nature, society, and history through cultic means.”

[xiii] M. Francis, Local Worship, Global Church: Popular Religion and the Liturgy (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2014), 4.

[xiv] MacKenzie Brown, Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965), 2-5. For Paul Tillich, faith is the “state of being grasped by an ultimate concern” [Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 40]. What concerns us ultimately determines our being and non-being [Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1:14]. What for us is a matter of being and non-being claims ultimacy. It demands total, unconditional surrender from us who accept this claim; it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims must be subjected to it or rejected in its name [Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, ed. Ruth N. Anshen (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957), 1-3].

[xv] Domenico Sartore, “Le manifestazioni della religiosità popolare,” in I sacramentali e le benedizioni, Anamnesis 7 (Genova: Marietti, 1989), 232. Sartore understands the term religiosità popolare (popular religiosity) to refer to a set of spiritual attitudes and cultic expressions, in various ways linked to the liturgy.

[xvi] Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 124-26.

[xvii] Robert E. Wright, “If it’s official, it can’t be popular?” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 1, no. 3 (1994): 56-57. Wright defines “popular religiosity” as “religiosity which is widely appropriated among the social group as a whole which is being considered – and thus necessarily among its common people or masses.”