What follows is a summary of the article of Mark R. Francis CSV, entitled “Liturgy and Popular Piety in a Historical Perspective,” found in  Peter Phan, ed., Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines – A Commentary (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005), 19-43.

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Christian Antiquity

  1. 1st-3rd C: marked by a “profound fusion of cultic realities”. The Church incorporated into liturgical rites forms drawn from individual, domestic, and community piety.
  2. 4th-5th C: Local Churches (for pastoral reason) absorbed into the liturgy certain purified cultic elements from pagan world. There was the rise of “various liturgical families” developing worship according to their own cultural, popular forms.
  3. Gradually however liturgical forms became fixed, extinguishing liturgical creativity and leading to the proliferation of texts for private and popular piety.
  4. Gregory the Great (590-604) introduced liturgical reforms, harmoniously incorporating popular elements into the Roman rite.

Middle Ages

  1. 8th C: Iconoclastic controversy in Eastern Churches led to a synthesis between liturgy and popular piety. In the West however, the story was different.
  2. Western Churches: there was a decisive differentiation between liturgy and popular piety that led to a “dualism of celebration”, i.e., parallel celebrations: liturgy in Latin; popular piety in the vernacular.
  3. What were the reasons for such dualism? The liturgy was monopolized by clergy; there was a lack of knowledge of the Scriptures; diffusion of apocryphal literature; lack of mystagogical preaching; the adoption of expressive, popular forms and structures of worship more comprehensible to the people.
  4. What led to the “liturgy-popular piety rupture”? Spiritual movements and associations; “sacred performances”; vernacular poetry in acts of devotions; alternatives to liturgical expressions.

Despite the growing gulf between liturgy and popular piety, “the liturgy inspired and nourished various expressions of popular piety; and several forms of popular piety were assumed by, and integrated into the liturgy.”

Modern Period

  1. 15th C: Development of the Devotio moderna (e.g., Imitation of Christ): a spiritual movement marked by individual piety; less attentive to communal, ecclesial prayer.
  2. 15th-16th C: Period of Western exploration and missionary outreach – evangelization through diffusion of pious exercises; the encounter with new cultures was facilitated in popular piety.
  3. 16th C: Tridentine reform led to: doctrinal purification of liturgical texts, rubrical rigidity, and hierarchization in the liturgy; Roman liturgy also acquired ritual unity, dignity, and beauty.
  4. 17th C: Split between liturgy and popular piety became even more acute. Liturgy had a static period of substantial uniformity; while popular piety, period of development. Pious exercises were tapped as means of evangelization.
  5. 18th C: Enlightenment: Split between the “religion of the learned” (liturgy) & “religion of the simple people” (popular piety). Popular piety was regarded as superstitious and fanatical. Though they also served as an effective antidote to rationalism and Jansenism.
  6. In the mission: lack of official adaptation of the Roman liturgy to other cultures. Influence of local cultures was more pronounced in popular piety; but also the danger of religious syncretism.

Contemporary Period

  1. 19th C: There was the period of liturgical revival after French revolution. Church was seen as People of God and a worshipping community. It was also a period of revival of popular piety (as a reaction to 18th C rationalism). This led to an accentuated superimposition of pious exercises on liturgical actions.
  2. 20th C: Pius X’s liturgical movement – there was an attempt to bring the liturgy closer to the people. The objective superiority of the liturgy over all forms of piety – upheld.
  3. But there were also those who wished to restore the purity of divine worship (i.e., purify liturgy of popular elements). They were really not sensitive to forms of piety approved and recommended by the church and have made a significant contribution in preserving the faith.
  4. Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, defended pious exercises.


  1. Three main reasons for the distorted relationship between liturgy and popular piety: weakened awareness of the centrality of the paschal mystery; weakened sense of the universal priesthood of the faithful; and a lack of knowledge of the liturgy itself.
  1. Harmonious relationship can be established between liturgy and popular piety if popular piety is objectively subordinated to and directed towards the liturgy. NB. Such relationship should not be in terms of contradiction, equality, or substitution. No to both extreme positions.
  1. SC 13 – “Devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.” Normative!
  2. However, if we look at the history of the relationship between the liturgy and popular piety from the perspective of the experience of the Christian people at worship, we will realize that the elements of the liturgy and popular piety are inextricably interwoven through the centuries and are often hard to distinguish one from the other.

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