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What is Popular Piety?
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, simply states that popular piety, “designates those diverse cultic expressions of a private or community nature which, in the context of the Christian faith, are inspired predominantly not by the Sacred Liturgy but by forms deriving from a particular nation or people or from their culture.” (Directory, 9) Popular piety then is made up of many characteristics. One is certain gestures, for instance, the kissing of sacred images, or relics. Another is the use of texts and formulas, approved by the local Ordinary. (Directory, 16) There are also songs and music, which have important roles in practically every culture; these musical compositions must be linked to a biblical and ecclesial spirit. Other characteristics are sacred images, like those of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, sacred places, like sanctuaries, and sacred times, such as feast days, or certain memorial days.
“The relationship between Liturgy and popular piety is ancient.” (Directory, 22) During the apostolic period, the Liturgy, and popular piety were developed and did not oppose each other. Although their relationship is ancient and good, the Liturgy of the Church has preeminence over any popular Christian prayer. The Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy says, “While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional.” (11) For instance, one of the precepts of the Church is to go to Mass every Sunday, this is obligatory, not optional. During the Middle Ages, forms of popular piety developed and emerged. Unfortunately, there was a lack of catechesis for popular piety, and that led to many exaggerations and deviations which threatened true Christian worship. Then, during the Modern Period, many spiritual masters emphasized popular piety and left out the liturgy. And yet, the Catholic Counter-Reformation strengthened the Roman Rite, and popular piety became an “antidote to the corrosiveness of rationalism and to the baleful consequences of Jansenism within the Church.” (Directory, 42) Finally, during the Contemporary Period, popular piety was said to be the cause of degeneration in the Liturgy, and therefore radically rejected certain forms of popular piety. In the end, though, the true relationship between the Liturgy and popular piety is found in Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states the “..unquestionable primacy of the Sacred Liturgy and the subordination to it of pious exercises, while emphasizing their validity.” (Directory, 46)
Popular piety can aid in evangelization and catechesis in many ways. It “is an important and indispensable 'starting point in deepening the faith of the people and in bringing it to maturity.'” (Directory, 64) Where there are parts of the world where evangelization efforts have been lacking, popular piety seems to be the main expression of the people's faith. Popular piety can also help with the Gospel message: “In genuine forms of popular piety, the Gospel message assimilates expressive forms particular to a given culture while also permeating the consciousness of that culture with the content of the Gospel, and its idea of life and death, and of man's freedom, mission, and destiny.” (Directory, 63) Popular piety can also help people grow in their relationship with God, thereby continuing and applying their catechesis.
Popular piety is an expression of faith, which does not and should not, undermine the primacy of the Liturgy, and aids in catechesis and evangelization.