Let’s make clear what is meant. In Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Proclaiming the Good News) he described “popular religiosity” as a phenomenon that “manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know.” Papa Montini was well aware of its limits (“often subject to penetration by many distortions of religion and even superstitions”) as well as the disdain in which it was held by theologians, particularly after Vatican II.
However, he suggested that even in modern times of faith renewal and updating, such faith “makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism … involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence ... engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion.” Thus, he was disposed to “readily call it ‘popular piety,’ that is, religion of the people, rather than religiosity.”
In practical terms, we are talking of faith bolstered by devotional practices, such as veneration of Mary and other saints, praying for the dead, shrines and pilgrimages. It was the sort of faith practice that became ubiquitous in the Middle Ages, was tossed out as bathwater by Protestant reformers in English-speaking and Germanic countries, but which Europe’s Catholic majority continued to hold dear.
Popular piety is a vast subject and its history enormous, but upon examining the canonized saints that emerged in the four centuries in question I find three focal points of convergence: Mary, charity to and from the poorest and humblest, and third, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These are often intertwined.
Mary and Mariology
Devotion directed at Myriam of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, gained official support from the First Council of Ephesus, which in 431 approved devotion to the Virgin as Theotokos. The Greek term is often unfortunately mistranslated as “Mother of God,” giving rise to a quasi-divine view of Mary, but it is best translated as “God bearer.”
In its time, the term developed in the Church councils’ pattern of clarifying doctrine through the via negativa (negative path, or declaring certain beliefs erroneous rather than adding new doctrine). Theotokos, implying Jesus’ divinity, responded to Nestorians’ claim that Jesus was only human and distinct from the eternal God the Son or Logos (Word) in the gospel of John.
We have noted the development by St. Dominic of the Marian prayer form known as the Rosary; in the 16th century the Protestant reformers viewed Mariology as unbiblical adoration and worship of Mary, which they dubbed “Mariolatry.” Further along the historical road, three French saints—Louis of Montfort, Catherine Labouré and Bernadette Soubirous—are among the principal promoters of Mariology, each in a distinct way.
Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), a Catholic priest, is deemed one of the early modern writers in modern Mariology. Noted for a life of constant prayer, love of the poor, asceticism and joy in humiliations and persecution (particularly from French Jansenists), Montfort became a wandering preacher and founded many rosary “confraternities” or local societies of prayer throughout France.
His approach involves “consecration to Jesus in Mary.” On this path “the more a soul is consecrated to her the more will it be consecrated to Jesus Christ.” His two main works, The Secret of Mary and True Devotion to Mary, written in 1712 but only discovered by chance in 1842, are said to have influenced Pope John Paul II. Neither is particularly accessible to a modern reader not predisposed to the subject matter.
Catherine (born Zoé) Labouré (1806-1876) is a more accessible Marian figure. She was a nun of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. In visions of Mary in 1830, she said she was told by the Virgin to fashion the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady of Graces.
After two years of investigation, Sister Catherine got clerical approval for the medallions. Following design directions from the Virgin, the work was commissioned to a goldsmith, and they were inscribed with the message “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee — 1830.”
The reference to “conceived without sin” anticipated papal approval of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Millions of Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, are said to wear the medals, shown in the picture.
As a slightly irreverent, yet fascinating little detail, please note that in the photograph Sister Catherine’s headdress matches that of the nuns in the 1967-70 “The Flying Nun” American television situation comedy, starring Sally Field in the role of Sister Bertrille. The order in the show is never mentioned by name, but the producers admitted that they based the habit, with its alleged semi-miraculous aerodynamic qualities, on Sister Catherine’s order.
|St. Catherine Labouré|
Finally, Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), the firstborn daughter of a miller from Lourdes, France, is best known for the apparitions of a “small young lady” who asked her for a chapel to be built at the nearby garbage dump of the cave-grotto at Massabielle. Apparitions of Mary were said to have occurred between February and July 1858. The lady who appeared to her identified herself as the Immaculate Conception.
Bernadette’s story was not accepted initially by Catholic Church clerics, but after a canonical investigation was deemed “worthy of belief.” Bernadette’s body did not decay despite some blemishes and at last inspection, in 1925, showed only minor discoloration. The apparition is now known as Our Lady of Lourdes. The grotto, which I visited in 1969, receives more than 5 million pilgrims a year. Many healings are said to have occurred at the site or in the large church built beside it.
|Grotto at Lourdes|
Marian devotions center on her role in the incarnation, or dwelling in the flesh, of the Son of God in the person of Jesus, whom she bore after a message from the Angel Gabriel. Her response, given in Luke 1:46–55, is a hymn also known as the Magnificat (Latin for “it [my soul] praises”). Various beliefs historically have circulated concerning Mary’s own conception, including that she was born sinless. This was primarily a post-Nicene outgrowth of philosophical speculation around the notion that God’s son could not have been borne by a human being morally corrupted by the sin of Adam and Eve.
A papal declaration in 1854 affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which exempts her from original sin, in case anyone had any doubt. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching also covers the end of Mary’s life. In the most recent infallible papal statement, in 1950, the Assumption of Mary was formally established as doctrine, matching the existing Orthodox teaching known as the Dormition of the Theotokos (or falling asleep of the God bearer). Both propose that Mary was bodily taken to wherever universal human resurrection is to occur at the end of time, in the physical presence of God.
We will next explore the two other foci of Catholic popular piety between the 17th and 19th centuries.