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New Series: Popular Piety

Friday, October 18, 2013
How do we know things about God? Well, a traditional answer would be go something like this: we know about God by his self-revelation in Scripture and Tradition, transmitted by the Church’s Magisterium, and by using the God-given aids of reason and religious experience that help us to make sense of that self-revelation. That’s all well and good, but it might strike us as a little bit clinical, perhaps as the language of the theology textbook rather than the language of the heart. If we were asked by a friendly enquirer in a pub, it’s probably not how we’d go about talking about our friendship with Jesus Christ nor about our own powerful experiences of His transforming love.
Rosary Supermarket in Lourdes
When we look at the myriad of ways in which ordinary Christians reach out to God and experience God reaching out to them, however, we find that they are patterned by that traditional answer. Scripture, Tradition, shared religious experiences and the light of natural reason co-mingle in the various forms of popular piety that are born in Christian cultures across the globe. To take one example - the Rosary, ‘the Gospel on a string’ - we use our intellects to reflect on the mysteries of Christ’s life transmitted to us in Scripture and Tradition; we draw upon the accumulated wisdom bequeathed to us by the experience of generations of faithful Christians who have gone before us. Through popular piety, Christian theology comes alive in diverse cultures in ways simultaneously both accessible and profound.
All Souls Day in Mexico
It’s true to say, of course, that some expressions of popular piety need to be purified from an excessive sentimentality by a dose of reason. But we’d be wrong to conclude from the primacy of reason that sentimentality is always to be shunned. One of the great insights of St Thomas Aquinas OP was that, reflecting the holism of the human person, our emotions - even as they sometimes stand in need of correction by our thoughts - are fundamentally sound and essentially indispensable, ‘pointing’ us in the right direction, toward the good; rationality and emotion are conjoined. In fact, popular piety involves the mutual purification of sentiment and reason in the light of the Holy Spirit. Far from being ‘above’ popular piety, then, theologians often find popular piety to be a valued locus of reflection, or even find themselves corrected by it: popular piety is a reflection of “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people” of God (CCC §92).
The Spanish tradition entierro de la sardina marks the start of Lent
With this in mind, over the next few months, the Godzdogz team will be dedicating a series to the exploration of popular piety. From bona mors to blessings, we hope to share with you an appreciation of some of the gems of the Church’s rich spiritual panorama, and so to rejoice in the gift of our Catholic diversity.

Oliver James Keenan OP


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