When God hits the street

Popular religiosity between oblivion and rebirth

Summer’s known as a time for the holidays, for rest, for taking a break from the ordinary to live to the rhythm of the party. In the Church’s calendar, however, summer isn’t lived in the same way, and is characterized instead by a long period of ordinary time stretching all the way from Pentecost until the beginning of Advent (the time of preparation for Christmas) in autumn. Yet, notwithstanding the official note of the ordinary, Christian communities concentrate their patronal feasts in the summer, those days of the year when the life of faith takes on the particular flavour of exterior worship, from processions to fireworks to other moments of entertainment.

Being an expression of popular religiosity, patronal feasts are characterized by their spontaneity, as a direct expression of the Christian’s life of faith. Such manifestations of faith can be found from the beginning of Christianity, when the cult of martyrs was celebrated as though they were heroes from the epics, or in the Middle Ages when sacred representations and relics brought a cult which had begun to entrench itself into the presbyteries of the churches and into the chapels of convents and monasteries closer to the people. Popular religiosity in the early centuries of the Christian era was a means of inculturating the gospel in the midst of traditions and peoples with their own history on the religious-cultural plane. In contrast with the Protestant taste, the Council of Trent encouraged popular religiosity, pilgrimages and devotions, and this remained the panorama until the middle of the last century. The Second Vatican Council, with the aim of simplifying Christianity and returning to its essence, has looked to forms of popular religiosity with a healthy sense of self-control and expression taking place within the Church and accompanied and guided by it (cfr. Sacrosanctum Concilium 13). The Council, however, has often been interpreted in a way that could be called fundamentalist. Processions and other outward forms of worship began to be seen as a medieval hang-overs to be overcome and eliminated, causing tensions and incomprehension among the faithful.

Today, regardless of the rampant secularization, popular religiosity and the celebration of patronal feasts endures.They can’t simply be phenomena on the road to extinction shooting off their last sparks. We can say instead that the phenomenon of popular religiosity moves between oblivion and rebirth, the expression of a contemporary Church which, in trying to understand itself, may on occasion turn to the extremes. At this extreme, then, we find groups of intellectual Christians, busy searching for their own intimate spirituality, absolutely distant from popular religiosity and considering it idolatry, or something pagan (and this group includes many members of the clergy); at the other extreme are groups of Christians who, due to culture, folklore, or the desire for a faith that also passes through emotions and exterior rites, are tireless organizers of processions and parties.

I’ve recently got to know the Spanish context, in which popular religiosity has found fertile ground. Institutionalized in the dense system of the brotherhoods (cofradias), rather than knowing a time of crisis, it is experiencing an unusual time of rebirth. Spain, while living a period where, both politically and socially, there are peaks of anticlericalism, is able to find unity in popular religiosity simply because this phenomenon attracts tourists and is considered an important element of the cultural identity of the country. Just think of the attraction provided by Holy Week celebrations in various Spanish cities, where for several days and nights the streets come alive with groups of confraternities in well organized processions, each ordered around the holy image which that confraternity is responsible for, accompanied by the sound of vibrant brass bands.

The characteristics of popular religiosity in the south of Italy are similar to that found in Spanish culture, due to the centuries of close relations between these cultures and the common channel of communication provided by the Mediterranean. For the same reasons, similar features in the celebration of popular religiosity are also found in Malta.

Pope Francis, as a son of Latin America, has grown up breathing the air of popular religiosity. His insistence on an idea of ​​the Church as pueblo (a category already widely explored by Vatican II) makes him particularly close to the most genuine expressions of a popular character, among which we can also place the patronal feasts.

The phenomenon so rapidly described has great potential: it gathers, it creates communion, it brings together the strengths and resources that give identity and flavour to local communities. Popular religiosity nourishes the most affective channel of faith – often excessively rationalized – managing to involve the various senses and the body that tires, yet which sets off in procession and makes itself a prayer. The organization of patronal feasts isn’t, however, free of risk, and can make us lose sight of that delicate balance between mercy, justice and outward worship that runs throughout Sacred Scripture and the history of the Church. It shouldn’t be forgotten that organized crime or mafia-like behaviours in collections of money can insinuate themselves into the organization of patronal feasts. Similar situations must be condemned absolutely.

The task of the spiritual guides of a community that celebrates its patron saint will then be that of moving that community towards openness, towards welcome into the community of those whom Jesus and the saints have always favored: the poor and the marginalized. A religiosity, in conclusion, that knows how to integrate charity, and yet continues to be the joyful face of a gospel that has never refused the rhythm of celebration and conviviality.

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