The Mercy of God Expressed in Popular Piety
Popular piety is sometimes disdained by those who are not familiar with the intimacy and profundity lived and experienced by those that practice their faith. Popular piety or religiosity means that the faith is rooted in the hearts of diverse communities to enter the world of everyday life. Popular piety is the first and fundamental form of the “enculteration” of the faith, which should continuously be guided by the direction of liturgy, but, in turn, becomes fertile from the heart. Pope Francis tells us in Evangelii Guadium that “expressions of popular piety have much to teach us; for those who are capable of Reading them are a locus theologicus which demands our attention, especially at a time when we are looking for a new evangelization.”
The different expressions of popular piety go by the name of “exercises of piety,” that can be inspired, under the recommendation and approval of the Holy See and the Bishops, the liturgy or also from the “devotion of formal aspects.” Among other things, the devotion can be expressed in "formulas of prayer" to God, to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints (novenas, Holy Rosary), in pilgrimages to the holy places, in the veneration of medals, statues, relics and sacred and blessed images, processions, and other “popular customs”.
For the Hispanic community in particular, popular piety is an essential part to how they live their faith. The popular piety of Hispanics originates from a meztiza faith; a hybrid between evangelization of the European Catholic conquistadors and the native practices of the Amerindians who found their spirituality in nature. Popular piety has developed into a vehicle to find the mercy of God. I think, for example, of the goodwill, love, and devotion of those danzantes (Aztec dancers), that dance indigenous dances barefoot in the cold December winter, to dance for the Virgin of Guadalupe with the objective to reach or show gratitude to a miracle. I also think of that husband that embarks on a journey on foot, lasting weeks, to the Basilica of the Most Holy Virgin of Guadalupe or a sanctuary of his devotion and, two blocks before reaching the sanctuary, he gets on his knees and continues walking this way until he arrives with bloody knees and blistered feet as a sacrificial offering to find the mercy of God in the healing of his wife or one of his children. And what of the mother that prays a novena to Saint Toribio de Romo so that the saint can intercede for the wellbeing of her son that risks his life crossing the border to look for a better future. These types of actions “have to do with a true ‘spirituality embodied in the culture of the humble’” (Evangelii Gaudium). A type of spirituality that Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi describes as acts that “reflect a thirst for God that only the poor and the humble know” and that these are the very acts of faith of heroic sacrifi ce the faith entrusted in the mercy of God. And it is in these acts of trust that God manifests his merciful power over his people.
It should be noted that popular piety, more concretely, the different expressions of devotion, is not the same as idolatry, which is cult worship that is given to a creature, giving honor that is due only to God. The Hispanic community searches and finds mercy from God by acts of popular piety, but must be guided by those that teach the faith and the clergy in general to avoid falling into the risk of superstition.
In this year of mercy, it is important not to despise the different exercises of piety that all communities have enculturated gospel as a way to root the Word of God in the heart of their culture and their ancestors. Let us allow the Holy Spirit to show us the mercy of our God of love through different practices of the devotions of His children. Let us also ask for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to help our Hispanic community quench their thirst for God through their devotion tinged with cultural aspects so characteristic of their identity as God’s people. What can be done in the Year of Mercy to accompany the Hispanic people?
- Be merciful in trying to understand the different popular practices through which Hispanics experience God’s mercy.
- Organize a vigil in which we invite all those who for some reason have failed to fulfill a "manda" offered to go to a sanctuary in their home countries. Pray as a community for their hearts’ intention to lighten the spiritual burden for not being able to fulfill their promise to God.
- Organize novenas to different Marian advocations of Latin American peoples, asking for intercession to achieve the mercy of God. It is important to give space in our churches and communities to different ethnic groups and their devotions. Remember that not all Hispanics are devoted exclusively to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
- Make altars and offer novenas to different saints to whom Hispanics are devoted, for example: Santo Toribio Romo, the patron saint of immigrants.
- Organize a pilgrimage to one or nine of the different Holy Gates designated in our diocese by Bishop Ochoa:
- St. John’s Cathedral, Fresno;
- Our Lady of Mercy, Merced;
- St. Joachim, Madera;
- St. Anthony of Padua, Reedley;
- Immaculate Heart of Mary, Hanford;
- St. Aloysius, Tulare;
- Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bakersfield;
- St. Therese, Shafter;
- St. Ann, Ridgecrest.