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Popular Religiosity in the Dialogue Between Faith and Culture

Daniel Cuesta Gómez, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Apr 21st 2023

Popular religiosity: faith or culture?

Some time ago, a Jesuit, who at that time was working with a parish in a working-class neighborhood, confided to us his concern about the drastic decrease in the number of faithful attending celebrations, catechesis and parish activities. In contrast, he noted the enormous number of people who, gathered by the confraternity of the neighborhood, filled the parish on the occasion of its celebrations and, above all, flocked en masse whenever it carried its images in procession through the streets.

Our colleague gave a clear explanation for this imbalance, stating that while parish activities were part of the context of faith (and therefore suffered a reduction in attendance due to secularization), the events of the confraternity fell within the orbit of culture, and this, in his opinion, accounted for their popularity.

We believe that this explanation is rather simplistic, since, as we know, Jesus Christ preached the Gospel in the context of a specific culture and then evangelization took place within the framework of different cultures, without identifying completely with any one of them.[1] Therefore, in order not to fall into the idealistic error of imagining that the purity of the faith is contaminated by contact with cultures, or that there exists a culture that can fully identify with the Gospel,[2] it is necessary to reflect on what is meant by “culture” from the Christian point of view.

Although there are many excellent definitions of culture, from our perspective the most significant is the one given by Cardinal Avery Dulles. He affirmed that culture is a materialization of the human spirit and, at the same time, a spiritualization of matter which, consequently, performs the function of making our world more human.[3] This definition is, in our opinion, in harmony with the following words of Pope Francis:

“In the same way, we can see that the different peoples among whom the Gospel has been inculturated are active collective subjects or agents of evangelization. This is because people in general are the creators of their own culture and the protagonists of their own history. Culture is a dynamic reality which a people constantly recreates; each generation passes on a whole series of ways of approaching different existential situations to the next generation, which must in turn reformulate them as it confronts its own challenges. Being human means ‘being at the same time child and parent of the culture to which you belong.’ Once the Gospel has been inculturated in a people, in their process of transmitting their culture they also transmit the faith in ever new forms; hence the importance of understanding evangelization as inculturation. Each portion of the people of God, by translating the gift of God into its own life and in accordance with its own genius, bears witness to the faith it has received and is capable of enriching it with new and effective expressions. One can say that ‘a people continuously evangelizes itself.’ Herein lies the importance of popular piety, a true expression of the spontaneous missionary activity of the people of God. This is an ongoing and developing process, of which the Holy Spirit is the principal agent.”[4] 


A similar yet different process

The passage from Evangelii Gaudium just quoted serves as an incentive to address the question of dialogue between faith and culture in the area of popular religiosity. In reality, it is very difficult to draw a line of demarcation between the experiences that come from the sphere of faith and those that concern the context of culture. It is true that today, as heirs of a society that has Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots, we can fall into the trap of thinking that there are realities that affect the sphere of faith – for example, those that concern Scripture, theology, liturgy, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the like – and others that are cultural expressions that only touch faith tangentially, or are unable to express it, or are unable to contain it in a satisfactory way.[5]

We believe it is important to clarify that popular religiosity is not simply an experience of religion impregnated (or contaminated) by culture. For this reason, when the Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy defines popular religiosity and its expressions of piety, it notes that they are experiences of the universal religious dimension of every culture and every people, expressed through cultural mediations. In them there is a genuine synthesis of the human and spiritual dimensions, which are expressed through cultic manifestations that do not follow the modules of the liturgy, because they derive from the characteristics of each individual people.[6] It is important to note that here we speak of “cultic manifestations” and not simply of pious or devotional acts (in the pejorative meaning of these expressions). In this way, a reality that was already perceived is highlighted, namely, that through such experiences and expressions the faithful can render true worship to God.[7]

This leads us to advance two important considerations. The first is that the expressions of popular religiosity, whatever their strength and capacity for cultic expression by the faithful in regard to God, cannot and should not replace the sacraments of the Church.[8] The main reason for affirming this is that the sacraments are of divine institution and therefore belong to the sphere of revelation, whereas popular religiosity often falls within the sphere of private revelation.[9] In this same sense, popular religiosity cannot be compared either with Sacred Scripture or with the authentic exercise of the magisterium, since these are respectively inspired and assisted by the Holy Spirit.

The second consideration leads us to note that in popular religiosity, in liturgy, in theology there is, as a common matrix, the fact that their expression over time has been marked by culture. So we must think that, although the essence of the sacraments has necessarily remained intact over the centuries, their presentation has sometimes changed. The same thing can be said of the linguistic formulation of dogma, translations of Scripture, and so on.

Starting from these presuppositions, we can better understand in what sense we mean that popular religiosity, from a theological point of view, is part of the same dynamism of the Incarnation which has given rise to many of the realities that express and communicate the sacred in the Church, although, as we have just said, it in turn presents substantial differences with it. Thus, with the biblical scholar Emilio Salvatore, we note that around the Christ event a process of inculturation of faith takes place analogous to what we find in the Bible. For this author, it develops through a progressive assimilation of pre-existing elements, which are redefined through a central core, which is the Christian kerygma. This process takes place through a dialogue between faith and culture in which the main touchstone is the humanity of Christ.[10]

Similarly, the then Cardinal Bergoglio explained this process of inculturation of the faith, glossing some words of John Paul II[11]: “Salvation must reach all men and the whole man in his daily and concrete existence. Therefore, when the Gospel comes into contact with cultures, it makes their authentic values its own and ends up by creating culture: ‘A faith that does not become culture is a faith that is not fully accepted, not totally thought out, not faithfully lived,’ said the Pope in Rome in 1982. Faith inserts a specific group of people into the people of God, and it must do so without uprooting them from their context and their culture. The entire action of the Church makes a practice of welcoming into its bosom all those who want to be disciples of Christ, and must accompany them on the path of their daily lives with all their cultural baggage, lived in the community. There is a constant reciprocity between the evangelization of a people and the inculturation of the Gospel; but in order for this relationship to be fruitful, it is essential that that culture become capable of manifestly expressing the signs of faith, and succeed in entering into the process of purification of traditions and forms which may be incompatible with the Gospel. It is up to the Church, for her part, to enable herself to assimilate the values of that particular people and to understand how the Gospel is seen from its perspective. In this proper balance, which does not fluctuate, it will be possible to communicate the Gospel message to a people with all the authenticity and strength of the Word of God, but also with all the authenticity and strength of the cultural reality and the very being of that people.”[12]

A dialogue between two spirits

But this encounter between the Gospel and cultures does not take place univocally; there must be reciprocity in it. This, after all, is a logical consequence of the application of Cardinal Dulles’ spiritualization of matter and the materialization of the spirit. The problem is that on many occasions approaches to popular religiosity from the realm of culture are made by taking into account only one of these two variables. And so popular religiosity ends up being understood as a human product only; this has enormous negative implications when it comes to grasping its most genuine essence, which is that of being that “theological place” of which Pope Francis speaks (cf. EG 126).

These approaches reduce popular religiosity to an expression of the genius of peoples, are not sufficient; they come not only from outside it, but also from within it. That is, they come both from those who want to reduce popular religiosity, or any religious cultural expression, to pure folklore, history or culture (obfuscating or forgetting the faith of its origins and its innermost being from tourist-inspired, economic or secularizing motivations[13]), and from those who do the same thing out of a desire for ecclesial progress, removal  of errors and deviations, or rejection of a tradition that may be uncomfortable.

In all these cases the same result is achieved: that of reducing Christian culture to a social culture, stripping it of its “soul” and “spirit” and of its capacity to put people in communication with God, in order to consider it only according to the canons of a merely human and sometimes secularized or secularizing aesthetic.

In the case of popular religiosity, this manifests itself in those approaches and explanations that refer to it as a collective expression of the people, a relic of past times, a historical legacy that allows us to see not so much the Christianization of culture as having roots coming from pre-Christian cults and the superstitions of the people living in darkness, and so on. So, although in popular religiosity this process is more concrete – since, being an intangible heritage, it is a living reality – in fact other cultural expressions are added to it.

Hence the need to rediscover the mystagogical dimension of art and culture. For Fr. Bert Daelemans, SJ, this process involves ceasing to “use” art as an “illustrative” or “functional” conception, in order to be capable of “[re]discovering the background of prayer intrinsic to art, discerning and honoring the mystagogical dimension of authentic art, and educating oneself to an aesthetic sensibility.”[14] Therefore, since popular religiosity is also a Christian cultural expression in the deepest sense of the term, it is necessary to promote in its regard a process analogous to that proposed for the world of the arts. This expression passes through the recovery of its vertical or spiritual dimension, obscured or hidden in many cases by a purely horizontal vision. In other words, it is a question of remembering that in the Christian conception of culture, intelligence, sentiments and human creativity are not the only factors, since the Spirit of God also intervenes in it.

Some words of the liturgist Gonzalo Guzmán help us to understand this process: “Every culture is dynamic, it generates, operates and transmits its own history, it is the creative capacity that nests in every people that faces or tries to respond to different situations, internal or external, that the passing of time holds in store for it. For this reason, when it encounters faith – the inculturated Gospel – this creative, active, transmitting dynamic begins to be evangelizing and missionary. Thus culture is understood as an evangelizing agent and an evangelized subject. In this process popular piety acquires particular importance […]. It is the presence of the Paraclete in the human spirit that allows the latter to shape ever new ways of manifesting its relationship with God. Popular piety is the result of the joint creative work of these two spirits, divine and human; it is a sign – perhaps in some cases in need of purification – of a journey of maturation of faith. It contains a missionary and self-evangelizing force which the pastors of the Church are called to direct and nourish, and in no case to mutilate […]. Popular religiosity and, in particular, popular piety with its symbolic language, impregnated with feeling, are perhaps the first instrument that the Holy Spirit uses as a door of faith.”[15]

Therefore, one can say that it is very difficult to draw a line of demarcation between faith and culture, if one pays attention both to the definition of culture and to the consequences that it involves with regard to the process of systematization, expansion and inculturation of the faith that derives from the Gospel. Moreover, it can be said that popular religiosity is certainly an expression of religious culture, a sign of the inculturation of faith in a given culture, showing us how it remains alive despite the passage of centuries and how, by its particular nature, it is capable of spiritualizing matter and materializing the spirit.

Popular religiosity in today’s dialogue between faith and culture

In this sense, it is paradoxical that, in a secularizing world, popular religiosity has become an important element in the context of the dialogue between faith and culture. This paradox is manifested, for example, in the fact that the interest awakened by popular religiosity subverts the predictions of many sociologists and theologians of secularization, who announced the end of the presence of religion in the public sphere. Instead, reality shows us that popular religiosity is part of the cultural core of many societies, thus highlighting their religious identity and a desire for God that is inscribed in the hearts of the men and women of the twenty-first century.[16]

But it is also paradoxical that this desire is experienced starting from the forms of our contemporary culture, while seeking the patterns of other previous cultures and leaving out (when not rejecting them) many of the mediations with which the Church has attempted to establish a dialogue with our culture. In order to better understand the experience of this thirst for God in a contemporary context, there are some illuminating references used by the Argentinean Jesuit Jorge Seibold to explain how our contemporaries seek in popular religiosity a religion stripped of dogmas, catechisms and institutions, as if to signify that their interest in God involves living differently.[17] However, this model becomes a paradox when we look for forms of expression belonging to other epochs, which apparently seem to have little to do with contemporary life and with the daily challenges which our contemporaries are called to face in order to find the God of Jesus Christ, but which nevertheless help them to encounter him.

For us, these paradoxes, which at first glance might seem incomprehensible, can actually be the doorway to discovering three important elements when addressing the dialogue between faith and culture in the context of the reality of popular religiosity. First, the fact that the longing for God in our contemporaries is manifested through popular religiosity, thus making it a ‘Courtyard of the Gentiles’[18] and a defense against secularization,[19] as well as an instrument for the inculturation of the faith (cf. EG 69) and the internal cultural self-evangelization of the Church.[20] Second, it shows us how, alongside the efforts made since the Second Vatican Council in dialogue with the contemporary world, there continue to be many elements in our cultural background that speak to the dialectic by which faith was inculturated in earlier eras. Attention must be paid to this if a synthesis is to be achieved that allows for a true Christian cultural dialogue.[21] Thirdly, and as a consequence of what has been said, we note that as a result of the great and rapid social changes, people today are immersed in a crisis of cultural and religious identity in which, as Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo states, a work of reconciliation with culture is necessary, so that through it we may encounter God.[22]

The necessary cultural discernment in popular religiosity

In this dialogue between the human spirit and the divine spirit, which, like any Christian cultural expression, is carried out by popular religiosity, in many cases there are deceptions, traps and sins that must be unmasked and rejected. This is the process that the Jesuit theologian Michael Paul Gallagher called “cultural discernment,” practiced in order to arrive at “cultural consolation,” that is, at that experience in which culture and faith go hand in hand, in a harmonious way, in order to make us perceive some trait of God’s wisdom thanks to the Holy Spirit.[23]

Regarding this process of discernment applied to popular religiosity, Paul VI already announced the existence of a series of limits that it may have (cf. EN 48), limits that would later be specified and expanded by Pope Francis (cf. EG 69-70). However, the two pontiffs also agree in affirming the potential of popular religiosity, to the point that Francis claims it as the best starting point to heal and liberate all those limits (cf. EG 69-70). For this reason, we think that, when carrying out such cultural discernment in popular religiosity, it is appropriate to take into account a series of counsels or rules that, in the Ignatian manner, can illuminate the process in order to bring it to a desired conclusion.

The first rule would be an application of the “where I go and to what” (aonde voy y a qué) of St. Ignatius of Loyola.[24] That is, to be aware that the primary objective of the dialogue between faith and culture in the area of popular religiosity is that of evangelization, as expressed by Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi: “It is necessary to evangelize – not in a decorative way, in the likeness of superficial varnish, but in a vital way, in depth and down to the roots – culture and the cultures of man, in the rich and extensive sense that these terms have in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, always starting from the person and always returning to the relationships of persons among themselves and with God” (EN 20).

The second rule consists in not falling into naivety and in genuineness, nor into distrust. The first two are the attitudes of those who assume a candid and pure faith in all the poor and simple people who participate in popular religiosity, or of those who take for granted a process of sincere search for faith or an approach to prayer on the part of those who are distant, whose only contact with the Church consists precisely in this reality.

The third is the attitude of those who distrust any experience of faith that, in one way or another, does not follow the official canons or are not entirely coherent with what they say they believe and seek. At heart, this rule asks us to welcome the contradictions and mixed motivations present in popular religiosity,[25] in order to succeed in bringing them to a good end according to a believing realism.

The Medellín document expresses this aspect as follows: “People adhere to the faith and become part of the Church at different levels. One should not too easily assume the existence of faith behind any seemingly Christian religious expression. Nor should we arbitrarily deny the character of true adherence to the faith and of real ecclesial participation, even if weak, to any expression that presents spurious elements or non-religious motivations, even of a selfish nature. As a matter of fact, faith, as an act of a human pilgrim in time, finds itself involved with the imperfection of mixed motivations.”[26]

The key to the third rule is to place culture in its proper place, without absolutizing, undervaluing or secularizing it. While the Gospel cannot be identified with any culture, this is not the case for the people in whom it is lived. For this reason, when we approach popular religiosity, we must not fall into the materialism of those who attach importance only to the manifestations of piety, or into the spiritualism of those who maintain that they are not necessary. It is a question, therefore, of allowing the spirit to materialize and matter to spiritualize, so that our life and our age can participate in this process. For this reason we must be particularly careful to defend the living core of popular religiosity from those who would like to secularize it, reducing it to a mere human creation. Indeed, only if it is translated into dialogue between the human spirit and the divine spirit will popular religiosity be capable of illuminating new ways of relating to God, to others and to the environment, as well as of inspiring fundamental values (cf. EG 74). Otherwise, we will end up succumbing to the temptation of making faith adapt and surrender to culture, instead of being a theological place of God’s encounter with people.

The fourth rule consists in always living popular culture and religiosity in fidelity to the Church and to the spirit of ecclesial communion. This implies, on the one hand, remembering that the true nucleus of popular religiosity is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of which the Church is the guardian; and, on the other hand, distrusting those individualisms that shut up people within themselves, beginning with “spiritual worldliness” (cf. EG 93-97), thus destroying communion among the members of the Body of Christ. Popular religiosity is ultimately called to create and live culture, starting from fraternity, and not from the individualism of those who believe they alone possess the truth, or of those who seek only their own spiritual well-being by adopting attitudes close to Gnosticism.

The fifth and final rule is perhaps the most important, because it reminds us that, as in every Christian experience, the key to everything is found in love. Pope Francis affirms in Evangelii Gaudium: “To understand this reality we need to approach it with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love. Only from the affective connaturality born of love can we appreciate the theological life present in the piety of Christian peoples, especially among their poor. I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified. No one who loves God’s holy people will view these actions as the expression of a purely human search for the divine. They are the manifestation of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5)” (EG 125).

After all, only this loving gaze is capable of discovering that, where we sometimes see only a field of weeds, there also grow abundant ears of wheat, which we have no right to uproot. And, what is more important, this gaze is capable of purifying that field thanks to love, ensuring that little by little in it the wheat wins the battle against the darnel, as it prepares for the moment of harvest and reaping.

All of this leads us to conclude that separating faith from culture is something difficult, almost as difficult as wanting to separate the body from the soul. Therefore, the challenge is perhaps not that of dividing in order to establish which area of the believer’s life belongs more to faith and which more to culture, but that of trying to integrate both in the same direction, making sure that there is a dialogue between them that allows a path to be taken. In this way, popular religiosity can be a “theological place” for the men and women of our time, and not only a cultural manifestation that puts us in relation with our land and our past.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 13, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.13

[1].      Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, No. 17; Id., Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, No. 58; John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 1990, Nos. 52-54; Id., Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania, 2001, Nos. 16-17; Paul VI, Encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN), 1975, No. 20.

[2].      Cf. M. P. Gallagher, Fede e cultura. Un rapporto cruciale e conflittuale, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 1999, 88-90.

[3].      A. Dulles, “The Prophetic Humanism of John Paul II”, in America 23 (1993) 9.

[4].      Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), 2013, No. 122.

[5].      Cf. V. Codina, La religión del pueblo. De cuestionada a interpelante, Santander, Sal Terrae, 2019, 157f.

[6].      Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy, 2002, Nos. 9-10 (

[7].      Cf. J. Seibold, La mística popular, Buenos Aires, Agape, 2016, 29-65.

[8] .     Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory…, op. cit., No. 2.

[9] .     Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Message of Fatima, June 26, 2000, ( See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 66.

[10].    Cf. E. Salvatore, “Arte Sacra e Territorio”, in G. De Simone (ed), La devozione popolare tra arte e teologia, Naples, Quaderni di arte e teologia, 2019, 49.

[11].    Cf. John Paul II, Letter of foundation of the Pontifical Council for Culture, May 20, 1982.

[12].    J. M. Bergoglio, “Cultura e religiosità popolare”, in Id, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, 589.

[13].    Cf. Bishops of Southern Spain, El catolicismo popular. Nuevas consideraciones pastorales, Madrid, PPC, 1985, 3; 5.3-5.4.

[14].    B. Daelemans, “Tres claves ignacianas para orar con el arte”, in Manresa 92 (2020) 339.

[15].    G. Guzman, ‘Lo popular’ como un lugar teológico de encuentro entre la liturgia y la piedad, Rome, Edizioni Liturgiche Vincenziane, 2016, 136f; 208.

[16].    Cf. C. M. Galli – S. Movilla López, Fe y piedad popular. Fuerza evangelizadora de la piedad popular. Las imágenes. Las bendiciones, Barcelona, Centre de Pastoral Litúrgica, 2015, 24.

[17].    Cf. J. Seibold, La mística popular, op. cit., 55f.

[18].    Cf. J. Otón, Tabor. El Dios oculto en la experencia, Santander, Sal Terrae, 2020, 144-146.

[19].    “For many people popular religiosity is the only bond of union with the Church and with Christian truth about God and humans. It touches the concrete and real person more than certain programs and projects of what we would call the ‘official’ pastoral program. But care must be taken to ensure that this religiosity does not drift into forms alien to the authentic experience of the Christian faith. In order to achieve this, it will be necessary to avoid a pastoral ministry that is cold, intellectualizing, abstract and detached from the people” (C. Amigo Vallejo, Religiosidad popular, Boadilla del Monte [Madrid], PPC, 2008, 208).

[20].    Cf. J. C. Scannone, “Evangelización de la cultura moderna y religiosidad popular en América Latina”, in Teología y vida 28 (1987) 66-71.

[21].    Cf. P. Sequeri, “Coscienza cristiana, ethos della fede e canone pubblico”, in Associazione Teologica Italiana, ‘A misura di Vangelo’ – Fede, dottrina, Chiesa, edited by M. Vergottini, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2003, 13-30.

[22].    Cf. C. Amigo Vallejo, Religiosidad popular, op. cit., 121.

[23].    Cf. M. P. Gallagher, Fede e cultura…, op. cit., 171f.

[24].    Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 239.

[25].    Cf. S. Morra – M. Ronconi, Incantare le sirene: Chiesa, teologia e cultura in scena, Bologna, EDB, 2019, 179.

[26].    Second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, Documento di Medellín, VI, 6, in Enchiridion – Documenti della Chiesa latinoamericana, Bologna, Emi, 1995, 187.

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