Earlier this month, in an address to pilgrimage leaders and rectors of shrines and sanctuaries, Pope Francis spoke about the phenomenon of popular religiosity. This term refers to traditions linked to or rooted in religious faith, but which have become at least as much a part of the culture as an expression of belief.
Popular religiosity is not a particularly common phenomenon in the United States. Perhaps celebrations surrounding St. Patrick’s Day would be among the few examples of it here.
But in Latin America, in the Philippines, in Italy and in other parts of the world, popular religiosity is a notable element of the culture, and an integral part of the way people live out their Catholicism.
When the pope referenced it in his address on pilgrimages, he cited a document written by Pope Paul VI in 1975, Evangelii Nuntiandi, on evangelization in the modern world.
Paul VI recognized both the good and the bad in popular religiosity.
It “certainly has its limits,” he said. “It is often subject to penetration by many distortions of religion and even superstitions. It frequently remains at the level of forms of worship not involving a true acceptance by faith. It can even lead to the creation of sects and endanger the true ecclesial community.”
“But if it is well oriented,” Pope Paul continued, “above all by a pedagogy of evangelization, it is rich in values. It manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of manifesting belief. It involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. It engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion.”
All of this will be on rich display today in Mexico when Catholics turn up in the thousands to definitively close the Christmas season, with the Feast of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple.
Similar to Ash Wednesday’s service, the celebration of Feb. 2 will bring people to Mass who might rarely set foot inside a church at other times during the year.
The roots of the festivities are in the liturgical celebration of the event related in Luke Chapter 2: “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] took [Baby Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
The Feast of the Presentation is known as another Epiphany, since the prophecy and blessing of Simeon and Anna reveal Christ as the Messiah, in the same way that the gifts of the Three Kings pointed to his divinity and lordship.
The link to the Epiphany is tangible in Mexico since Feb. 2 is as a second chapter of Jan. 6.
On Jan. 6, the feast of Epiphany or Three Kings Day, families gather in the evening to enjoy a traditional sweet bread called the Rosca de Reyes (or bread of the kings, named for the ringed shape of the bread). Hidden within the rosca is one or more tiny figurines of the infant Jesus. As the rosca is sliced and distributed to each member of the family (and friends who’ve come for the celebration), everyone waits to see who has gotten the slice with the Jesus figurine hidden inside. The lucky winner is traditionally the one responsible for providing tamales — precisely on Feb. 2 when the group will convene again. But as well, he or she is entrusted with the responsibility of “presenting Jesus in the temple” this day.
In addition to the creche, many families have a larger-sized figure of Jesus as part of their Christmas decorations. (The children of the family will rock this image of Baby Jesus and sing lullabies to him in one of the most tender moments of Christmas Eve festivities.) This same figurine is now brought to church for a blessing, but his swaddling clothes are covered over by all manner of fine robes and raiments.
And sometimes — and here we see highlighted both the blessing and the danger in popular religiosity — Jesus’ garments reflect not his kingship, but something more commonplace.
A family with a sick or disabled child might present el Niño Dios (the Child-God) dressed as a doctor. Others might present him with the tilma of Juan Diego showing Our Lady of Guadalupe. More profanely, Jesus is also sometimes presented in a soccer uniform. One catechist quipped that it was a sin to present Jesus this way, and a graver sin to present him dressed in the uniform of Cruz Azul (one of the many popular national teams).
While there may be elements of the celebration that have rather strayed from the significance and mystery of the feast, still it seems to be a case of precisely what Paul VI noted when he said that popular religiosity could reflect an “acute awareness of profound attributes of God” such as his “loving and constant presence.”
And what’s not to relish about an occasion to enjoy tamales?
Kathleen Hattrupis Aleteia’s senior editor. She met and married her husband while living in Mexico.