Many of my ministry colleagues have looked with concern on popular piety. Certainly, excesses are well-documented and raise worries. The Aparecida bishops suggest that piety is a “starting point.” Let’s explore that a bit:
262. It is true that faith that was incarnated in the culture can be deepened and permeate ever better how our peoples live. But this can happen only if we value positively what the Holy Spirit has already sown. Popular piety is an “indispensable starting point in deepening the faith of the people and in bringing it to maturity.” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy 64)
The citation is given to the DPPL, but they got it from quoting the Latin American bishops’ document after their Puebla Conference. Perhaps we might like to think that the sacraments, especially the Mass should have a central role. But even north of the Rio Grande, hundreds of thousands of Catholics lack access to regular sacramental celebrations. Popular piety also sustained the Church when the vernacular was not available in worship.
Bishops advise appropriate discernment:
Hence, the missionary disciple must be “sensitive to it, know how to perceive its interior dimensions and undeniable values.”(EN 48) When we say that it has to be evangelized or purified, we do not mean that it is devoid of gospel wealth. We simply want all members of the believing people, recognizing the testimony of Mary and also of the saints, to try to imitate them more each day. Thus they will strive for a more direct contact with the Bible and greater participation in the sacraments, come to enjoy the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, and express even better the service of love in solidarity in their lives. This is the way which will make it possible to draw on the rich potential of holiness and social justice encompassed in the people’s mysticism.
In what I have seen and experienced, people engaged by devotional practices quite often find a richer experience in the Word and liturgy. When the bishops here write of a sensitivity, the implication is that leaders get to know the people personally, are able to hear their testimony, see their faith in action, and walk with them to new areas of grace.
For deeper examination, an English translation of the 2007 document from the Aparecida Conference.