In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council made one of its goals “to make more responsive to the requirements of our times those Church observances which are open to adaptation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1). This rather oblique reference to popular pious practices in no way undercuts the liturgy itself but, as the Constitution goes on to say, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” (SC, 10). A clearer statement on the place of popular piety is found a few paragraphs later: “popular devotions of the Christian people are warmly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church” (SC, 13).
When it was issued in December 2001, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (available online: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html), was meant to be a comprehensive document on the Church’s proper understanding of the relation between liturgy, para-liturgy, and various devotions. Yet, as the authors assembled in this commentary show, that document raised far more questions than it settled. It is to the editor’s credit for assembling an able, international team to discuss these issues with clarity and verve.
Eight chapters and a bibliography address such topics as the very nature of popular piety and the Church’s worship, particularly as the latter is expressed in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. Magisterial teaching on latria, the seasonal aspects of liturgy and popular piety, Mary, saints and beati, “suffrage for the dead,” and shrines and pilgrimages are all covered.
Among the best of the essays is by Nathan Mitchell, “Theological Principles for an Evaluation and Renewal of Popular Piety.” Mitchell is charged with responding to chapter three of the Directory. It deals with the basic principles that are underscored throughout the Directory. On Mitchell’s reading, which I found to be highly constructive and provocative, a tripartite analysis of the document’s principles is offered: on (1) “the essential relation between three liturgies: the ‘liturgy of the world,’ the liturgy of the church, and the ‘liturgy of the neighbor’; (2) ‘hunger’ as the baseline competence needed for participation in ritual, devotion, and service; (3) materiality and bodiliness as revealers of the Mystery of God” (61). Mitchell’s canvas is the cosmos itself, and he fills it with stars—instilling in the reader a sense of longing to reach out and touch them. Using the work of Aidan Kavanaugh, Marianne Sawicki, and Karl Rahner, Mitchell concludes that it is “the body itself that is the privileged venue for meeting Mystery, for negotiating critical life passages, for finding access to God” (72).
Some critical issues surface in the discussion portions of each of the essayists’ contributions. For instance, in the editor’s piece on death rituals, it is noted that “curiously, for a document purportedly concerned with popular devotion, the directory devotes the lion’s share of its attention to the theology of death and the liturgical celebration of funerals and comparatively little on the practices of popular piety toward the dead” (139). He goes on to point out that there could be more attention paid to ancestor worship, as in the Rite Zaďros or Confucian influences on Vietnamese Catholicism, particularly in the Tet celebrations.
This text will make an ideal companion to the Directory itself and will be useful additions for graduate and seminary libraries. But diocesan offices for worship should also take note of this book. Professors of liturgy will want to place this on their syllabi, too. As a contribution to the post-conciliar renewal, these scholars have made a quantum leap toward a fuller appreciation of the primacy of liturgy and the supporting role of the Church’s manifold devotions and practices.