Power of Popular Piety

A Critical Examination

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Ambrose Mong
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , March
     2019.
     184 pages.
     $23.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532656439.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“Neither intrinsically good or bad, … [popular piety] is very powerful,” writes Ambrose Mong in his introduction to Power of Popular Piety: A Critical Examination (xxi). Since antiquity and until today, popular religion has been part of many of the world’s religious traditions, with varying degrees of interrelation with or distance from the formal religious establishment.

In his book, Mong examines Catholic popular piety as its exists and moves at the intersection between liturgical expression and superstition, stability and novelty, correct belief and popular practice, rationality and emotion, liberation and acceptance of suffering, religious and cultural identity, and debates of relevance and ineffectiveness. He analyzes practices in both traditionally Catholic settings and those resulting from an encounter between indigenous faith practices and an imposed Catholic faith, in light of the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy It (Vatican City, 2001). His tour of Catholic popular piety takes him to Mexico, the Philippines, France, and Bosnia and discusses it in terms of religious boundaries, inculturation, participants, theology, and identity. Most critically, he scrutinizes its power to effect social transformation.

Mong’s first chapter is an exposition and discussion of the term “popular piety” and its applications as explicated in the Evangelii Nuntiandi  (Catholic Truth Society, 1976), the Third Latin American Conference in Puebla, Mexico (January 1979), and the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (Vatican City, 2001), which he builds on throughout the book. The term’s import comes from its practicality, dynamism, grounding in cultural identity, potential for effecting social transformation, and ability to preserve the faith. It is “the reality of the people” (11). For this reason, Mong stresses its power in the face of social and political injustice. Popular piety practices, infused in gospel dynamism and pastoral activities, can be a formidable force for raising people’s consciousness about unjust social structures and working for societal transformation. This is the witness of liberation theology.

From there, Mong traces the tensions that popular piety presents and embodies within the Catholic Church. He focuses on its inherent dynamism and ability to embed Catholicism within a people’s cultural identity. It is the gentle, motherly, and dark-skinned Lady of Guadalupe’s apparition to Juan Diego, discussed in chapter 2, that became the turning point of Mexican Catholicism. Contrasted with Spanish invaders’ cruelty, foreignness, and disdain, “Guadalupinist Catholicism” came to mark native acceptance of Catholicism and a new Mexican identity combining native and Spanish elements.

Mong describes a similar dynamic in chapter 3, where he examines Filipino popular piety and religious sensibilities. Citing devotion to Santo Niño de Cebu, Hesus Nazareno (the Black Nazarene), and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mong notes how Spanish practices became infused with indigenous elements to forge a new enculturated expression of Catholicism—one that fit and infused the pre-Christian Filipino cosmic religious landscape. Unlike the Mexican notion of Christ as liberating social reformer, Filipino popular piety that esteems the suffering Christ, such as the image of Hesus Nazareno, seeks Christ the liberator as fellow sufferer and savior.

Based on these two case studies, Mong takes a step back in chapters 4 and 5 to study the roles and pitfalls of cultural accommodation in evangelization. Accommodation is a sensitive process, requiring a delicate balance between indigenous faith and Catholic expressions. Mong illustrates this through Matteo Ricci (a Jesuit missionary to China) and his attempt to interpret Catholicism from within the Confucian philosophical and theological paradigm. Ricci’s catechism “present[ed] Christianity dressed in Confucian robes” (78) and resulted in the imperial Edict of Toleration of 1692. Thus, Mong argues, cultural accommodation can transform religious intolerance to inclusivity.

Chapter 5 describes and delineates the fine line between popular devotions and superstitions based on the Vatican Directory, Desiderius Erasmus, and John Henry Newman. Danger always lurks, for popular piety may encourage “superstition, magic, fatalism . . . syncretic reinterpretation and reduction of faith” (5). Presenting the rites controversy on ancestor veneration among Chinese Catholics as an example, Mong emphasizes that a certain practice’s acceptability is its proximity to church teachings and liturgy, and its pious expression of divine and human connection.

Popular piety’s inherent dynamism is also evident in its ability to shift focus from the Catholic to the ecumenical and from the local to the universal. Our Lady of Guadalupe (chapter 2) informs Juan Diego that she is the compassionate mother of all Mexicans and other nations. Our Lady of Medjugorje’s (chapter 6) apparition to six children advocated for world peace. The apparition site became a global one, attracting pilgrims from different faiths and countries. Chapter 7, on the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy visions, also emphasizes that shifting focus. Whereas Jesus’ message to Margaret Mary Alacoque in the late 17th century had included dedicating France to his Sacred Heart, to St. Faustina in the 20th century his message was one of comfort to sufferers worldwide. Devotion to the Divine Mercy came at a time of Catholic attempts at ecclesial unity, in which—beyond formal church councils and agreements—its popular appeal united Christians.

Readers’ opinions of this short book will decidedly depend on how they approach it. It is an astute introduction and analysis of popular piety practices in light of official Catholic Church teaching, acceptance, and reservations. Most importantly, it highlights the Asian Christian context alongside the Latin American and European ones. Its critique is both faithfully Catholic and critically insightful. On the other hand, the book explicitly engages Catholic readers—clergy, laity, and scholars—more than a wider audience with its presumed familiarity with Catholic documents and terms. Moreover, it uses expressions that sound strangely outdated and jarring, such as superstition, idolatry, and the like, which crop up frequently and unapologetically.

Though the book would benefit from further grammatical and copy editing, this does not decrease its value for individual and scholarly engagement. It can also serve as an informative addition to theology and religious studies classes on Asian Catholicism, popular piety, Marian apparitions and devotions, and Christian ecumenism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Monica Mitri is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 
April 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ambrose Mong is Visiting Professor at the University of Saint Joseph, Macau, and Adjunct Lecturer at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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