Presented at the Cofradía Católica-Reformada Meeting, Santa Cruz Lutheran Church, Joliet, Ill., September 14, 2006.
I. What is “Religiosidad Popular?”
One of Virgilio Elizondo’s signficant contributions to contemporary theological thought has been the invitation to take seriously what is called “religiosidad popular” — “popular religion” or “popular piety” in distinction to “official” or “institutionalized faith” — as an important, even central, theological locus.1 While in the past theologians and historians tended to denigrate or even dismiss “popular religion” as but “superstition,” vestiges of “paganism,” or as reflecting, somehow, a much “lower” form of belief and practice among the “unenlightened,” modern scholarship has been more willing to embrace a much broader view of the whole, including the religious lives of the poor, women, and others.
Peter Brown’s important 1981 work, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, represents a significant scholarly shift in this regard. Here, in particular, Brown argues convincingly that the real history of the early Church is to be read, precisely, in the development of the “popular” practices and beliefs associated with the cult of the martyrs and later saints at their shrines in the overall shaping of late antique culture, religion, and society, practices shared by both the intellectually elite and others in the Church, in spite of their differing intellectual facilities.2 Similarly, among especially Latino-Hispanic theologians today, such practices of religiosidad popular have increasingly moved from the periphery to the center of theological thought and reflection.
Some of the familiar practices often associated with this phenomenon of “popular religion” today (e.g., rosaries, home altars, scapulars, pilgrimages, novenas, eucharistic adoration, devotions to Mary and to particular saints) have been, throughout the past two or three decades, making a definite “comeback” among Roman Catholics, in general. But it is important to note how “popular religion” itself among Hispanic-Latinos, while appearing to share many of the same devotional expressions or forms, is often quite distinctive both in substance and orientation. Mark Francis notes that:
[W]hile many of these practices appear similar, it would be a pastoral error to assume that they always ‘mean’ exactly the same thing. The popular religion of many Hispanics, for example, while based in part on the same medieval matrix as Euro-American devotionalism, includes elements indigenous to the ‘New World.’ These elements express deeply held convictions about one’s place in the universe, access to the sacred, and how human beings experience time. These convictions were formed from experiences of life that are different from those of Europeans.3
Consequently, as Orlando Espín notes in the introduction to his compelling book, The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism, if Euro-American Catholic “liberals” often fail in their attempts to be in a real solidarity with Hispanic-Latinos because they tend to dismiss the role and value of popular religion altogether, Euro-American Catholic “conservatives” also fail because they tend to see:
…[Latino] popular Catholicism from the perspective of [their] own ecclesiastical, political agenda and wrongly assume that our religion agrees…or at least can be recruited to appear to be in agreement. Latino popular Catholicism, although not necessarily subversive, can (and quite often has) surprised the conservative with confrontation and opposition. Catholic conservatives suspect that they can separate our holy symbols (especially Marian ones) from the lives and suffering of our people (thereby forgetting that much of the pain inflicted on Latinos is often the direct result of the conservative political agenda). They do not understand how much they offend our faith and our holy symbols!4
In other words, although devotion, for example, to the Virgin of Guadalupe (and other Hispanic-Latino devotions to the Virgin Mary under another of her many advocations) might look the same in terms of outward manifestation, and appear, at the same time, to be but the common expression of a similar shared worldview or devotional and ecclesiastical milieu, they are not necessarily the same at all.
“Popular religion,” therefore, especially related to a Hispanic-Latino context:
…can be defined as the set of experiences, beliefs and rituals which more-or-less peripheral human groups create, assume and develop (within concrete socio-cultural and historical contexts, and as a response to these contexts) and which to a greater or lesser degree distance themselves from what is recognized as normative by church and society, striving (through rituals, experiences and beliefs) to find an access to God and salvation which they feel they cannot find in what the church and society present as normative.5
More concretely, in the words of Roberto Goizueta: “the adjective ‘popular’ does not primarily mean ‘common,’ ‘widespread,’ or ‘well-liked,’ though popular religion is, indeed, all of these. Rather the adjective refers to the socio-historical fact that these religious symbols, practices, and narratives are of the people.”6 And, as he continues, “the Catholicism which…lies at the heart of…Hispanic culture…is not so much the hierarchical Catholicism as the Catholicism which manifests itself in the faith and religious practices of the people….Popular religion is ‘popular’ because it emerges from and constitutes us a people.”7 That is, “popular religion,” especially “Latino Popular Catholicism,” is precisely the way in which Christianity itself was “incarnated,” “inculturated,” and/or came to be expressed in Mexico, Central, and South America, and how it has survived and been passed down through generations, most often under the leadership of Hispanic-Latina women, its pre-eminent story tellers, practitioners, or “priests.” It is, thus, the very way in which this particular people has made and continues to make Christianity its own faith and way of life, the way in which Christianity became and remains the faith of this particular populus or people. That is, “popular religion,” according to Alex García-Rivera, is, ultimately, that religion “in which faith is challenged, interpreted, and made one’s own.”8
II. Religiosidad Popular, The Virgin Mary, and Lutherans
To take “popular religion” seriously as a theological source, then, and to respond to it on a pastoral level, surely implies that one must look theologically at those very symbols, rituals, and narratives by which and in which this “faith of the people” has been and continues to be expressed. One of those popular symbols is surely that of the Virgin Mary in her several advocations that permeate the various cultures throughout the Latino-Hispanic world.9 Does someone from one of these cultures need to deny their very culture in becoming or being both Latino-Hispanic and Protestant, especially when that culture has been shaped to a large extent by Roman Catholicism? Methodist theologian Justo Gonzalez writes that:
…there is in much of Latino Protestantism a sense of cultural alienation that is very similar to that produced by the much earlier Spanish colonization of the Americas. Just as Spanish Roman Catholicism told our native ancestors that their religion, and therefore much of their culture, was the work of the devil, so has Anglo Protestantism told us that the Catholic religion of our more immediate ancestors, and therefore much of our culture, must be rejected….Just as native populations can accuse the earlier Catholic ‘evangelization’ of undermining their culture and destroying their identity, so do some accuse the later Protestant ‘evangelization’ of similar misdeeds. In many ways, just as for many natives in the sixteenth century it was necessary to abandon much of their cultural traditions in the process of becoming Catholic, so are many Latinas and Latinos forced away from their cultural roots as they become Protestant. And in both cases, this cultural alienation is depicted as good news!….Yet many Latino/a Protestants refuse to abandon their culture and its traditions.10
He continues: “Caridad, Guadalupe, and novenas are not part of my more immediate tradition. Yet they are part of my culture. Does that mean that, like my native ancestors five centuries ago when faced by the initial Catholic ‘evangelization,’ I must renounce my cultural heritage in order to affirm my Christianity? I do not believe so.”11 Does one simply say to people who are becoming Lutheran, “Throw out your images, stop lighting candles, dismantle the altarcitos in your homes, stop wearing medals of Mary or a Saint, and stop reciting rosaries and novenas because now you are a Protestant and Protestants don’t do those things?” If this approach, undoubtedly, has been a characteristic of Hispanic-Latino Protestantism in general, and one still vehemently supported by several Hispanic-Latino Protestants themselves (!), there must be another way to approach the topic for those for whom such practices are life-giving, identity building, and faith sustaining.
One of those ways, perhaps, is to highlight what, in fact, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have affirmed together about the Virgin Mary and the Saints today. In 1992 was published a joint statement, The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary, in which at least enough theological convergence and clarity was noted to state that this issue need no longer be “church dividing” in the continued quest toward full and visible communion. With specific regard to the question even of the possible invocation(!) of Mary and the Saints in the Church, the statement notes that: “Saints on earth ask one another to pray to God for each other through Christ. They are neither commanded nor forbidden to ask departed saints to pray for them.”12 More recently, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has written with specific regard to invoking the Virgin Mary by means of the second half of the Hail Mary (i.e., “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”):
First, Mary is Israel in one person, as Temple and arch prophet and guardian of Torah. To ask her to pray for me is to invoke all God’s history with Israel at once, all his place-taking in this people, and all the faithfulness of God to this people as grounds for his faithfulness to me. It is to have Moses say, ‘Why should the heathen profane your name, because you leave your people in the lurch? Because you leave Robert Jenson in the lurch?” It is to send Aaron into the Tent of Meeting on my behalf. It is to quote all Scripture’s promises about prayer at once, as summed up by Jesus, ‘Whatever you ask the Father in my name will be done.’
‘Fiat mihi,’ Mary said, giving her womb as space for God in this world. After all the Lord’s struggle with his beloved Israel, he finally found a place in Israel that unbelief would not destroy like the Temple, or silence like the prophets, or simply lose, like the Book of the Law before Josiah. This place is a person. To ask Mary to pray for us is to meet him there.
Second. From the beginning of creation, heaven is God’s space in his creation. As a created space for God there must be a mysterious sense in which Mary is heaven, the container not only of the uncontainable Son, but of all his sisters and brothers, of what Augustine called the totus Christus, the whole Christ, Christ with his body. But Mary is a person, not a sheer container. That she contains the whole company of heaven must mean that she personally is their presence. To ask Mary to pray for us is to ask ‘the whole company of heaven’ to pray for us, not this saint or that but all of them together. It is to ask the church triumphant to pray for us.
Interestingly, Luther and Melanchthon were happy to say that the saints as a company pray for us, that the church in heaven prays for the church on earth. To invoke Mary’s prayer as the prayer of the Mater Dei, the prayer of the Container of the Uncontainable, is to invoke precisely this prayer. Perhaps, indeed, Mary’s prayer, as the prayer of the whole company of heaven, is the one saint’s prayer that even those should utter who otherwise accept Melanchthon’s argument against invoking saints.13
And, admittedly from a Roman Catholic perspective, Virgil Elizondo refers to the Virgin of Guadalupe in this context: “Protestants tell me: ‘But Christ alone is necessary for salvation.’ And I say to them: ‘You are absolutely right. That is precisely what makes Guadalupe so precious. Precisely because she is not necessary, she is so special! She is a gift of God’s love.’”14 And, elsewhere he writes:
What most people who have not experienced the Guadalupe tradition cannot understand is that to be a Guadalupano/a…is to be an evangelical Christian. It is to say that the Word became flesh in Euro-Native America and began its unifying task — ‘that all may be one.’ In Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christ became American.… Some modern-day Christians — especially those whose Christianity is expressed through U.S. cultural terms — see Guadalupe as pagan or as something opposed to the gospel. It is certainly true that just as the gospel was co-opted and domesticated by Constantine and subsequent ‘Christian’ powers, so has Guadalupe been co-opted and domesticated by the powerful of Mexico, including the church. Yet neither the initial gospel nor the gospel expressed through Guadalupe has lost its original intent or force, a force that is being rediscovered as the poor, the marginalized, and the rejected reclaim these foundational gospels as their chief weapons of liberation and as sources of lifestyles that are different from those engendered by ecclesial and social structures that have marginalized, oppressed, and dehumanized them.15
One of the ongoing challenges facing especially Latino-Hispanic Lutherans today is precisely this: how to be a truly “evangelical Christian,” rooted theologically in the Lutheran Confessions, and how to be simultaneously a truly “catholic Christian” rooted in the very catholic substance and tradition of the faith, especially as that substance has been incarnated in Latino-Hispanic cultural contexts? For some this is not an issue at all since being a Latino-Hispanic Lutheran or Protestant means, automatically, an outright rejection of anything smacking of what is called “popular Catholicism.” But for another, increasingly visible, group of Hispanic-Latino Lutherans this is a very important issue, indeed. One of our newer ELCA congregations in Irving, Texas, for example, has taken the name of “Santa María de Guadalupe.”
Increasingly, her image, along with other Marian images, as well as statues and icons of others like San Martin de Porres, and liturgical celebrations and devotional practices brought to the United States by immigrants from the south, are appearing in Lutheran churches and show no sign of disappearing. Interestingly enough, the popular Peruvian San Martin de Porres did not make the final cut for inclusion in the calendar of the ELCA’s El Libro de Liturgia y Cántico, but has managed now to make it into Evangelical Lutheran Worship via the ELCA’s African-American liturgical resource, This Far By Faith.
The Virgin of Guadalupe, alas, not to mention the several other Virgencitas from Latin American cultures, is still looking for an officially recognized home like this in the ELCA, even though she, like San Martin, now has an ELCA congregation named after her. She’s here in Lutheranism, as well as in certain locales in Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism and Methodism, and I suspect that she is not going to go away. Will there be a space for her, or more accurately, will there be a space for those who believe that with her they can be truly “evangelical Lutheran Christians” and not reject their rather “Catholic” culture?
See V. Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation (New York: Orbis Books, 1997).
Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 12ff.
Mark R. Francis, “Building Bridges between Liturgy, De-votionalism, and Popular Religion,” Assembly 20, 2 (1994), 636.
Orlando O. Espín, The Faith of the People: Theological Re-flections on Popular Catholicism (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 5.
Sixto García and Orlando Espín, “Hispanic-American Theology,” in Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 42 (1987), 115.
Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995), 21.
Alex García-Rivera, St. Martín de Porres: The “Little Stories” and the Semiotics of Culture (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995), p. 20.
The various Marian images or advocations throughout Mexico, Central, and South America are too numerous to list here but, among several others, they include: the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos (Mexico), the Virgin of Luján (Argentina); of the Angels (Costa Rica); of Charity of El Cobre (Cuba); of “La Altagracia” (Dominican Republic); and of Mercy (Peru); For brief descriptions of these and others, see Oficina regional del sureste para el ministerio hispano, Las advocationes marianas en la religiosidad popular latinoamericana, in Documentaciones sureste 5 (Feb. 2, 1996).
Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon), 61. On the “Catholic” roots of Hispanic-Latino culture see also Goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús, 8ff.
Justo González, “Reinventing Dogmatics: A Footnote from a Reinvented Protestant,” in Orlando Espín and Miguel Diaz (eds.), From the Heart of the People (New York: Orbis, 1999), 228.
H. George Anderson, et. al. (eds.), The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VIII (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1992), p. 61 [emphasis added].
Robert Jenson, “A Space for God,” in C. Braaten and R. Jenson (eds.), Mother of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 56-7.
Elizondo & Friends, A Retreat With Our Lady of Guad-alupe and Juan Diego (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1998), 81-82.
Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation, 113-114. [Emphasis added].