Understanding the sacraments: Nourishing our relationship with God

Introducing the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy

In my previous column I discussed the Synod on the Family’s emphasis on the importance of popular piety and family devotions.

In that column I mentioned the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (DPPL), produced in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This directory offers a comprehensive and authoritative description of devotions for the entire liturgical year, for the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, as well as prayers for the dead, shrines and pilgrimages.

The Church affirms many positive aspects of popular piety. “Its source is the constant presence of the Spirit of God in the ecclesial community; the mystery of Christ Our Savior is its reference point, the glory of God and the salvation of man its object, and its historical moment ‘the joyous encounter of the work of evangelization and culture’” (61).

Furthermore, it incorporates many important values, such as “an innate sense of the sacred and the transcendent, manifests a genuine thirst for God” (61); it nourishes interior dispositions and virtues such as patience, trust in God, “a genuine desire to please God and do reparation and penance for the offences offered to Him”; and it helps cultivate a “detachment from material things…and openness to others” (61). Finally, it is important “for the faith-life of the People of God, for the conservation of the faith itself and in inspiring new efforts at evangelization” (64).

The DPPL follows three overarching principles. The first is the primacy of the liturgy, since “every liturgical celebration…is a sacred action surpassing all others” (11). Thus, pre-eminence must be given “to liturgical prayer and to the liturgical year over any other form of devotion” (11). However, this pre-eminence is not to be understood “in exclusive terms, nor in terms of opposition or marginalization” (11).

The second principle concerns the evaluation and renewal of popular piety. For example, authentic popular piety should reflect a biblical spirit evidenced by “direct or indirect reference to Sacred Scripture” (12). It should also reflect a liturgical spirit “if it is to dispose properly for or echo the mysteries celebrated in the liturgical actions” (12). The third principle asserts that it should be distinct from and in harmony with the liturgy. This means, for example, the prayers and actions from popular piety “should not be commingled with the liturgical actions” (12).

To get a better sense of what the DPPL offers, let’s look at some examples from the section on Advent. The first practice it discusses is the Advent wreath. “Placing four candles on green fronds” is especially popular in the Germanic countries and North America and “is a recollection of the various stages of salvation history prior to Christ’s coming and a symbol of the prophetic light gradually illuminating the long night prior to the rising of the Sun of justice (cf. Ml 3:20; Lk 1:78)” (98). It also praises Advent processions, such as the posadas in the Hispanic and Latin American traditions, which represent the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem. As these two examples illustrate, the DPPL also teaches us about the universal dimension of our Catholic faith, the wonderful diversity of the one People of God.

The DPPL also explains how the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, “which is a fundamental preparation for the Lord’s coming into the world, harmonizes perfectly with many of the salient themes of Advent” (102). It especially recommends the novena of the Immaculate Conception, emphasizing that it “should highlight the prophetical texts which begin with Genesis 3:15, and end in Gabriel’s salutation of the one who is ‘full of grace’ (Lk 1:31-33)” (102).

It concludes its discussion of Advent by noting the formative power of popular piety. With its “intuitive understanding of the Christmas mystery,” it can help parishes, families and individuals preserve the values of Advent that are threatened by the commercialization of Christmas.

Popular piety understands that the Lord’s birth must be celebrated “in an atmosphere of sobriety and joyous simplicity and of concern for the poor and marginalized” (105). It also reminds us of “the value of life and the duties to respect and defend it from conception” (105). Finally, it also “intuitively understands” that the celebration of the birth of Jesus, who came to save us from our sins, requires us to strive to overcome sin in our lives “while waiting expectantly for Him who will return at the end of time” (105).

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is available online: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html. I highly recommend it for pastors, catechists, families, indeed for all the faithful.


Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.


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