This week we begin our more detailed examination of Chapter Six of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” There is a lot of talk about this topic right now, including a popular book on Forming Intentional Disciples and a big recent conference on the formation that should happen in an “Amazing Parish.” Aparecida has much to add to the conversation.
The chapter on formation begins with the question of truly Christian spirituality:
6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples
a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ
i. The encounter with Jesus Christ
ii. Places of encounter with Jesus Christ
iii. Popular piety as a place of encounter with Jesus Christ
iv. Mary, disciple and missionary
v. The apostles and the saints
True spirituality will be truly Christian: focused on Jesus Christ, and fully Trinitarian: we know the Father through union with Christ, and we are united to Christ not by merely human effort, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in our hearts.
This clear focus on Jesus and the Trinity is already a great contribution of Aparecida to the discussion about formation. There can be no formation without a clear focus on the goal.
But Aparecida’s greater contribution is in its discussion of “places of encounter with Jesus Christ.” I fear some of our recent conversation has been too jealous of Protestants, embracing the language of “personal relationship” (whatever exactly that might mean) and then looking to Protestant methods like “discipling” and even “welcomers” at the Church door.
Aparecida’s approach is more traditional, and more Catholic. The Tradition has some fantastic resources of its own!
The first section on “places of encounter” walks us through the standard practices of Catholicism, quoting abundantly from the wonderful magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI.
We encounter Christ in Scripture, where he speaks to us, and especially in the profound encounter with Scripture we call lectio divina. We encounter him in the liturgy, where we enter into the communal experience of Scripture as presented to us by the Tradition. Sunday Mass, understood as participation in the life of the Church, is itself a profound encounter with Christ.
We encounter Christ in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is both our perfect worship and our perfect union with Christ himself. We encounter him, too, in Confession, where he enters into our moral struggle.
And we encounter him through the experience of Christian love: in the parish, in the soup kitchen, even in political action, when we let the love of Christ move us to action.
But after reviewing all of these, Aparecida plunges us even deeper into Catholic wisdom with three sections on “popular piety.” A long list helps us define the term: patron saints, novenas, the rosary, the Way of the Cross, processions, songs, saints and angels, solemn promises, family prayer, pilgrimage, the crucifix, candles, pictures of Mary.
Pope Francis has identified this as his favorite section of the whole document. Perhaps the key insight is in these words: “Popular piety delicately permeates the personal existence of each believer.”
The “popular” part of popular piety is its connection with our own particular circumstances and passions. The liturgy, lectio divina, and the Eucharist all insert us into the life of Christ – but popular piety brings Christ into our lives. It is all the ways that a particular people brings Christ into contact with their particular concerns.
Maybe this is what Protestants mean by “personal relationship.” But notice the difference between chatting with Jesus-my-buddy and popular piety. Popular piety is at the same time more passionate, more expressive of our deepest feelings, and also more reverent of the mystery of God and the Word-made-flesh.
Aparecida, speaking from a place of pilgrimage in Brazil, speaks especially about pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is deeply personal, both along the way, and at the end.
Along the way, pilgrimage gives us the time to think, to actively focus our life towards our goal. The opportunity, too, to work, to make our faith about putting one foot in front of the other.
The end of a pilgrimage is a shrine, an expression of Christ’s contact with our particular culture. It casts us more deeply back into the encounter of Christ with our world: whether it’s a shrine to great missionaries (like the North American Martyrs, or Mother Seton, here in the mid-Atlantic) or of our culture’s particular devotion to some aspect of the life of Jesus or Mary.
How could we make our faith more personal through popular piety? Where could you go on pilgrimage?