The Struggling Catholic Millennial: Over-Correcting Popular Piety

The more time I spend in the Catholic Church and the more time I spend speaking with different Catholics, I find that there are more ways to celebrate our faith than I would have ever imagined. I think this is one of the most beautiful parts of the faith and fully believe that people should celebrate their faith in any way that brings them closer to God.

Even though I say that and fully believe it, I find myself trying to practice my Catholic faith in ways that won’t lead to me being confused with other Christians and even other Catholics. When I’m with my secular friends I choose my words very carefully to make sure they don’t get my faith confused with the faith of people who go completely against science. Even in my faith practices, I try to pray in ways that don’t make me look overly pious in my actions so people don’t confuse me with other overly pious Catholics.

How do I find ways to practice my Catholic faith, then? I can tell you it’s a struggle. I see many young people practice this overly pious Catholicism that often seems so unwelcoming that I try to avoid doing anything that resembles it in the slightest. Obviously, that is a slippery slope and can lead to ill-conceived judgments of people and a break from my Catholic identity.

So what should I do? I have been spending so much time trying to avoid being put in the same category as biblical fundamentalists Christians and overly pious Catholics, that I’m struggling to find a way to practice my faith that works for me.

I think I, as well as other struggling Catholics, first need to know it is okay to struggle with our faith and we should constantly be struggling with how to deepen our relationship with God. Secondly, I believe that we must find that fine line between popular piety and practicing the faith we believe to be true. Somewhere in there is a place where we can be authentic with our relationship with God and our practices aren’t just a thing we do. My faith should no longer be a response to someone else’s, but a response to my relationship with God.

I would love to hear how other people have found that place I am struggling to find. Go ahead and share your experience in the comments below.

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21 comments

  1. In Ireland long ago faith was lived: it wasn’t something you did, more something you were. Those of us still here are doing that: faith is life and life is faith. The challenge is to meld both by hanging on to the Lord’s words: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  2. I would be interested in what you mean by “overly pious” practices. I don’t necessarily see a line in the sand between popular piety and true faith, that you mention in the last paragraph. Who am I to say if a “pious” practice is an authentic outpouring of someone’s faith or not? and if a certain type of piety is fruitful in my own faith and that of others, I wouldn’t stifle it just for appearances. I would argue that our witness comes from an authentically lived faith and in relationship with others- this can take many forms including popular piety and requires both parts, but I think it’s harmful to evaluate a spiritual practice based on how it makes me (as a millennial representative of Catholicism) to the outside world rather than by its spiritual fruitfulness for the faith, and myself, and how it pours over into Christian living.

    1. This post is a story of me struggling with my own spirituality in light of seeing how other people act spiritually. I am in no way trying to bash on other people’s spiritual practices. As I said in the post people should be able to celebrate their faith in any way that brings people closer to God. I was sharing how I am dealing with my own spiritual nearsightedness and how I struggle with how people view my faith. That really is the point of the post, which is something you also touched on in your comment.

      By overly pious, I am specifically referring to acts that are done just to be done and not because they bring people closer to God. I have experienced people who believe that if I don’t do certain things, bow in certain ways and at the right time, and receive the Eucharist in a certain way that I am not as Catholic as they are. Those are the over-pious acts that I am trying to avoid. And I do believe there is a line between acting in ways that are in true faith and acting in ways that are overly pious. It will never be a straight line and might change frequently, but it is a line that we always have to be searching for in our own spiritual life, which is something that I struggle with.

      Again, I want to make it very clear that I am in no way specifically attacking a certain practice of faith. I am highlighting the struggles I have had becoming Catholic in an increasingly secular world where overly pious acts define Catholicism for many people.

      1. There is no such thing as too much piety. Maybe you are in search of another adjective. “Superstitious”, perhaps?

        These gestures you note–bowing, receiving the Eucharist while kneeling–are to many who do them affirmative of some aspect of our Faith. Perhaps to you the meaning is lost.

        A bit of charity is in order on both sides. Nobody who bows at certain times or receives while kneeling should infer that you are denying what they are affirming by these gestures, and you should not assume that these gestures are superstitious or meaningless to those who do them because you cannot immediately find their meaning.

        But you worry that some third group will put you in the category of these people who bow or kneel. What good end do you have in mind? Your salvation, or theirs? Being big-hearted about things will help. What are you affirming if (e.g.) you genueflect when the cruxifix passes in procession? Maybe someone else will explain it negatively and give genueflecters a bad name, but you have the opportunity to answer that, as St. Paul has it in Philippians 2:5-11, Jesus is Lord.

      2. Ben, I appreciate your positive comments, but you seem to be missing the point here. To counsel charity presumes a conversation, but what if the behavior is so off-putting that there is no conversation? Then you can take a high view for yourself and say the person shouldn’t think that way, but you are not talking to the other person, because they’re gone.

        What is being discussed here is a real phenomenon. Some people, even very many people, are “put off” by displays of piety which seem to them excessive, or fetishistic, or insincere. It has always been the case. In every generation.

        The embarrassment factor is especially real among young people. I’m surprised you’ve never encountered this. And you can say all you want that people shouldn’t feel embarrassed, but that does not change the fact that people can feel that way. I liken it to being around someone who wants to talk about their sex life all the time. This embarrasses a good many people, not because they are opposed to sex, but because they don’t want someone else’s intimate experiences thrust in their face. And if you continue to display yourself in this way, they will conclude there is something odd about you.

        A lot of young people will avoid social situations in which they feel embarrassed. No one wants to feel a tacit pressure to behave in a way that seems weird to them. It gives credence to the notion that to be religious means you must be an oddball.

        If you want to reach out to people who are doubtful that they have a place in the church, you might want to suggest by your behavior that ordinary people have a place here and will belong. I’m a big champion of the right to be different, and social conformity is not what I am suggesting. But good witness isn’t always the witness of my piety-on-display. It can be the witness of approachability, and the witness of solidarity and building trust.

        It seems to me this is about outreach, and that it is indeed a good thing because it is concerned with the neighbor who is put off by certain behaviors.

  3. Elizabeth Pike, maybe overly, aka falsely pious:
    1) Veils for women. Our theology now teaches we ourselves are holy in already but not yet fashion. A veil makes you no holier. What is the need to “appear holy”, a sign of “attention of holiness”? Seems holier than thou, a falsity. And if it “works”, why not wear the rest of your grandmother’s clothes too, to totally escape the present?
    2) Kneeling is more holy. To whom, i ask? The Trinity knows we try to be our holiest, and although posture allows us to be truer icons pointing to the Divine Three, the earliest Christological posture is standing (why the Eastern churches still use it); kneeling is a more modern, monarchical posture from ancient empires.
    3) Latin is more holy? Why, the community neither knows or speaks it. How does that separation make one holier? Our theology now teaches us that the Trnity is wholly other than or far more than us. We need language that intimately bonds us to God, not separates us.
    4) False piety: i respond in Latin and kneel on the floor, but i glance at my watch every 5 minutes. Right. If you have a more pressing need, tend to it; and come back to Mass when you can be fully present to the community of faith and the Mystery therein instead of speciously pious.

    1. Yikes, that’s a sharp critique.

      I don’t personally wear veils, but I’m not really against them as long as it is not something being forced on people. If you want to outwardly express holiness, I would say it is in line with a whole slew of other practices. Priests wear holy vestments which are quite formal and not that different from Priests their grandfather’s age are wearing. Should we abandon this practice? I think it is nice to dress nicely for Mass- but perhaps that is overly pious. We still dress our babies in white for their baptism, we dress very formally wedding liturgies, dress up for confirmation, first communion- I don’t condemn any of these practices either. Also, my grandma was a stylish lady, and fashion comes back around so I wouldn’t mind wearing her clothes. 😉

      Kneeling is a liturgical development like many others that developed as an expression of reverence, should we root out others as being overly pious? The priest geneflecting during the Eucharistic Prayer? Marking ourselves with the sign of the cross as we enter? Again, I don’t object to standing during the Eucharistic Prayer- my choir does it out of necessity every Sunday. However, I say these things to point out that it is difficult to judge others motives as being “overly pious” or seeking attention. Outward signs are part of our faith.

    2. Donna, I think it is important to say here that I am in no way, shape or form critiquing certain spiritual acts that bring people closer to God. I think it is also important that we don’t label all people who kneel and wear chapel veils as falsely pious. Just as we say others can’t force us to do their spiritual practices, we cannot force people to do ours and abandon their own.

      I think Elizabeth does have a good point that we can’t judge whether or not people are being overly pious. I’m simply telling my story of how I struggle to find my way of not being overly pious or appear as if I am (I know the appearance is something I shouldn’t worry about, but in all reality, it is something that frequently does, and I need to work on it).

  4. I think you’re describing code switching in a Catholic context, to avoid flying one’s freak flag, as it were.

    Whereas I think of “correcting popular piety” is when a cleric or other minister encounters something he/she doesn’t like and says in so many words (but here quoting verbatim a vexed shout I encountered in church from a priest at the end of Forty Hours Devotion): “We don’t do this any more”.

    1. I don’t know the details of this instance, but it might be precipitated by a change in the canonical status of the Forty Hours. This used to be a Popular Devotion, ie not liturgical, but that was changed in 1973, when regulations were issued for Eucharistic Worship outside Mass. According to the USCCB web site, there are things (implied that these were former customs) which are no longer permitted by the rubrics. I am NOT saying that clerics are entitled to shout at parishioners in church, but it is conceivable that he had already told people not to do whatever and felt he was being defied. An example of change is that the rubrics now lay down genuflection as normal on one knee before the Blessed Scarament when exposed, and deprecate going down on both knees. I would say that a priest who shouted about this would have serious problems of self control, and of pastoral priorities.

      1. The issue was not rubrical violations. And the intention was sustained communal prayer concerning violence in our neighborhood. The objection was to the simple fact of something that the person in question deemed no longer fit for Catholics to practice anymore. He was not involved in the activity, though it had been publicized beforehand, and was not happy to encounter it.

  5. One can only worry so much about how one appears to others. I feel pretty sure that all sorts of people have all sorts of ideas about what I do and don’t believe based on how I dress, how I talk, how I behave in church, who I associate with, etc. I’d be lying if I said I don’t pay any attention to their ideas about me, but I try really hard not to.

  6. I work with youth and have worked with youth for over 16 years and i can say that the troubles you express here are shared with them. They feel this way too and i join them at times when i see the great disconnect between them and the rest of the community (mostly people over 45). If they don’t feel welcome, why would they want to come to church? It is not a political correctness issue as many adults claim it to be. They are not weak and they are not dumb. Some of the most beautiful prayers i have experienced were lead by youth. Jesus trusted his mother with the youngest of the disciples, so why can’t we trust our youth to take on leadership roles in our parish? The problem i see is that we treat youth like children when in school they are treated as adults. In school they are learning physics and calculus yet go to confirmation and learn the 10 commandments and hear about Adam and Eve. No tough, current questions are answered. They are not failing us, we are failing them. They are smarter and more spiritual than we think. Why they do they avoid being “overly pious” then? Because that is how most youth see the members of the church and that visible version is not what will bring their friends to join them in prayer, its actually scaring them away (for many reasons which i cannot get into here). They are not avoiding prayer, they are avoiding scaring off their friends, trying to help them see that it is not the only way to praise God.

    1. Proper catechesis involves both handing on a base of knowledge and training to apply that base of knowledge as we live out our lives. If we do not know the ten commandments, we can hardly wrestle with their application in our lives. If we do not know about Adam and Eve, salvation history makes no sense at all. I agree that we shouldn’t be exploring the base knowledge with high schoolers — they should have the base knowledge already.

      I would agree that far too often we communicate to children that the faith is stupid by the way we teach it to them. Yet, we have a 2000 year old intellectual history. Perhaps we don’t take that history seriously either.

  7. On popular devotions, I say that if it’s not actively disruptive to the people around you and isn’t defying canon laws, do your thing. It drives me batty when someone goes out of the way to paw at me to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer when I am quite clearly not up for it. I’m sure it vexes people when I don’t eagerly hold hands and give that extra squeeze at the Amen. The person who insists on not allowing veils is just as occupied with externals as the person who insists on others wearing them. The person who insists on kneeling (or not) or communion in the hand (or not) or Latin (or not) has possibly missed a point that Paul writes. Some feast; some fast. We all do so for the glory of God. These don’t have to be divisive issues. I say that, for what it’s worth, as someone with liturgical preferences that stand largely opposite of many of the writers here.

  8. I would echo Friz Bauerschmidt’s sentiment that there’s a limit to how much one can worry about appearances. In your reflection you didn’t mention any specific examples of ‘overly pious’ action, and certainly we must be charitable in regards to the motivations for other’s conduct. However, in determining appropriate types of prayerful practice for myself, I’ve tried to be guided by Matthew 23: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men.” Usually, I tend to err on the side of discretion for private pious practices. For example, I’d much rather have a single decade rosary ‘palmed’ in my hand than a large, noisy rosary. Certainly there are some actions which are harder to perform conspicuously, but it’s always a matter of self-reflection to determine if I’m doing it so that others see or not. My final thought on certain actions such as bows towards the tabernacle or a displayed host is that apart from their categorization as ‘pious’ actions, they also serve to make visible the invisible reality of Christ’s presence. In this way, the actions should point an observer towards the object of the devotion rather than the person performing it.

  9. As a mother of 2 millennial daughters who believe our parish is an old people church I offer you the advice I have given them. Shop around! If you are not happy with your current parish or feel awkward around these overly pious people it’s important to your faith formation to find a parish where you will feel more comfortable and satisfied .
    Honestly, I get it! There are times when I am tempted to speak up but of course I don’t say anything. Why? Because of what you said in your first paragraph!

  10. I’ve started to care less and less what others think now that I’m in my 30s. When I first struck an interest in traditional liturgy in my early 20s (and the old Latin Mass particularly), I worried about others’ reactions after having a few bad experiences. I can recall an instance where I casually mentioned the Latin Mass to a slightly older Catholic and he actually started shouting at me. After a while, I started to simply not mention it to anyone Catholic who was older than myself (peers and non-Catholics typically didn’t have a problem). Over time, I realized that it isn’t really my problem if someone ignorantly thinks I’m “falsely pious,” “nostalgic for a time that never existed,” or “anti Vatican II.” Conversely, it isn’t my problem if someone judges me to be a lesser Catholic for not practicing my faith in accordance with how the nuns taught them in the 1950s. The best I can do is practice my faith in a way that draws me closer to Christ and makes me a better Christian.

    Often, those who think you need to meet their approval will never be happy no matter what you do. There will always be some people who judge you as strange or anti-science for simply being a practicing Catholic, some who will judge you falsely pious for doing anything they think is too traditional (and these people are just as “unwelcoming” as the overly-pious you describe), or those who will label you less Catholic than they for not being traditional enough. I think you summed it up beautifully when you wrote “My faith should no longer be a response to someone else’s, but a response to my relationship with God.” Those other people aren’t the ones living your life and your faith.

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