Pilgrimage Liturgies and Popular Piety

Pilgrimage Liturgies and Popular Piety

Colloquium of the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie

Catholic University of Paris – Institut Catholique de Paris 

25-27 January 2017

The sixtieth anniversary colloquium of the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie, “Becoming a Christian through the Liturgy,” took place last year from 3 to 5 February 2016. This year’s colloquium, held from Wednesday 25 to Friday 27 January 2017, set out to study popular piety in its relation to the liturgy, an aspect the previous year’s gathering had neglected. But during preparation for the colloquium, it became clear that the field was just too vast, and needed to be narrowed down. So pilgrimage was selected as the point of view for examination of the wider theme, without excluding other possible approaches. The subject was formulated as “Pilgrimage Liturgies and Popular Piety” in the hope of attracting diocesan and other pilgrimage directors, as well as sanctuary rectors (local pilgrimages are very numerous in France), and so widening our usual audience, drawn from those engaged in liturgical and sacramental ministry and formation. The list of speakers itself suggested this objective: the first two speakers were sanctuary rectors, and the final speaker was a diocesan director of pilgrimages.

pilgrimage Chartres

As foreseen, a number of speakers went beyond the subject of pilgrimages, without losing sight of the subject; the riches of popular piety are almost infinite! And it would be fair to say that one of the major aspects of the colloquium was evangelization (the expression proposition de la foi, almost impossible to translate, and not exactly the equivalent of evangelization, was frequently employed); hence speakers also raised and dealt with anthropological as well as properly theological questions.

At this sort of gathering, there is always a gap between the dynamic foreseen during its preparation, and the dynamic arising from the succession and articulation of the various contributions. This year the proceedings yielded a rich harvest of material for a better understanding of the subject, and their dynamic pointed to a sort of connaturality between a colloquium and a pilgrimage. Both arise from a decision to go to a particular place, by a chosen route and following a predefined programme. However, the programme is not the pilgrimage, which always involves the unforeseen. This report will attempt a brief description of the road taken.

The object of the opening session on Wednesday afternoon was to allow participants to be touched by the reality of what goes on during pilgrimage. Rather than jumping the gun by immediately attempting analysis, an attempt fraught with risk, given the complexity and diversity of the various manifestations of popular piety, it seemed wiser to begin with an immersion in experience. Experience means letting yourself be touched by what happens through a kind of immersion, and not setting yourself up in front of, or even above, reality; it means not starting off by attempting to understand, and even judge. Rev. Horatio Brito, emeritus rector of Lourdes , and Mgr Jean Laverton, rector of the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, both bore witness to the rich diversity of the two best known French pilgrimages. Suffice it to say here that there is much more to Montmartre than what goes on within the basilica, including a social outreach group, the Laveurs des pieds or “Footwashers,” created by a group of twenty-something students touched by the experience of night-time Eucharistic adoration and seeking to transmit to others, in particular the homeless, something of their own experience of the merciful love of Jesus in the Eucharist. A Brazilian Jesuit and doctoral student at the ISL, Rev. Creômenes Tenorio Maciel, guided a viewing of a video of the Holy Week celebrations in Ouro Preto, where paraliturgical rites deriving, via Brazil’s Portuguese heritage, from medieval liturgical drama, meet early Christian stational liturgy, and transform a baroque city nestled in a New World mountain valley into a vast outdoor cathedral, where the frontiers between sacred and secular vanish as all of God’s holy people worship as one body (videos of these celebrations can be found on YouTube, here). These three case studies, along with a fourth, concerning the Baptismal Vigil celebration at Longchamp during the 1997 World Youth Day in Paris, (images of the celebration can be found here), stood not as mere objects of inquiry, but rather as lived experiences that must be approached with  reverence, in the attitude of Moses before the burning bush.

Nonetheless, in his presentation of the Longchamp baptismal liturgy, “WYD Paris 1997, a Paschal Pilgrimage,” Rev. Gilles Drouin, a junior research fellow at the ISL, began the shift from description to analysis, linking the descriptive component of the first afternoon with the analytic component of the following morning in his demonstration of how the baptismal vigil could constitute a model for understanding the Colloquium’s problematic. During the preparation for the 1997 WYD, Cardinal Lustiger took the risk – against the wishes of the Roman organizers – of trusting liturgy; he did so because of his conviction that liturgy is work of grace, whose efficacy that goes beyond the “natural” effects of ritual, and a fortiori beyond the effects of a religious spectacle. But it is not only liturgy, but also popular devotions, that go beyond ritual, in the same way that, as Pascal said, l’homme passe l’homme:

Connaissez donc, superbe, quel paradoxe vous êtes à vous même! Humiliez vous, raison impuissante! Taisez vous, nature imbécile! Apprenez que l’homme passe infiniment l’homme et entendez de votre Maître votre condition véritable que vous ignorez. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Fragment Contrariétés n. 14/14)

Gilles Drouin’s contribution began the transition from the “testament of experience” of the opening session to the second phase on Thursday morning, which set out to equip us for a better understanding of this experience. The question before us was not so much “Why is this experience efficacious in the order of grace?” as “Why is the action of pilgrimage one that can open those who undertake it to the experience of grace?” The three speakers each chose a different angle of approach to the question as the colloquium shifted from testimony to analysis.

The historian Pierre Maraval, emeritus professor of history of the University of Paris (La Sorbonne) and the leading authority on Egeria’s Peregrinatio, drew upon the documents of the early Church as he highlighted the importance of the corporeal dimension of pilgrimage along with the use of the senses (including taste) in a paper entitled “Around the Pilgrimage of Egeria: The Motivations and Practices of Pilgrims in Christian Antiquity.”  The theologian Rev. Cosimo Scordato, professor at the Faculty of Theology of Sicily in Palermo, in his contribution, “Pilgrimage between Theology, Liturgy and Popular Piety,” set his enquiry in the context of the Incarnation. By taking flesh, God becomes a fellow-traveller with humanity, and thus pilgrimage humanizes our relationship with God. In the morning’s third paper, “The Transitional Character of Pilgrimage Liturgy,” Philippe Barras, lecturer at the ISL and editor of La Maison-Dieu, used anthropological analysis to define this “transitional” character of the ritual acts carried out in the context of pilgrimage and to set out their effects; he showed how the “journey” itself, as a physical change of place, becomes interior transformation, that is to say, conversion.

The next step was to come to an understanding of pilgrimage as a specifically Christian act; so this phase took as its starting point the mystery of salvation in Christ. The object of the Thursday afternoon session was to look at this “human experience of the divine” (the title of Michel Meslin’s L’expérience humaine du divin, Paris: Editions du Cerf, “Cogitatio fidei” 150, 1988) in the light of the Paschal Mystery.

Patrick Prétot OSB, professor at the ISL and on the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Paris (ICP), took the Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy of 2001 as the basis of his paper “Popular Devotion and Liturgy: an Opportunity or a Challenge?” in which he presented the Directory as a resource for enabling theological and pastoral discernment. The fundamental criterion for this discernment is the Paschal Mystery. Echoing Pope Francis’ invitation to go out to the peripheries, Br. Prétot used the criteria for theological discernment provided by the Directory to facilitate an articulation between liturgy and popular piety; hence the Paschal Mystery cannot be confiscated as a sort of “registered trade mark” giving the liturgy and its practitioners a superior status permitting it, and them, to look down on popular devotions, and theirs.

The next paper “On the Way to Heaven: the Eucharist and Prayer for the Departed at the Sanctuary of Montligeon,” was given by current rector of the basilica and pilgrimage of Montligeon, Rev. Jacques Vatherin, of the Communauté Saint-Martin. Montligeon is a village in rural Lower Normandy whose late nineteenth century parish priest, Paul Buguet, had two major preoccupations related to poverty and exclusion: the extreme material poverty of his parishioners, left behind by the prosperity born of urban industrialization, and the spiritual poverty of what contemporary French piety called les âmes les plus délaissées du Purgatoire, “the most neglected souls in Purgatory.” Although his efforts to remedy the former met with scant success, his creation in 1884 of an association to promote prayer and the celebration of Masses for these “neglected” souls stimulated an enormous response that continues around the world to this day. Fr. Vautherin’s contribution would not have been out of place at the opening session. However, during this third phase it constituted a sort of paschal turning point in the dynamic of the Colloquium. Starting from the lived experience of pilgrims to Montligeon, Fr. Vautherin built on Br. Prétot’s emphasis on the Paschal Mystery, as he reformulated what Fr. Scordato has stressed from the point of view of a theologian: because our life is set in a trajectory that runs from birth to death, the pilgrimage phenomenon reaches the very depths of our humanity, [expressing] our most profound longing: that death not have the last word. To set out on a pilgrimage and then come back home is to accomplish a passover, an exodus, a paschal passage, one that teaches how to truly live, how to live a paschal life, a new life delivered from the prison that is the fear of death.

Rev. Jean-Louis Souletie FMT, professor of Theology at the ICP and director of the ISL, (too) modestly characterized his paper, “Proposing Faith in Pilgrimage Liturgy,” as an “essay”; however, along with the opening up to discussion from the floor that followed, it unpacked the implications of the two preceding contributions and opened up new perspectives. If, as Br. Prétot argued, liturgy and popular piety should not be seen as in competition but rather in articulation, we must found our reflection on the fundamental structure of the faith as given by Scripture. This in turn means taking into account the different approaches to Scripture that characterize these two major manifestations of Christian prayer: liturgy, whose approach is typological, and popular piety, whose approach is allegorical. Moreover, in the postmodern context, Christian faith, celebrated and lived in a differentiated manner in liturgy and popular piety, also manifests itself as heterotopy and heterochrony. In a world characterized by simultaneity and the abolition of distance, it is the law of ritual, the lex orandi, inasmuch as it defines the lex credendi, that constitutes the ecosystem wherein the relationship of believers with the practices of faith plays itself out in all its complexity. Throughout history popular devotions have developed and flourished on the borderline of ecclesial control; sometimes, and subsequently, the Church hierarchy has recognized the validity and the pertinence of these practices. Pope Francis clearly expressed what is at play here in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium:

Underlying popular piety, as a fruit of the inculturated Gospel, is an active evangelizing power which we must not underestimate: to do so would be to fail to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, we are called to promote and strengthen it, in order to deepen the never-ending process of inculturation. Expressions of popular piety have much to teach us; for those who are capable of reading them, they are a locus theologicus which demands our attention, especially at a time when we are looking to the new evangelization (n° 126).

It is clear that this question of the “regulation” of practices is as important today as it was in the past. Indeed, contemporary developments like globalization, the technological revolution, and the importance of social networks, may make it even more crucial. It may also prove to be a significant subject for a future colloquium.

The fourth and final session on the morning of the third day had been planned as a sort of inclusio, revisiting the concrete practices that had furnished the subject-matter of the opening session. This closing phase, rather than wrapping things up in an artificial conclusion, sought to shed light on various pastoral aspects of the question.

The first of the three papers “Marian Liturgies in the Context of Pilgrimage,” was given by Brigitte Waché, emeritus professor at the University of Maine, Le Mans, and President of the Société française d’Études mariales. She showed how the history of Marian shrines demonstrates that an aggiornamento of practices is not only a consequence of theological choices, as was the case after Vatican II, but a permanent dimension of the Church’s history. This in turns reveals the extent to which popular piety is a dynamic force in the life of the Church.  The constant evolution of the life and practices of Marian sanctuaries can be seen in the prayer and hymn texts proposed to pilgrims (this vast but little studied corpus of hymnography merits further investigation), in their iconography, and in their physical layout.

The second speaker, Rev. Serge Tyvaert OP, lecturer at the Institut supérieur de pastorale catéchétique (part of the Theology Faculty of the ICP), founded his reflection, “Pilgrimage Liturgy and Enquiry / Evangelization,” on the Rosary Pilgrimage, a national pilgrimage to Lourdes organized every year by the French Dominicans. Both the structure and the content of the Rosary Pilgrimage demonstrate the importance that pilgrimages have taken on today as part of evangelization, in particular as opportunities for precatechumenal enquiry and evangelization. This development is an invitation to rethink the relationship between what takes place, often with great intensity, during pilgrimages, and all that can be set in motion around and as a result of this unique type of experience.

The final contribution, “Pilgrimage, an Opportunity for Initiation to Faith,” was given by Serge Kerrien, a permanent deacon of the diocese of Saint-Brieuc and Tréguier. His experience as diocesan pilgrimage director led him to conclude that if pilgrimages indeed constitute favorable opportunities for evangelization, they need to be organized in close collaboration among the various pastoral ministries of a diocese. This conclusion points in turn to the importance of the theological and liturgical formation of all those involved in pilgrimage ministries, so that pilgrimage programmes and their organisation take full account of the priority of evangelization, and not degenerate into a sort of religious tourism.

It is fair to say that this final stage of the colloquium set its participants before an imposing project; rather than “Issues for Today,” it could just as well have been called “Perspectives for Tomorrow.” Far from being an inward-looking and rootless conceptual exercise that would simply have confirmed its participants in their prejudices, positive or negative, the overriding impression is one of an invitation to seize the possibilities offered to testify to our faith within the contemporary world. This colloquium was thus in conformity with the model of Lourdes that Fr. Brito sketched in his evocation of St Bernadette; the reality of pilgrimage is always a reminder that “the Good News is announced to the poor,” and so to the contemporary world.


Patrick Prétot, osb

Institut Supérieur de Liturgie/Theologicum

Institut Catholique de Paris


Translated by

Christopher Lazowski, osb

Institut Supérieur de Liturgie/Theologicum

Institut Catholique de Paris


[Editor’s note: This article, in French, will appear in the upcoming issue of La Maison-Dieu. We are grateful to the editor of La Maison-Dieu, and to the author, for their kind permission to share it with the readers of Pray Tell.]

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