LITURGY, POPULAR PIETY, AND THE NEW EVANGELIZATION

By Archbishop Gomez
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA
September 29, 2016

(Archbishop Gomez delivered this keynote addresss to the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Liturgy) 

My friends,

!Bienvenidos! I am really happy to welcome you to the City of the Angels!

Los Angeles is the largest Catholic community in the United States and probably the most diverse — in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, economic status and even geography.

We have about 5 million Catholics here and we cover a territory that is larger than the state of New Jersey — and within this territory, we have some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States and some of the poorest.

This great diversity is the context for my talk tonight.

My friends, in my five years here in L.A., I have come to see something.

I have come to see that the future of the Catholic Church in this country — the future of the Catholic Church in the American continent — is already “here now” in Los Angeles.

If you want to know what the Church is going to look like throughout the Americas, and if you want to know what that means — for how we worship, how we serve, how we form priests and disciples, and how we evangelize and engage the culture — this is the place you need to come.

So to begin, I need to give you a quick overview of the Church here.

Los Angeles was originally called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciuncula — given this name by the Franciscan missionaries, who came here about a decade before the Declaration of Independence. America’s newest saint, St. Junípero Serra, had a hand in founding the Church here.

From the beginning, the Church here was multi-cultural and multi-racial. The original families of the Pueblo included Africans, Indians, Europeans, and Asians from the Pacific Islands.

And this pattern has continued. Today, as I said, we have about 5 million Catholics. About 70 percent are Latinos — but we have big populations from almost every country in Latin and South America; Asia, Africa, Oceania, Europe and the Middle East.

We celebrate the liturgy here in more than 40 different languages.

It is really amazing here. You can see how the seeds of the Gospel have been sown in every culture. And you can see how these seeds have borne rich fruit — in popular piety; in songs and customs; in artwork and poetry; in unique devotions to the Blessed Mother and to national saints.

I want to talk about all of that tonight. But my first point is that Los Angeles is a city of the world, a metropolis. It is also a culture of encounter — and it is an encounter of cultures.

But we need to understand that what is happening in Los Angeles is happening all across the country and all across the Americas.

This is the next point I want to make.

Globalization and the signs of the times

My friends, the reality of globalization is one of the “signs” of the times. The globalization process is economical and it’s financial. But globalization is also social and cultural. 

The patterns of mass migration that we see in every part of the Americas — and every part of the world — is bringing about a new encounter and a new “mixing” of cultures. Our societies are now profoundly diverse. Multi-racial and multi-cultural. This is not an ideological statement. It’s demographics.  

And all of this has implications for the Church — as I said — for our worship and for our for our liturgy, and for our mission of evangelization.

In fact, my friends I believe we are living in a providential moment. A time of real missionary opportunity and hope. I believe we are living in a moment where it is possible for us to really see what God intended for his creation from the beginning — one family of God drawn from every nation, race, language and people.  

In the mystery of God’s plan, the Church is intended to a global Church. Worldwide, universal. That is what “catholic” means — a single family embracing the whole of humanity.

And the Church today has the same mission she received at Pentecost — to proclaim “the mighty works of God” to men and women “from every nation under heaven.”

The Church is called to be a sacrament — the sign of the single family that the Father in his love wants to create in his Son. And the Church is called to be the instrument by which all the peoples of the world realize their identity as God’s children and as brothers and sisters in his universal family, his Kingdom on earth.

And that’s my next point.  

Liturgy and the Church’s mission

The Church has a great opportunity right now for the new evangelization of our continent and world.

Over the last 2,000 years, the Gospel has been inculturated in “every nation under heaven.” This means the Church today is able to truly worship, teach and evangelize in one voice — as one family of God, drawn from every nation, people and language, united in our faith in the Gospel and our communion with the Holy Father in Rome.

To be Catholic today means we can pray in every language and express our faith through countless regional and ethnic traditions. We are heirs to the authentic Catholic traditions of every culture. I don’t think we fully understand — just what a beautiful blessing this is! And what a powerful resource we have for evangelization.

At the heart of everything in the Church is the divine liturgy, the Eucharistic celebration.

It is always wonderful to pray as a Catholic. Because when we celebrate the Eucharist — we are joined in prayer with the family of God in every part of our country, in every part of the world. And in the Eucharist we are all joined together in the worship of God with the angels and saints in heaven.

When we come together to worship in the Eucharist, we do not know ourselves as Greeks or Jews; or Latinos or Anglos, or Filipinos or Vietnamese. In the liturgy we are united as brothers and sisters, children of the one Father who calls us in love.

The Eucharist is always  the “ordinary means” of sanctification — the ordinary way by which people grow in holiness and move towards heaven.

Lex oradini, lex credendi. In the Church’s ancient formula, we pray what we believe. And what we pray, changes us into what we believe.

We are made in the image of God and given the vocation to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. This beautiful promise of our faith shapes the direction of our Christian lives. We become what we pray.

Little by little and day by day, we are being changed into his likeness, St. Paul said. Until one day we can say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

This transformation is taking place quietly through our participation in the divine liturgy as it unfolds Sunday by Sunday in the rhythms and cycles of the Church’s liturgical year. Through the liturgy, we enter into those sacred mysteries, joining our lives to his life.

In a sense, we can say that the Church’s mission is to lead people to the table of the Eucharist. So the question of the new evangelization is — how do we do that? How do we bring people to this life-changing encounter with Christ in the divine liturgy?

And that’s what I want to talk about next.

Popular piety and the new evangelization

I want to suggest that we have a precious treasure in the Church’s traditions of popular piety — all the ways that Catholics in every culture express their faith, all their different ways of praying, all their devotions, customs and saints.

We know of course, that true popular piety is rooted in the Eucharist and leads to the worship of Christ in his Body and Blood.

But I think too often we overlook popular piety. We dismiss it as kind of naïve, a superstition, or a form of “magical thinking.”

But my friends, what I see here in Los Angeles is something beautiful. The faith of the people is expressed in countless humble ways — kissing their fingers after they make the Sign of the Cross; crossing themselves when they pass by a Church.

There so many different ways that our people make their faith a natural part of their ordinary daily lives. This is popular piety. And we need to appreciate it — as liturgists, as pastors, as theologians. And I believe that all these ways that people express their humble faith in God can be an important resource for the new evangelization.

In popular piety, we see how the Gospel becomes “incarnate” in different cultures, how the encounter with Christ transforms and purifies those cultures from within.

To use the image of Jesus — as the Gospel enters the human heart like a “seed,” in the same way, the Gospel is planted in the “soil” of a culture. The truths of the Gospel become part of the “feeling” of the people, their customs and traditions, shaping the way they see the world and understand their place within it.

Popular piety is the faith of the family of God. And when we reflect on it, I think we see that the devotions of the people reflect a kind of “family faith.” I am struck by how much of popular piety is rooted in the rhythms of family life and in people’s reflection on the humanity of the Holy Family.

There is something that is deeply touching — a tender humanism in these devotions. We see how people feel that Jesus, Mary and Joseph are close to them; that they understand the joys and the struggles and the sufferings that we go through in our families and in our daily lives.   

One example.

There is a very old popular devotion in Latin America, especially in Mexico, called Las Posadas. It is a novena that we celebrate nine days before Christmas. Every night for those nine days, families get together and they re-create the journey that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus make on their way to Bethlehem.

A couple of years ago in Los Angeles, some families here turned their Posada into a beautiful emotional reflection on the sufferings of undocumented immigrants and their families.

It was really moving. The whole story of how Mary and Joseph could find no room at the inn on that first Christmas — these families saw that as their story. They saw the Holy Family sharing in what they were going through — in not being able to find welcome in this country.

And witnessing this devotion, you get the powerful sense that because the Holy Family has suffered these things — it lends dignity and hope to their sufferings. There is a sense in this devotion that they understand God’s love, and that God is with them.

That’s one example. Let me give you another.

Our Filipino brothers and sisters have a beautiful Easter devotion they call Salubong (“The Encounter”).

Gathering before dawn, they relive the meeting of the risen Jesus with his Blessed Mother on the first Easter morning.

Of course in the Gospels, there is no mention of this meeting between Jesus and Mary after his Resurrection. But popular faith sometimes starts where the Scriptures leave off.

And again, we have to think about the power that this devotion can have for families. Many parents have lost children or loved ones. And Easter is the promise of new life. So I think in this devotion we have a really beautiful expression of Christian faith in the Resurrection.

People are identifying with Mary as a mother — as a mother who has lost her Son, a mother who is in mourning.

So this devotion expresses people’s faith that death is not the end — that we will be reunited with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. As Jesus came back to Mary, Jesus will give our loved ones back to us — in the joy of the Resurrection.

It is a beautiful expression of faith. And here are many more examples we could mention — we could talk all night, for instance, about the various devotions to local saints.

So let me make a few concluding remarks.

Popular piety and the new evangelization  

My point tonight is that these popular devotions are a rich sources for communicating the power of the Gospel. They are not a substitute for the divine liturgy, but they are a means for communicating the good news of God’s love and preparing people’s hearts for the encounter of Christ in the Eucharist.

My friends, despite the widespread secularization of our societies, we see that people are still hungry for God. They long to make contact with him. They long to know his love and power in their lives. They are searching for spiritualties that will bring them holiness and wholeness and communion with God and other people.

And I think popular piety speaks to this spiritual hunger, this restlessness — in a deep way.

In a world where people no longer seem to sense God’s nearness, popular devotions and customs are a concrete way to communicate God’s mercy, his tenderness towards us.

So my prayer and my hope is that all of us in the Church will reflect more deeply on the beautiful diversity of the Church, all the different continents and peoples and languages and ethnic backgrounds and traditions.

I really believe there is evangelical power in the different ways that our people pray and express their faith. As ministers in the Church and pastors, my hope is that we will be looking for creative ways that we can use this treasure of popular piety to lead people to the sacred liturgy — to the encounter with Christ, to the participation in his Body and Blood and to become partakers of the divine life.

Let me leave you with just a reminder — you are close to one of the greatest examples of popular piety in the universal Church.

As many of you noticed — in our Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, we have a chapel devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. In that chapel there is a small reliquary that holds a tiny piece of cloth cut from the sacred tilma — the cloak of St. Juan Diego that bears the miraculous image of the Virgin.

People come there all day long — not only Latinos, but Anglos and Asians and Africans, everybody. They come to pray and they bring their children and their parents and great-grandparents. Some like to touch their Rosaries and other items to the relic.

Their devotion is not magic or superstition. This is true faith, deep faith. Through this devotion, they know that they have a mother in heaven, a mother who cares, a mother who is watching over her children.

They feel their connection with God. They know — that as God spoke through the Virgin to Juan Diego, he is still involved in the world today. They know that he is still close to us in his mercy. And they know that God is especially near to those who are poor and those who are oppressed and suffering.  

I think through this devotion, the people also in some way identify themselves with Juan Diego, a humble Indian man with responsibilities for his family — an ordinary man who became a messenger for God, a missionary disciple.

And as we know, through St. Juan Diego, this humble Indian man, Christianity spread throughout the Americas and a new Christian civilization was born.

This is the power of popular devotion, the potential for popular piety at this time in our history. I think it can inspire a new generation of disciples, a new generation of saints and missionaries — to build a new world of faith in the Americas.

Thank you for listening. May God bless all of you and your families.

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