Are the new forms of religiosity an indication of post-secularisation?

Mark Benedict Coleridge, Archbishop of Canberra

In parts of the world like Australia, secularist ideology - or secularism as it is called in the Instrumentum Laboris - has surged with a vengeance in recent times. One reason for this is that secularist ideology has been caught off guard and is rattled by the way religion has made a comeback. Suddenly, it seems, secularist ideology feels under threat in a way it did not expect, and its reaction is to strike back with a certain virulence. A battle which some had thought over - the battle between, shall we say, religion and irreligion - has resumed, with religion doing surprisingly well against an opponent that had perhaps grown complacent. Just when religion looked down and out, it has found a new lease of life. This does not necessarily mean that secularism is at an end, but it does mean that it has been unsettled in cultures like my own.

       Even in the public domain the forces of religion and the realm of the supernatural are making their presence felt in new ways. In a country like Australia, there are powerful pressures seeking to drive religion into a strictly private domain, since, it is claimed, religion has no place in the public domain. This is often justified as a corollary of the separation of Church and state. Any intrusion of religion into the public domain, it is claimed, would be a violation of that hard-won principle. Yet religion, it seems, refuses to be quarantined in a purely private world.

       Beyond the public domain, new forms of popular religiosity have emerged as well, especially perhaps among the young. This is scarcely less perplexing, given that the power of reason had seemed close to victory over what some would see as the forces of unreason, that is the forces of religion.

       In my own Diocese, we have recently had the Journey of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon, and it proved to be quite an experience. People of all kinds turned out in great number just to see and touch the Cross and Icon. This was greeted by a certain perplexity; some could not understand why all the fuss and why so many people, young and old, seemed to be so moved. We even took the Cross and Icon into the Federal Parliament and to the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory where Canberra lies. Some politicians turned out to greet the symbols, but many were simply puzzled. They struggled to understand why the Cross and Icon were here at all and why someone like myself had invited politicians to be part of the event. If ever there was a need to demonstrate the power of popular religiosity - understood so deeply and powerfully by Pope John Paul when he gave the Cross and Icon to the youth of the world - it was celebrations such as these.

       The Cross and Icon are very simple, but that is part of their power. They go to deep places of the human heart - and not just among Catholic people, as the experience in my own Diocese showed. At each place we visited, the celebration was a combination of a party and a prayer-meeting. The mood was festive, as it usually is with popular religiosity; people enjoyed themselves. But there was also a deep spirit of prayer, and people were clearly moved by symbols which spoke to them of God's love. This combination of party and prayer has always been central to the religious experience of pilgrimage, which is one of the most enduring forms of popular religiosity.

       As I speak, my own Auxiliary Bishop is one of many people on the pilgrim way towards Compostela; and one of the lay members of my Archdiocesan executive team, having once made the journey to Compostela, has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the spirituality of pilgrimage. But El Camino is only the best known of many forms of pilgrimage which have made a comeback in recent years.

       Beyond the resurgence of interest in pilgrimage, other fouls of popular religiosity are having their effect. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, for instance, has become deeply influential in ways both obvious and less obvious. After the erosion of Catholic devotional life that followed the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic people were left in a kind of desert where, whatever about the needs of the head, the needs of the heart were left unsatisfied. Into this vacuum there came charismatic spirituality to provide an immediate and all­-encompassing experience of the presence and power of the supernatural which popular devotions had always sought to convey.

       Some older devotions have emerged in new forms. One example of this is the devotion of the Divine Mercy which traces its origins to the mystical experience of Saint Faustina Kowalska. It has always seemed to me a latter-day version of the devotion of the Sacred Heart, which traced its origins to the mystical experience of the Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. The way it has struck such a deep chord in the Catholic heart is mysterious but unmistakable, and it has surely opened people in a way both new and old to the infinite treasures of the merciful love of Christ.

       Another sign of the resurgence of popular religiosity has been the appearance of new forms of Marian devotion associated with places like Medjugorje. These new forms of Marian devotion are often tied to experiences of private revelation which need to be carefully discerned; but they take their place in a deep stream of Catholic devotion which looks back at least to the visionary experience of Saint Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes one hundred and fifty years ago.

       There is also the phenomenon of renewed interest in and practice of Eucharistic adoration. This is in part because secularism will always deny the Incarnation. Early in the last century, Charles Péguy described the pervasive denial of the Incarnation, even at times among the devout, as "un désastre mystique". He meant by this that people felt they had to escape or deny their humanity in order to attain the divinity and that they had to escape or deny the divinity in order to attain their true humanity. Eucharist adoration is a powerful affirmation of the Incarnation and a celebration of the fact that to find true humanity is to find the divinity and vice versa. It is a mysticism of the flesh which has always been central to popular religiosity in the Catholic Church.

       All of these newer forms of popular religiosity are in one way or other a reaction against an excessively cerebral and one-dimensional account of human experience which has had its effect in both the Church and Western culture more generally. Some of what emerged in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council has been too cerebral to satisfy Catholic sensibility. More broadly too there is a reaction against the somewhat joyless and reductive account of human experience found in secularist ideology. There is a desire for re-enchantment after the dis-enchantment produced by secularism. There is a desire for something which can speak to the whole person and to all persons rather than something which speaks only to one part of the human person and only to some people, usually the elites of one kind or another.

       The Catholic experience of Christianity is always suspicious of elitism, which is why its forms of religiosity are essentially popular. It is always suspicious of what is prim and prohibitive (dare I say puritanical?), which is why its forms of religiosity tend to have a certain exuberance about them. It is always suspicious of the ways in which contemporary culture can make people feel isolated and impotent, which is why it is essentially communal and why it seeks to make people feel that they are vastly connected and that there is a hope which empowers.

       Yet there can be a darker side to the resurgence of popular religiosity, with various forms of New Age spirituality and neo-paganism making their presence felt. These provide pseudo-religious experiences with a frisson of the transcendent without any demands being made on the individual. It is religion soft and superficial, ideally suited to a consumerist culture. The Cross is of course the first thing to go, as it can also be in the case of popular religiosity.

       The phenomenon of resurgent popular religiosity needs to be carefully discerned and properly formed if it is not to succumb to its darker side. If they are to prove a genuine indication of post-secularisation, newer forms of popular religiosity need to be purified and strengthened by the Scripture and the teachings of the Church without losing any of their popular appeal. They need to be imbued more and more deeply with an ecclesial spirit which ensures that the sense of vast connectedness proper to popular religiosity finds its true home in the Church. They need in one way or another to announce the kerygma, so that they lead to conversion to Christ not just to a personal solace which passes quickly, so that people can find in them not a false hope but the true hope of Easter.

       In the end, popular religiosity will prove a genuine indication of post-secularisation insofar as it becomes an experience of encounter with the Risen Christ. Anything less than that may discomfort secularist ideology but will not dislodge it in a way that has to happen if cultures are to do justice to the many dimensions of the human person and the many desires of the human heart.