Page 3, 6th August 1976

6th August 1976
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Page 3, 6th August 1976 — When does religion become transformed into mere superstition?

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Locations: Brussels


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When does religion become transformed into mere superstition?

SUPERSTITION often becomes a substitute for religion,. according to a report on popular religion by Pro Mundi Vita, the Brussels based Catholic Research Institute.

For instance, a woman living in a Roman silents town within sight of St Peter's asks a priest to bless a tiny Franciscan habit. Padre Pio, unknown to himself. has cured her child, and in fulfilment of a vow the baby will be dressed as a friar for a year. In Sicily there is a practice called the strwt ino, in which the women will drag their tongues in the dust. all the way to church. provided that the Blessed Virgin will cure a loved one.

Here too?

The report has been prepared by Mike Singleton, of the White Fathers. Drawing on his ow it experience, he cites similar examples among Catholics in Africa. In one village, a catechist who had just returned from a refresher course urged the priest. who was being harassed by government officials, to say Mass with the intention that they should be rendered insane. Does this sort of thing happen in the British Isles? From my own experience I believe that the more bizarre forms of superstition are absent, but we have our own brand of the product which is just as unpleasant.

What assessment are we to make when people come to church for marriage, although faith and prayer are totally absent from their lives? Sometimes they will do it just to please parents.

In other cases one suspects that it is because the decor and musical hackground are superior to what the registry office can offer, If the dust-licking vow is defined as superstition, then I would describe the English aberration as simple hypocrisy.

In both cases people are performing a ritual without authentic faith. Whereas the superstitious are confident that it will work in any case. the hypocrites kilos, that it wont; but a church hackdrop will look nice in the photographs.

The report produced by Pro Mundi Vita seems to imply that the religion of the poor will always be dangerously different from that of the educated elite and the clergy, and that it will 'always he in danger of sliding into sunerstitirm. One could only ask whether Catholicism in particular predisposes people to superstition because of the central place occupied by sacraments and ritual.

The danger of this sort of religious aberration is by no means illusory, but I prefer to reflect on the safeguards. rather than lust lamenting the deviations.

Avoiding magic

Undoubtedly education is an important liberator. Even a little scientific knowledge will deflect people from rainmaking rituals. Education will not undermine authentic religion, but it Will steadily erode superstition.

Our adoption of a Vernacular liturgy is another safeguard. There is less danger of magical interpretations if' the words of blessings. for example, are understood. The lifting of ,0 many of the old legal restrictions also helps. such as fasting before Communion.

Did 1 swallow a small amount of toothpaste, and am 1 thereby debarred from receiring the Eucharist? Those laws bred attitudes which could all too easily slip into the primitive taboos of ritual uncleanness and the like. The basic safeguard is even deeper. Is there a fundamental affinity between Christianity and pagan religion? As the late Professor ,load used to say: It all depends on what you mean by religion.

Popular religion among paganS is predominantly thaumaturgical, and is polarised by the desire to explain, predict and control. Both among the ancients and modern pagans it is principally concerned with placating and canalising the mysterious forces of nature.

This kind of piety hears so little resemblance to the New Testament that theologians such as Bonhoeffer prefer not to employ the label "religion" for Christianity. They point out that the concern of the New Testament arises out of faith. not fear, and it is a deliberate commitment to a personChrist.

From that starting point its development concerns inter-personal relationships with God, and between mail. Christianity's subject matter is therefore trust, truthfulness. reconciliation, and deep crcatisc lose.

All of this is so far removed from rain-making rituals that these theologians choose not to use the word relig ;.sn as a designation for Christianity. Initially it is disconcerting to hear from them that religion is not required in the modern world, it merely emphasises that authentic Christianity is needed instead, If this is the difference between superstitious. religion and Christianity, it is clear that social class and education have little hearing 'on the real thing.

Practical steps

Is there one area which we can pinpoint as being dehisive in keeping both the simple and the sophisticated inside true Christianity? Experience in variety of parishes and schools convinces me that our treatment of the sacraments is crucial, It' sacraments are given without true commitment being required. then we are well on the way to superstition. For example, a school which informs the parents that all the pupils in Class 4 will he confirmed on June 10. is heading for trouble.

Starting with baptism, every sacrament must he discussed with the parents. and with the children too when they are old enough. This ensures that both parents and children face up to their different responsibilities in a renewed personal commitment to Christ. which is what each sacrament requires.

The element of responsihility leads on to a moral attitude which will he sensitive to social issues. The report of Pro Mundi Vita singles out hostility to the Pope's social encyclicals as one or the most characteristic manifestations of superstitious religion.

Preparation of children in the way which I have described demands much time and great individual care, yet it should not he beyond the resources of a properly planned pastoral strategy.

Finally, let us dispose of the myth or the simple faithful. Authentic Christianity, is not the preserve of any one social class or cultural group Superstitious religion might perhaps appeal to the primitives, but that is not the content of the Church's mission.

Clergy do great disservice to uneducated people if they assume that then are incapable of deep commitment end authentic Christianity, and who lot them off with "popular devotions" hacked up by bingo to keep them am used.

Fr Michael Winter

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