The importance of local devotions and piety


Romulus and Remus were the mythological figures to whom the foundation of Rome is attributed. Centuries later, Christians came to view Rome as re-founded by another pair, new patrons executed near the city for their wild talk about a Middle-Eastern refugee coming back from the dead and telling people to eat of his flesh and inaugurating a kingdom very different from the empire that had come to dominate the Mediterranean, a kingdom which would have no end.

In the locals’ imagination, Peter and Paul became in many ways the “new” Romulus and Remus, the twin protectors and symbolic embodiments of Rome itself, their message resonating as the authentic salus populi Romani (“salvation of the Roman people”). For this reason the two appear almost everywhere together, their shared feast on June 29 is a local holiday from work, and recent popes have recognized the need to recover in some sense their inheritance of the “Pauline” ministry to the wider world, without coming at the expense of their ubiquitous “Petrine” one.

These realities were at the fore of my mind in recent weeks, due to location and timing. I recently wrapped up a graduate ecclesiology class focused on the life of the church in Rome today, with particular attention on ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, the laity, and global social communication. A colleague was here teaching a more historically-focused elective on “Rome in the footsteps of Peter and Paul,” and so we coordinated visits to sites around town together.

Prime among these was the Scavi tour of the excavations of the pre-Christian necropolis beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica, which culminates with a few moments before what scientists and theologians posit are likely the actual bones of the fisher of men himself. The relics contain no skeletal remains below the shins, which matches the tradition that he was crucified upside down and likely chopped down at the ankles by the Roman soldiers. The woolen pallium for each new metropolitan archbishop is placed as near as possible to these physical reminders of Peter’s witness before they are sent around the world on the feast day he shares with his brother in the faith.

After the class, I spent a few days in Mallorca, Spain, before returning to Rome for the rest of July. Interesting, the local patron of the port of Alcudia on the northeast side of the island is Sant Pere (in Mallorquin – the same man known as Pedro in Spanish, Pietro in Italian, and Cephas in the original Aramaic).

Here, 500 miles away from the site of his martyrdom and thousands more from the shores where he first encountered the One who would forever change his life, I was honored to help the deacons prepare the fisherman statue in the seaside chapel to be carried through the streets and onto a boat by the barefoot confraternity of pescadors with nets and oars, for a floating procession around the cliffs meeting the water. Each commercial and private vessel in the harbor sailed by and paid homage to the patron. Brass bands blared and champagne was sipped (and sprayed) on the boats and docks. The night was capped off with midnight fireworks from the beach.

The popular piety of believers in their diverse cultural contexts has been an emphasis of the current pontificate. Anyone who really wishes to understand this element of the contemporary church ought to read the Aparacida document of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops’ conference, whose final publication the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires coordinated. It’s one among many hermeneutical keys for understanding Francis’s vision of “the shape of the church to come.”

At its core is reverence for the local devotional outpouring of the people (“el pueblo”), uniting believers with a shared common inheritance and yet remaining open to appreciating God’s ongoing and unpredictable action, especially present in the lives of the poor and humble. Experiencing these local traditions and memorials anew, seeing Peter paid tribute to both in the glories of Roman architecture and the piety of Catalan commercial fishermen, continues to inspire me as a scholar, and more importantly, as a member of the community of disciples who, along with that stubborn and flawed early follower, acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, who has indeed come into the world.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.