Book review: People’s Christianity

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Jose Mario Francisco SJ and Jayeel Cornelio, People’s Christianity: Theological Sense and Sociological Significance, (New York: Paulist Press, 2022) 

reviewed by Tom Wilson, Leicester

This interesting read from two Catholic scholars is a useful addition to the library of any theological or Bible college. The main stimulus for writing comes from Pope Francis’ exhortation that pastors must “smell the sheep”, that is, they must get up close and personal, discovering how Christians actually live out their faith. 

Part one, “smelling the sheep,” is divided into two chapters. Chapter one discusses the authenticity of the popular. That is, that lived religion is still an authentic experience of Christianity, even if it contains elements that religious authorities disapprove of. The authors are at pains to point out that there is no hard and fast distinction between institutional and lived religion, but rather a continuum, for institutional religion is practiced by people. They also outline their four key themes: worship, liberation, agency in tradition and the ability of the faithful to discern the things of God (p. 19). Chapter two explores the diversity of lived Christianity, which begs the question are there “correct” and “incorrect” expressions of faith, and if so, how are they distinguished? Another key point is that lived religion is primarily communal. The authors argue for four elements of lived Christianity: authenticity, the location of the sacred, the presence and meditation of sacred power, and practical rationality (p. 34). 

Part two concentrates on reading between the lines, discussing lived Christianity as worship and promotion of liberation. The chapter on worship begins with a discussion of the Vatican’s “Directory on popular piety and the liturgy,” a strategic document which seeks to control and regulate lived Christianity. In the authors’ view, it does so with limited success. The chapter also explores the controversy over Chinese rituals related to veneration of ancestors. It discusses whether these are compatible with Christianity. The chapter on liberation concerns two streams of thought: the Spanish-language writings, primarily from South America, and the specifically Argentinian theology of the people. The interrelation of these two streams is explored and the question of who exactly performs liberation theology is discussed. 

Part three is devoted to “sensing the people’s faith,” combining theological reflections with ethnographic interpretations of observed lived religion. Chapter five gives the theoretical framework, arguing that lived Christianity has always had a place within Christian tradition because it is the manifestation of divine self-disclosure. The faithful are actively working out the nature and purpose of this revelation. Chapter six then gives a practical outworking through discussion of devotion to Mary across different times and places. The authors argue this demonstrates the Holy Spirit disclosing the nature of God to the faithful. Chapter seven rounds off the discussion through an exploration of sensus fidei, referring both to the sense for the faith and the sense of the faith. The authors concentrate on a 2014 document, Sensus Fidei in the life of the church. This is a liminal and marginal activity, where those who live faith on the edge have much to contribute. 

Part four focuses on “journeying with the sheep.” Chapter eight draws together theology and sociology, arguing for symbiosis not dissonance. The authors’ shift to “living religion,” is particularly interesting, as is their argument that sociology is a form of theology because everyone operates from a worldview. Their exploration of pastoral sociology and public theology are both very stimulating. The final chapter draws the threads together, arguing for dynamism and creativity as we all travel together. They conclude that the people of God need courage, but also to love and serve on another, to imbue the Christian life with hope. 

People’s Christianity is an engaging read. The book was more technical and academic than I was expecting but it was, for me personally, an easy read.  

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