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Popular religiosity in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s, Pope Francis,formation

José Luis Narvaja, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Jan 12th 2021

1Since his election on March 13, 2013, among the many questions posed regarding the person and history of Pope Francis are those about the origins of his thought in general and of his theological mindset in particular.

Between 1968 and 1978, Jorge Mario Bergoglio finished his formation as a Jesuit and began his ministry as a priest, first as novice master and then later as provincial. At the time of his ordination (1969), he was almost 33 years old. In that era, one person had a great influence on him: Fr. Miguel Ángel Fiorito (1916-2005). He had been rector of the University of Salvador (1970-1973) in Buenos Aires and, prior to that, a professor of metaphysics, dean of the faculty of philosophy of the Collegio Massimo de San Miguel (1964-1969), and director of the journal, Stromata, in which articles by the professors of the philosophy faculty were published. Fr. Fiorito was an undisputed point of reference for his students, thanks to his intellectual and spiritual abilities.[1]

As provincial superior, Bergoglio would assign Fr. Fiorito to two important offices in the province: instructor of the “third stage of probation” (tertianship), that is, the last stage of formation as a Jesuit; and that of director of the Boletín de Espiritualidad. Most of the studies in Jesuit spirituality by Fr Fiorito belong to this period, especially his work on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and on spiritual discernment.[2] In this environment of formation, together with the formal studies in the faculty of philosophy, there was an informal intellectual sharing of readings, personal reflections and ecclesial and pastoral concerns. It is important to keep this theological dialogue in mind for it profoundly influenced the thought of the future pope.

These were the years immediately following Vatican II. The reception of the Council had occasioned contrasting responses in Latin America and a strong awareness of the region. The students and fathers of the College followed the developments of the Council with great interest and, after its conclusion, actively participated in the process of its reception and implementation. From a historical point of view, we are dealing with a moment of renewal that – stated in few words – was received in two contrasting ways. Some understood this “renewal” as change, and others as rejuvenation. The Church in Latin America found itself caught in the tension between these two points of view, thus not always with a clear orientation.

But in this period, there was a certain “way of being” in the intellectual atmosphere of Collegio Massimo. Study, reflection and sharing helped ideas mature, ideas which then took form in articles in the two publications of the faculty: the journal of philosophy and theology, Stromata, and the Boletín de Espiritualidad, aimed at spiritual and pastoral formation.

Theological dialogue in the Collegio Massimo

These publications were the fruit of the pastoral experience of each component of the group, together with a variety of readings that were put together in a way which, perhaps, was not systematic and existential. The many private readings shared and assimilated by the group contain no footnotes. In the majority of cases, it is difficult to distinguish the origin of a concept and its reworking by the group. An example of this intellectual exchange are the “four principles” that Bergoglio, as provincial, laid out in his speech at the opening of the 14th Provincial Congregation, on February 18, 1974. [3]

These principles – which will appear often in the reflection of Bergoglio, and then of Pope Francis[4] – find their origin, according to Bergoglio himself, in the letter that the governor of Buenos Aires, Don Juan Manuel de Rosas, had sent to Facundo Quiroga of the Hacienda de Figueroa on December 20, 1834. It is difficult to identify the principles that Bergoglio speaks about in this letter. Between the source and the principles, in the middle, are the reflections and dialogue of the group, of which there is no remaining written account. These principles only take on a written form in 1974 in Bergoglio’s speech has a pre-history, the details of which are known only through oral transmission.

The same happened with other authors and other works: reading many of these, we can recognize themes that reappear in Bergoglio’s reflections.

Reflections on popular religiosity

In 1969, we find in the Boletín de Espiritualidad the start of a series of articles that present reflections on the theme of “liberation”: a topic which, beginning with Medellín,[5] had a great impact and continued to develop different subtleties and variants.[6] The work of Fr. Fiorito greatly helped the province in Argentina to recognize the tensions that were arising between different readings.

When Fr. Fiorito assumed direction of the Boletín in 1973, the reflections acquired a new perspective and a choice was made to develop a “theology of popular piety” which, 10 years later, became a “theology of culture.”[7] The reflection on popular piety began with a group of young Jesuits who participated in the theological dialogue at the Collegio Massimo. Between the years 1974 and 1975, these young Jesuits were in their tertianship, under the direction of Fr. Fiorito. The group consisted of Fathers Andrés Swinnen, Augustín López, Jorge Seibold, Ernesto López Rosas, Julio Merediz, Juan Carlos Constable and Alejandro Antunovich, and Brother Salvador Mura.

Beginning with the pastoral experience in the parishes of the interior of the country and in the suburbs of Buenos Aires,[8] the group of young Jesuits – always under the direction of Fiorito – reflected for a month. The results of these reflections were presented in a series of articles: the group wrote a first article;[9] later, Augustín López wrote a second set of reflections.[10] In both numbers of the Boletín there was a presentation by Fr. Fiorito.

The principles of interpretation

The reflections were inspired explicitly by the speech the provincial superior Jorge Bergoglio gave at the opening of the 14th Provincial Congregation.[11] Below are a few citations which act as an interpretive key, organized as replies to a series of questions.[12]

What is ‘the faithful people’? In his speech, Bergoglio says that the faithful people is “that with which we enter into contact in our priestly mission and in our religious activities. It is evident that the ‘people’ is already – among us – an equivocal term due to the ideological presuppositions with which one listens to or announces this people’s reality. I am here referring simply to the faithful people.”[13]

What can we learn from the faithful people? Bergoglio answers: “When I studied theology and consulted Denzinger and the tractates to prepare for exams, I was amazed by a formulation from the Christian tradition: the faithful people is infallible in believing. From that time, I developed my own formula. It’s not too precise, but I find it helpful: when you want to know what holy mother Church believes, go to the Magisterium (because it has the task of teaching infallibly); but when you want to know how the Church believes, go to the faithful people…”

In what measure can we speak about a hermeneutic of the faithful people? Bergoglio says: “Our people has a soul and, because we speak of the soul of a people, we can also speak of a hermeneutic, of a way of seeing reality, of an awareness…”

What does the faithful people believe in? Bergoglio answers: “It believes in the resurrection and in life: it baptizes its children and prays for its dead.”

This is a theological reflection on “popular religiosity” that will later develop in other ways and receive the more complete title, “theology of culture.”[14]

The importance of these clarifications lies in the fact that they point out that the people is, in all cases, a subject: both of the religious act and of culture. Therefore, a theology of this type studies the religious and cultural manifestations of the people, in which a people expresses itself; that is, in which it expresses the idea that it has of itself and of its place in the world and in history. It is a “mythical” expression, that is, one which is born from the history that underlies its origin and its own meaning.

It is evident that the fruit of these reflections is far from being an abstract description, recognizable in all peoples of the world, because each culture is the fruit of its own “myth.” This coincides with the characteristics of the mission of the Church, which is realized in the particular churches, with their traditions, their history and their vocation that are at one and the same time both universal and concrete.

Beginning with this interpretative scheme, we can get a clearer idea of how one should understand what has been defined as “the theology of the people,” in the light of the pope’s thought. This does not necessarily consider the people as an “object” of study. Rather, it is a way of living the faith and of creating a culture that must be the point of departure of such thought. It must be clear that the people is the subject, not the object, of religious and culture expressions. In all cases in which the people is considered to be an object, it is necessary to resort to an “ideology” to allow such an interpretation. From this comes Bergoglio’s affirmation of the equivocal nature of the term “people.”

The ‘how’ of the faith of the faithful people

These lines of thought indicated by Bergoglio determined a concrete framework for the reflection of the young Jesuits directed by Fr. Fiorito. Being aware of the manifestations of popular religiosity allowed them to discover the “how” of the faith of the faithful people of God that is in pilgrimage in Argentina. This is important when evaluating the path taken in relation to the other proposals developed in other Churches in Latin America. The reading and reception of Vatican II and Medellín take form in the particular Churches according to their own self-understanding.

Reflecting on popular religiosity, the group of young Jesuits deemed it necessary to clarify some concepts.[15] We see this in the presentation of the reflection given by Fr. Fiorito: “The theme of the reflection the group has providentially chosen is that of ‘popular religiosity’ – that some call ‘popular faith’ in order to avoid generic, sometimes pejorative, undertones of the term ‘religiosity’ – and, step by step, as we remembered and we shared our ‘popular experiences,’ we felt ourselves, too, to be ‘the people of God.’”

Before coming to the reflection, it is necessary to clarify three other concepts that Fr. Fiorito expresses in the same presentation.

The unity of the Church. In the first place, when one speaks of “popular religiosity,” it seems that only one part of the Church is taken into consideration, leaving the cultured Church out of the conversation. This comes from the fact that the adjective “cultured” is understood as “erudite” and not – what it really is – a “creator of culture.” Beginning from this perspective, the reflection group gives the following definition: “Culture is the way a people lives and dies: we approach this from the point of view of religion and the Church.”

Then, the young Jesuits indicate two negative interpretations of “popular religiosity.” They are negative because they consider the people as “ignorant” or as “alienated.” In contrast to these ideological positions, the reflection group decisively affirmed: “We believe that our people is neither ignorant (against a liberal concept), nor alienated (against a Marxist concept).”

An analogous problem arises from a simplified division between the Church of the poor “in contrast” with a Church of the rich, and not – what it really is – a single Church that deplores the bad use of riches. Fr. Fiorito further states: “There is no ‘Church of the poor’ against that of the rich, but against the bad use of riches: nor is there a ‘popular Church’ against a ‘cultured Church,’ because even the people have their own culture.”

A realistic vision of the people of God. Another necessary clarification at the beginning of the reflection intends to exclude any romanticized view of the “people of God.” The temptations seek, fundamentally, to undermine unity. This possibility cannot be negated in a romanticized way or, on the other hand, can the reality of the division be accepted ideologically.

Fr. Fiorito concludes his presentation affirming that “the Church feels her own ‘divisive tendencies’ or her own ‘spirit of division’; negating this fact would be ‘angelism,’ but staying with it would mean a tremendous lack of discretion.”[16]

 The concrete universal. The fact that the reflection takes place within the local Church, with the elements of its own culture and history of which it is the product and the mission it hopes to achieve, does not mean that it is closed off to the universal. Rather, it is out of the specific reality (of the universal Church) that one reaches that universality (which materializes in the particular). At the same time, this tension between the universal and the particular gives cohesion to the group, with its diverse members and experiences in the various milieus in Argentina.

Demonstrations of ‘popular piety’

Inside this hermeneutical framework, together with the clarifications of the case, the proposal of the group is to “humbly describe the soul of our people and its religiosity, on the basis of the following categories: faithful people (infallibility in credendo), doctrine (as opposed to theory or ideology) and national culture.”[17]

The second part of the article is dedicated to this description of the soul of the people. The group of tertians gathers expressions, gestures and manifestations of life of faith around three themes: baptism, the deceased and the Eucharist.

In the second publication, written by Fr. Augustín López, more material from the same experience of reflection of the young Jesuits is presented. This time, it is based on the sacrament of Holy Orders (specifically, the person of the priest) and the sacrament of Penance.[18]

The foundation of Fr. Fiorito

Together with this second part of the reflection, in the same issue of the Boletín, Fr. Fiorito offers a foundation and a personal reflection on popular religiosity.[19] Here, too, the content is the fruit of that month of reflection with the young priests – this time it is a personal one. The question that serves as the starting point of the reflection of Fr. Fiorito is the following: What does it mean to be Christians living in Latin America, more specifically, in Argentina today? One recognizes immediately that the answer reveals a tension between the eternal baptismal vocation to live in faith, hope and love, and the concrete, historical vocation: living the eternal Christian life, here and now, in these concrete circumstances.

Fr. Fiorito develops this tension in two directions: first, beginning with spirituality; and, secondly, from a pastoral perspective. This life can be placed “in what we call, in modern Christian language, spirituality, if by this term we mean the Christian existence … guided by the Holy Spirit.”

The problem consists in maintaining this tension. Fiorito states: “We come to this point of conflict and, at the same time, the linchpin of the problem: the task of being Christians … brings with it the need to unify two dimensions: that of faith and that of the historical-cultural situation. But the crucial point of the problem is brought to the forefront if we do not separate that problem from the ‘subject,’ that is, from ourselves, given that we are talking about two elements of our own existence, that is, the need to unify one’s own conscience.”

A second tension is found between the individual and the community. Being Christian is “not an individual problem, but a communal and ecclesial one.” The people of God, as a collective subject, “has the task of unifying, in the collective conscience, the dimensions of its faith and its historical context.”

The people of God “cannot be thought of as an inorganic mass, or of consisting of a merely intimate dimension (we could call it ‘mystical,’ qualifying the word) but, rather, it is realized in an organic and structured way.” This requires a clarification of the value of the individual in regards to the collective – that is not considered as a merely inorganic mass – because this affirmation “does not mean failing to appreciate the absolutely necessary and fundamental value of conversion, prayer and spontaneity of groups and persons, or downplaying both collective and individual charism. We only mean to say that, as long as charism – both collective and individual – is not institutionally organized, it does not have all of the strength it needs to be a historically decisive element.”

Fr. Fiorito then calls attention to the complexity of the tensions, adding to the mix the reality that the people of God is the hierarchical Church. “Undoubtedly, this complicates things. Added to the task of having to unify the experience of the faith with a ‘historical-cultural’ responsibility, is the need to do so without breaking unity with others, with those who constitute with us the people of God. And as a special difficulty there is added the need – that in today’s circumstances often pushes to the limits of the possible – to unite the task […] of our peoples with loyalty to an institution whose leaders do not always address this task.”

For the Society of Jesus, this service to the hierarchical Church has very specific traits. After having described them, Fr. Fiorito concludes that “there is not, in our opinion, a service to the Church as the people of God that is not also a service to its hierarchy; nor is there a service to the hierarchy that is not also a service to the entire people of God. In this, we are not saying something easy and it is for this reason – as the Formula of the Institute of the Society calls for – we must think ‘long and hard’ before taking upon ourselves the charism of the hierarchical Church.”

Therefore, missionary activity “consists in causing in others an attitude of faith, from which the historical situation is assumed in a new and specific way.” The conclusion is significant and is true for the whole Church: “Therefore, asking the question of what it means to be a Christian in a specific culture and historical situation means simultaneously asking the question of the mission of the Church in its decisive point, that is, in its scope and objectives.”

A consideration of the problem from a pastoral perspective suggests the spiritual content determines a policy of missionary activity. At the foundation of pastoral activity is the task of “reading the signs of the times.” Taking Gaudium et Spes (Nos. 3-4 and 11) as a starting point, Fr. Fiorito draws attention to three elements of reading the signs of the times: 1) these are events (needs or desires) in which the Church participates as an institution; 2) we can consider the meaning or the salvific sense of these “events, needs and desires” in “God’s plans”; 3) Fr. Fiorito reminds the reader that speaking of “events” as a “theological locus,” that is, as a starting point for theological reflection, is properly described as universalizing, centered on the “mysteries of God.”

For Fr. Fiorito, from these three notes there springs up a question: to what point can this “reading the signs of the times” be a theology “that leads to the discovery of God’s plan”? What is required to read the signs of the times as signs of the plans of God is a “prior” interior spiritual disposition (preparing the soul and knowing how to discern) and a “consequent” ecclesial confirmation. This dual path of spirituality and pastoral activity results in an attention to the signs of the times: popular religiosity.

In this way, Fr. Fiorito gives a theological foundation to the reflection on popular religiosity. This is not a populist vision, nor is it a folkloric interest in religious expression, but rather, a “sign” of God’s plan. This foundation laid by Fr. Fiorito goes along with the Magisterial affirmation that the provincial Jorge Bergoglio drew attention to regarding the infallibility of the faithful people in credendo.

The path of faith: ‘the faith of our ancestors’

In the shared experience of the young Jesuits of Fr. Fiorito’s group there was a common basis: constant reference to the “faith of our ancestors, of our fathers, our forebears.” In the theoretical foundation to his reflection where he presents a synthesis of the history and faith of the Argentine nation, Fiorito agrees with this common historical basis: “Our land has absorbed, in its nearly four centuries of history, two important shocks: that of the conquistadores, who gave rise to those of mixed race; and that of immigrants, who gave rise to a large part of the Argentines of today. In both cases, the faith acted as a binding agent, and this cannot be forgotten in any national project. The faith is something that, by its essence – or, better, by its very existence in the human heart – acts as a unifying principle. National culture is impregnated with this history of faith. There is a close connection between the way of living the faith modeled by the work of missionaries, men and women of God,[20] and the way of moving forward.”

Fr. Fiorito describes this form of culture of the faithful Argentine people that lives its faith communally, such that its entire life acquires the joyous character of the believer.[21] It is a faith that expresses itself in simple gestures, passed down from father to son: “This faith is tied to the culture that is called ‘popular,’ but does not cease to be, for this reason, culture. […] It is made up of costumes and traditions and it feels life and death, it knows the fight to live through work in nature (things), with others (in society) and in the search for the mystery of its destiny (God and the hereafter, which is already-but-not-yet). This culture is a ‘wisdom’ – in the etymological sense of the word, it ‘tastes’ of things – it knows both the positive and negative sides of reality, it knows […] what it means to love, and it intuits what its moral behavior should be.”


We have tried to shed light on the figure of Fr. Miguel Ángel Fiorito. His work made possible a balanced reflection and pastoral activity in a time of great political, ecclesial and institutional tension in Argentina, in the Church of that country, and in all of Latin America. We have described the theological dialogue that accompanied the academic studies in the Collegio Massimo. This intellectual vitality was a characteristic of the environment in which Bergoglio lived and was formed.

If we want to understand an environment and a thought that allows us to see the origin of the theology of Pope Francis, we must look to that which was formed around the “maestro” Fiorito. We have done so, here, in a summary way regarding popular religiosity, but this is already enough to appreciate the richness and balanced nature of his thought.

[1].Cf. D. Fares, “Aiuti per crescere nella capacità di discernere,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 I 384.

[2].Among the numerous publications of Fr. Fiorito, two are worthy of particular mention: Discernimiento y lucha espiritual, Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1985; Buscar y hallar la volontad de Dios. Comentario práctico de los Ejercicios Espirituales de san Ignacio de Loyola, ibid., 1989.

[3].Cf. J. M. Bergoglio, Meditaciones para religiosos, Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1982, 42-50.

[4].Cf. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Nos. 217-237.

[5].This refers to the historic Second Conference of Latin American Bishops (Celam), held in Medellín (Colombia) from August 26 to September 7, 1968.

[6].Cf. O. Calvo, “Una estrategia para la liberación,” in Boletín de Espiritualidad, No. 11, 1971, 4-27; I. Iparraguirre, “Liberación y Ejercicios,” ibid., No. 18, 1972, 9-15; D. Gil, “Discernimiento y liberación,” ibid., 17-47: J.I. Vicentini, “Liberación bíblica,” ibid., No. 19, 1972, 25-41.

[7].Cf. J. M. Bergoglio, “Discurso inaugural” at the International Theological Congress “Evangelización de la cultura e inculturación del Evangelio,” in Stromata 41 (1985) 161-165, especially at 162.

[8].“It was an experience of the Church for us to share our diverse experiences with different people: some spoke about Jujuy, others Santiago del Estero, others of La Rioja…and even of great Buenos Aires, where there lived many who were born in the interior parts [of Argentina]” (“Reflexiones sobre la religiosidad popular. Presentación del editor,” in Boletín de Espiritualidad, No. 31, 1974, 1-3; here, the citation is from page 2).

[9].Cf. Aa.Vv., “Reflexiones sobre la religiosidad popular,” ibid., 3-17.

[10].Cf. A. López, “Reflexiones sobre la religiosidad popular. Orden sagrado y Penitencia,” ibid., No. 35, 1975, 13-25.

[11].This speech was already cited in footnote 3. Cf. Aa.Vv. “Reflexiones sobrela religiosidad popular,” op. cit., 3.

[12].Cf. ibid.

[13].D. Fares, Papa Francesco è come un bambù: Alle radici della cultura dell’incontro, Milan – Roma, Àncora-La Civiltà Cattolica, 2014. This topic receives detailed treatment in the chapter titled “Culture and the Faithful People of God,” pp. 25-35.

[14].In the inaugural speech already cited, Bergoglio affirms that “cultures are the place where creation becomes self-aware at the highest level. For this reason we call culture the best element of peoples, the most beautiful of their art, the most expert of their technical skills, that which allows their political organizations to achieve the common good, their philosophy to give meaning to their existence, their religions to connect to the transcendent through worship. But this wisdom of man, that allows it to judge and order life beginning with contemplation, is not an abstract or single piece of data, but is the contemplation of that which is the work of their hands, a contemplation of the heart and of the memory of peoples, a contemplation that is realized through history and time” (J. M. Bergoglio, Meditaciones para religiosos, op. cit., 162).

[15].Cf. Aa.Vv., “Reflexiones sobre la religiosidad popular,” op. cit., 5.

[16].Ibid., 2.

[17].Ibid., 5.

[18].Cf., A. López, “Reflexiones sobre la religiosidad popular. Orden sagrado y Penitencia,” op. cit., 1.

[19].Cf., M. A. Fiorito, “Signos de los tiempos en la pastoral y en la espiritualidad,” in Boletín de Espiritualidad, No. 35, 1975, 1-12.

[20].A series of articles by M. A. Fiorito – J. L. Lazzarini published in Boletín develop this statement: “Un aporte de la historia a la pastoral popular,” in Boletín de Espiritualidad, No. 34, 1975, 1-22; “Originalidad de nuestra organización popular (Selección de la Carta-Relación del P. J. Cardiel)” ibid., No. 37, 1975, 1-39; “El credo de nuestra fe,” ibid., No. 39, 1975, 6-28; “El P. Pedro Lozano y los primeros pasos de la Compañia de Jesús en el territorio argentine,” ibid., No. 48, 1976, 1-42.

[21].“Faith is not lived alone, but as a people, and it has a festive spirit: the people is, by its nature, ‘festive,’ even when it mourns for its dead, but mostly when it marries in the Church or baptizes its children, and also when it asks for God’s pardon” (M. A. Fiorito, “Signos de los tiempos en la pastoral y en la espiritualidad,” op. cit., 10).

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