VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis celebrated popular piety as a means of transmitting the faith and cultivating it in ordinary Catholics but said such piety must be practiced in communion with the hierarchy in order to maintain the church's unity.
"Popular piety is a road which leads to what is essential, if it is lived in the church in profound communion with your pastors," the pope said May 5 to an overflow crowd in St. Peter's Square, including some 50,000 members of traditional confraternities from various European countries.
The groups had gathered for a three-day pilgrimage to Rome in observance of the Year of Faith, and their members -- in colorful robes and capes -- stood out among the crowd.
A number of the confraternities had brought the ornate crucifixes they ordinarily carry in local religious processions. One of the crucifixes stood under a horseshoe-shaped frame, decorated with multi-colored flower petals in a design that included a portrait of the pope.
"In this square, I see a great variety," Pope Francis told the crowd on the unseasonably rainy spring morning. "Earlier on it was a variety of umbrellas, and now of colors and signs.
"This is also the case with the church," he said. "A great wealth and variety of expressions in which everything leads back to unity; the variety leads back to unity, and the unity is the encounter with Christ."
The pope praised confraternities as expressions of the church's cultural diversity.
"You have a specific and important mission," he said, "that of keeping alive the relationship between the faith and the cultures of the peoples to whom you belong. You do this through popular piety."
"You express this faith, born of hearing the word of God, in ways that engage the senses, the emotions and the symbols of the different cultures," he said. "In doing so, you help to transmit it to others, and especially the simple persons whom, in the Gospels, Jesus calls the 'little ones.'"
One of the pilgrims, Kenneth Farrugia of Qrendi, Malta, told Catholic News Service May 4 that every village in Malta has such a group, which is most visible during annual celebrations of a patron saint's feast day, when members lead processions, organize parades and sponsor fireworks displays.
But Farrugia said that he and his fellow members of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Lourdes also work closely with their parish priest, serving at Mass, maintaining the church, doing volunteer work and raising money for charity.
"Down through the centuries, confraternities have been crucibles of holiness for countless people who have lived in utter simplicity an intense relationship with the Lord," the pope said in his Sunday homily. "Do not rest content with a mediocre Christian life, but let your affiliation serve as a stimulus, above all for you yourselves, to an ever greater love of Jesus Christ."