CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Freestyle Prayer Reinventing Catholic Tradition

by Elena Zapponi
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino. © Elena Zapponi 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author.

The need for a spiritual identity quest, focused on evangelical values, has been legitimated since Council Vatican II. This turn to an “aggiornamento”, aiming on taking over the ecclesio-centric and Eurocentric season of Catholicism, has highlighted the greater importance of the sensus fidei of the believers. The consequences of such an institutional change are still at work today [1] . In the last decade sociologists of religion have underlined the growing gap between religion as an institutionally tight system, and a much more creative way of believing and practicing. At the same time, the Catholic Church pastoral politics have re-valued religious experiences involving the believers’ emotional and sensitive commitment. I think especially of the revival of pilgrimage practice, my topic of study since 1998. The participation to international pilgrimages such as the ones to Santiago the Compostela, Lourdes, Medjugorie, Guadalupe or the attraction exerted by communities such as Taizé, involves both practising Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy, as well as many other social actors, who believe without belonging. The powerful ancient metaphor of “life as pilgrimage”, well known in worldwide religious texts as well in poetry, literature and figurative arts [2] , is more and more spreading nowadays, against the concrete ritual practice. The idea of life as pilgrimage and of the Walk of man into life becomes a new anti-dogmatic approach to religion, strongly present in contemporary self-made religiosity [3] .

I would like to focus on this metaphor, and to point out some aspects of this specific social imaginary. I will concentrate in particular on two shifts: the tendency to a sort of freestyle prayer inside the official Catholic field on one side; and on the other, the tendency to a freestyle prayer [4] which slaloms inside and outside Catholic institutional memory and spiritual traditional stock.

Freestyle prayer inside the Catholic Church

The metaphor of individual pilgrimage - appreciated by many freestyle believers - conceived as a spiritual itinerary of research to be experienced in personal everyday life, is also a tool serving the renewal of pastoral speech, through the proposal of a more open approach to Catholic religion.

 To begin with, I will take on example the interaction going on in the parish church of Santa Francesca Romana in Rome (Eur). This church became in the last years the heart of a lived religion, especially attracting young adults. The participatory revival of this parish, like many others in Europe and North America, suggest that the notion of the decline of ‘parish civilization’, diffused in sociological theory since the ‘60s, has become nowadays uncertain. For instance, in many parishes located within urban areas a new encounter between institutional Catholicism and a new generational demand often goes on, thanks to the action of local dioceses and young participants. This turn is often stimulated by the religious life of strongly committed minorities of believers, born in Western Europe but expanding transnationally, like the Catholic movement Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Neocatechumenal Way [5] .

The church of Santa Francesca Romana - where, among others, three Neocatechumenal communities have found a welcoming hosting place - is animated by an increasingly appreciated parish priest, Don Fabio Rosini. Don Fabio, born in Rome in 1961, is a Bible scholar and catechist, who presently directs in the parish area a “pastoral parish project for young people”. This includes a group for young engaged couples; a missionary group twined with a diocese in Guinea Bissau; the organization, twice a year, (on Christmas and on March 9th, Feast Day of Santa Francesca Romana) of a lunch for the poor. The pastoral parish project for young people includes as well a group of prayer during Advent. But the initiative which made Don Fabio a celebrity and earned him an invitation at Radio Rai3 (Italians national radio network) [6] , is his catechism on the Ten Commandments, traditionally hold on Sunday evenings. Each encounter deals with a Commandment which becomes the source of a parish missionary engagement.

Under the influence of Don Fabio and his cool language, a young styled roman dialect, the parish area has become a surprising attraction pole for young-adults. Don Fabio’s message, centring on the purity of Jesus’s evangelical announce, is expressed through a good working and shrewd semantic choice. In fact, he constantly affirms his will “to talk simply about Christianism, avoiding any academic tone” and to work together with his audience on  “ the direct relation between God and man’s work”. Young participants to the parish activity describe enthusiastically their experience. Don Fabio appears as a guide to discover one’s own spiritual path, an unexpected faith and the possibility of developing an individual inner quest in everyday life. In particular, young engaged couples get enthusiastic about his seminary on marriage and on building a family life. Don Fabio himself often is asked to celebrate the marriages of these couples.

The making of Don Fabio’s speeches seems quite syncretic. It takes from the  protestant preachers’ fervour, because of the insistence on the emotional side of religious experience; it also recalls the construction of a family and an horizontally democratic affective life within the parish area, based on small groups cells [7] . Given that these groups require the active commitment of the individual, they recall more the functioning of the protestant and neopentecostal Churches than the traditional hierarchical relationship between the Catholic parish priest and the members of his parish [8] . Moreover, in this proselytizing strategy a very contemporary way of glancing to other religions [9] also counts. Thus, the parish is given a multicultural face.

Thanks to this clever mix of elements, young adults participating to Don Fabio proposal experience an inversion of the stereotyped image of the Church - often common in this generation - linked to absolutism, intolerance and lack of “updating” on bio-ethics issues. On the contrary, Don Fabio builds up, together with his young adults’ audience, the experience of a different Church, a young and welcoming structure that keeps up with contemporary time and society, working concretely for an everyday evangelical service, constantly open to the encounter with the other meant as God, the immigrate, the poor or the believer in another credo.

This parish example, were religious emotion “beats” in the heart of Rome, shows an interesting tendency: a pastoral strategy by a charismatic parish, born from the necessity to cope with the growing loss of young souls from God’s flock.

This being an example, I would like now to extend the view to a different type of interaction, between the individual spiritual demand and the institutional Catholic offer. The next case study will in fact refer to a self-made religiosity, slaloming into and outside Catholic tradition, build up using the stock offered by Catholic traditional memory.

2. Freestyle prayer slaloming into and outside Catholic tradition

I have already mentioned the revival of the Catholic pilgrimages practice. The case of the long walking road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain [10] shows the successful encounter between a renewed effort of pastoralization, the interests of the religious tourism agents, and the demand of a large public, mostly composed by young adults. This pilgrim generation, often grown up as Catholic or Protestant, affirms to have taken a distance from the Church’s official point of view, and to walk the road according to a personal spiritual quest.

With regard to this Santiago revival, it is interesting to underline the slogan of the current 2010 Jubilee, advertised at the airport during summer 2009 campaign. Next to the words Xacobeo Galicia (the Xacobeo is the Holy Year in Galician), the sentence “Find yourself making your own walk” attracts the attention. Four subtitles, “Spirituality, Nature, Gastronomic, Culture” follow this invitation.  The word “Spirituality”, and “Camino” are the most visually relevant while the word “Religion” is absent.

How do these pilgrims pray? Most of the pilgrims walking to Santiago affirm to « believe by their feet » [11] and to consider the walking as a sort of meditation and personal prayer. The liturgical Catholic prayer, the Rosary or the traditional prayers to St James mix with spontaneous prayer: praying means a space of personal introspection, an activity that can be done in the silent recollection of a XII° century Romanic church as well as elsewhere along the road, echoing, during the way, St Francis’s natural mysticism and his Laudes to the sun, the earth and the stars.

In particular, St James is experienced on the road as an alive Saint, whose nature results extremely moving according to the plural interpretations that pilgrims give to this figure. The saint Patron of Spain, whom some long to embrace into the cathedral, is for others rather than a Saint a sort of genius loci, a powerful and magical figure. During the march it is possible to entertain a relationship with St James, asking for protection, for solidarity about one’s own walk as well for personal wishes to be fulfilled. In this context, the Saint, symbol of the traditional pilgrimage, becomes for these freestyle believers “a good fellow”, with whom they get familiar because of the iconography and the history of the pilgrimage road.

The interaction and the kind of negotiation described between a free spiritual demand and the tourist and ecclesiastic arrangement of the contemporary Compostela pilgrimage exist also in others worship places.

In the North of Italy, in the region of Trentino Alto Adige, and especially in Val Venosta, a region dotted with little sanctuaries risen to reaffirm Catholicism against the diffusion of Protestantism, the new attraction for worship places is based on a mix of religious devotion and of creative personal spiritual feeling. On the one side, the mountain landscape spruces the inspiration to visit the local sanctuaries; on the other, the recent promotion of this landscape by ecclesiastic and religious travel agents - what Enzo Pace calls “the organizational machine of the pilgrimage” [12] - has contributed to the revival, building up on the natural mysticism of a mountain panorama,

This is well shown by a mountain path crowned by the Ortles chimes, in the heart of the Stelvio National Park in the Solda Valley, which was inaugurated this last July 2010. The walk, located at 1900 mt height, ends in the little sanctuary of the Virgen of Trafoi; it has been marked by seven stations, each one corresponding to a figure - the fish, the amphibious, the reptile, the mammal, the prehistorical man, the modern man -  to be acted by the walker through his/her own body according to specific instructions, each of them –representing a step forward into a bodily meditation. But this itinerary, conceived by the regional Practical Pedagogy Institute for the Stelvio National Park, is at the same time marked by wooden road signs where Psalms and Genesis passages are engraved… This mixture of a sort of experiential bodily meditation and Biblical sentences invites to pray along the road. The Catholic traditional idea of the Stations of the Cross seems to be source of inspiration for a spiritual exercise aiming to individual progression where, step by step, the individual walking through the mountain and along the path, easily, in more or less two hours, gets his/her dose of spirituality.

As last example of the tendency towards a freestyle prayer moving across Catholic tradition, I would like to briefly mention the interesting multiethnic form which the very traditional Marial pilgrimage to the Divino Amore in Rome has assumed during these last years.

The motivation for this 14 km walk along the Ardeatina road through the whole Saturday night, starting at midnight in front of the FAO building in Rome and ending at Sunday dawn with the celebration of Mass in the Sanctuary, has apparently ceased to be so strictly “devotional” as once it was. The attendance remains, as for the past, mostly feminine and it is not uncommon to see pilgrims walking barefoot. But the Divino Amore, well known as a Roman devotional pilgrimage, took on a multicultural aspect since 2000, year of the Roman Jubilee. The visit to Mary attracts not only Catholics from the major immigration communities as Philippinos, Latin Americans, Polish  and Ukrainians but also many African Muslims, mostly women, immigrated from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia [13] , visiting the Maryam of their Coranic tradition. These pilgrims describe their walk as a moment of encounter with a very powerful Lady who listens to people’s demands, while being at the same time a moment of happiness and pleasant socialization. Traditionally practised by Catholic groups organised by the parish or ecclesiastic associations (Charismatics, Neocatechumenal, Focolarini, Scouts), the Divino Amore of the immigrated pilgrims corresponds, on the contrary, to an intimate experience shared between friends and neighbours. The pilgrimage bodily prayer corresponds to an identity quest and to the search for ethnical integration in the country of migration. Finally, this example suggests the interaction of the immigrated community with the religious institutional places of worship within the city of immigration [14] . It shows also, once more, the construction of a sort of apart and creative prayer which, nevertheless, stays in the Catholic traditional ground.

In conclusion, I would like to underline the effect of the construction of this freestyle prayer territory – coping with spiritual Catholic offer – on the institutional Catholic memory: the participation to Catholic rituals by these believers seems to represent more a « belonging without believing » than a « believing without belonging » [15] . According to this tendency, the link to the traditional religious memory is not refused; on the contrary, it is claimed. The novelty, in this late modernity era where the hermeneutical process is characterised by revolutionary medias as the Internet, which allows to globally and quickly get in and out from different cultural and religious traditions, is exactly this «staying inside » the Catholic rituals, while pretending to « stay apart ». For sure, in the next decades it will be interesting to observe the effects of this shift on the institutional attitude.



[1] On the long terms changes issued from Vatican Council II see, Alberigo, Breve storia del Concilio Vaticano II, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2005.

[2] I think of La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri, but also of the Cervantes Don Quichotte. See as well Jean Jacques Rousseau, Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Paris, Gallimard, 1959 or the text of Bob Dylan world wide known song Blowin’ in the wind. I think also of the beautiful Pieter Brueghel’s Retour du pèlerinage at the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique (Bruxelles) or of the seek expressed by Richard Serra permanent installation The matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

[3] Giuseppe Giordan, Paul Heelas, Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution. Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005.

[4] My notion of a freestyle prayer and spirituality connects to Yves Lambert definition of « hors-piste religieux ». See Yves Lambert, Religion : développement du hors piste et de la randonnée in Pierre Bréchon (éd.), Les valeurs des Français. Évolution de 1980 à 2000, Paris, Armand Colin, 2000, p. 128-153.


[5] See Isacco Turina, From Institution to Spirituality and Back. Or, Why We should Be cautious About the ‘Spiritual Turn’ in the Sociology of Religion, in print.

[6] Don Fabio catechism on the Commandaments is available on Internet. http://www/segnideitempi.biz/catechesi/don-fabio-rosini.

[7] On the neopentecostal small cells functioning see Sébastian Fath, Dieu XXL. La révolution des megachurches, Paris, Editions Autrement, 2008.

[8] An example of this traditional vertical configuration, going back to Medieval Age, is well shown in Emmanuel Le Roy Laudurie, Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324, Paris, Gallimard, 1975. An analysis focused on contemporary is proposed Jacques Palard, « Modèles institutionnels de la gestion du croire dans la sphère catholique », Social Compass, 48, (4), 2001.

[9] On the diffusion of the intrareligious dialogue, especially in Europe, see Anne-Sophie Lamine, La cohabitation des dieux. Pluralité religieuse et laïcité, Paris, PUF, 2004.

[10] On this pilgrimage see Elena Zapponi, Marcher vers Compostelle. Ethnographie d’une pratique pèlerine, Paris, AFSR-Harmattan, 2010, in print.

[11] See Elena zapponi, Pregare con i piedi. In cammino verso Finis Terrae, Roma, Bulzoni, 2008.

[12] Enzo Pace, « Pilgrimage as Spiritual Journey : An Analysis of Pilgrimage Using the Theory of V. Turner and the Resource Mobilization Approach », Social Compass, 36 (2), 1989, p. 229-244.

[13] See Carmelina Chiara Canta, Sfondare la notte. Religiosità, modernità e cultura nel pellegrinaggio notturno alla Madonna del Divino Amore, Roma, Franco Angeli, 2004, p. 123-134.

[14] For an analysis of this kind of interaction see Elena Zapponi, Strategie di dis/integrazione, religiosa degli immigrati filippini a Roma: il caso della comunità religiosa Banal-Na-Pag-Aaral», Religioni e sette nel mondo, n. 5, 2009.

[15] On this notion see Grace Davie, « Croire sans appartenir : le cas britannique » in Grace Davie et Danièle Hervieu-Léger (éd.), Identités religieuses en Europe, Paris, La Découverte, 1996, p. 175-194.