“The prayers, popular devotions, and liturgies of the church form the basis of ‘Catholic culture’; they allow for the community to pray together in a common language and contribute to one’s continuing faith development,” the U.S. bishops said in “Disciples Called to Witness, The New Evangelization” released last April.
Devotions are spiritual practices that developed first as private prayer and later became publicly shared. They remain a form of private worship but as they became shared, devotions often developed formalized rituals. However, these can vary, unlike our prayers and rites at Mass. These are public worship and follow an order set by the church.
Devotions run the gamut of personal expression and are countless. In fact, “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that “No good purpose would be served by attempting a catalog of approved Catholic devotions,” but adds that we should focus instead on the whys and ways that devotions appeal to us:
- They appeal to our emotions.
- They are simple and within reach of everyone.
- They form “an association with many others in the same good work.”
- They come from the example of a holy person whom we desire to imitate.
The U.S. bishops remind us that devotions are part of a “Catholic culture” that our parents and grandparent grew up in, but which many young people may have missed out on. In 2001, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship noted that, following Vatican II, “contradictory attitudes to popular piety” arose and expressions of popular piety were in need of explanation. Furthermore, the Vatican was concerned that devotions should always “harmonize with the liturgy” from which they draw their source.
The Second Vatican Council did not “do away with” devotions, as some think, even though devotions seemed less common after the council. In their document on the Mass, the council fathers wrote, “Popular devotions of the Christian people are warmly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the church.” The concern was that some devotions had lost focus.
The council fathers, like the Congregation for Divine Worship, felt that “devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it and lead the people to it,” the council said, “since the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.”
Devotions are meant, in some way, to remind us of the sacrifice of the Mass and to inspire us to participate more fully in liturgical worship.
The Congregation for Divine Worship reiterated this in 2001: “The faithful should be made conscious of the preeminence of the liturgy (Mass) over any other possible form of legitimate Christian prayer. … The Gospel is the measure against which all expressions of Christian piety — both old and new — must be measured.”
So we must bring devotions to Mass, ground them in the Mass and then our devotions can bring us to the Mass — even when we’re not there physically.
Look at some popular devotions and see how this is true.
- The rosary, which grew out of the practice of religious orders praying the 150 psalms daily in church, consists of mysteries focused on the life of Christ that we hear in the Gospels at Mass.
- During Lent, a popular devotion is the Stations of the Cross. These derived from pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the desire to walk the final steps of Christ on his way to his sacrifice for our salvation which is again made present to us at Mass.
- Scapulars, worn around the necks, are actually modified habits of religious communities and remind us of the yoke of Christ, who “was meek and humble of heart” and who calls us to him.
- Holy water from sites such as Lourdes remind us of the healing that Christ offers us through his body and blood, as well as the baptism by which he claimed us as our own. The holy water at the entrance to our churches also reminds us of the same things.
Devotions will remain part of our Catholic culture. They offer tools to lead us to deeper worship. As the Congregation for Divine Worship said, “The history of the Western Church is marked by the flowering among the Christian people of multiple and varied expressions of simple and fervent faith in God, of love for Christ the Redeemer, of invocations of the Holy Spirit, of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the veneration of the saints … These expressions have grown up alongside the liturgy.”
And that is what all devotions draw us back to — the liturgy: Christ present to us at Mass and in the Eucharist, drawing us together in worship. Lawrence Cunningham, who taught theology at the University of Notre Dame, was fond of telling students a story about St. John Vianney and the purpose of devotions:
“He used to see an old peasant, at the end of the working day, sitting in the back of the church facing the tabernacle on the altar. The saintly curé once asked the old farmer what he was doing. ‘I look at the Good God and the Good God looks at me.’ It is hard to think of an anecdote that sums up the meaning of devotion better than that.”
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; documents of Vatican II and “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy” at vatican.va; “Prayers and Devotions” at usccb.org; “Liturgy and Devotions” at theway.org; Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.