Not more than a generation ago one of the characteristics that distinguished Catholics from many other Christians was the practice of popular religion. Distinctive communal and private religious devotions such as May crownings, group recitation of the rosary, and novenas to various saints helped to form the religious identity of generations of Roman Catholics prior to Vatican II. Many of these devotions were propagated by clergy during the nineteenth century and were dependent to some measure on the liturgy. Others were quite independent of ecclesiastical oversight--especially those done privately and at home. What need did these devotions meet in the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents? Why did these practices fall on hard times after the Council? Is there a future for popular, quasi-official forms of prayer, now that the liturgy of Vatican II is supposed to be the prayer of all the baptized lay and clerics?
The Need Met by Popular Devotions
What most popular devotions had in common was their emphasis on the presence and support of God, Mary, and the saints in all occasions and seasons of life. Like the human relationships after which many of the devotions were modeled, popular religion also provided the opportunity for the faithful to express a public commitment to the faith. Crowning statues of the Blessed Mother during May, the Way of the Cross during Lent, Corpus Christi processions, and novenas all publicly announced one's piety and one's belonging to the Catholic Church. Catholic devotionalism as practiced by many of our parents and grandparents bespoke a particular "Catholic" view of life guided by a particular religious vision. It presupposed the principle of sacramentality--that the world created by God was essentially good and capable of communicating God's presence to those disposed to seek it out. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, and many Catholics before the Council were not ashamed to act on this conviction.
In addition to the everyday substances that serve as the life-references for the Catholic sacramental system (water, oil, bread and wine), other common actions and elements were also considered capable of bringing God and the saints just a bit closer to everyday human life. Most devotions revolved around "doing something" --lighting candies, going on pilgrimage, saying a prescribed set of prayers over a period of days--and while the official liturgy was decidedly in the hands of the "clerical experts," popular devotions provided the means by which anyone could invoke the saving, healing presence. In the world of our immigrant ancestors, which often seemed hostile and uncontrollable to "outsiders" like themselves, devotions were a popular way to respond with faith to life's trials and tragedies. There was no part of human life that was considered "immune" from the supernatural influence of God and the saints. Consequently, lighting candles before images of Christ or Mary, prayers to St. Anthony to find lost objects--even burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the backyard to sell one's house in a hurry--were considered appropriate and effective ways of acknowledging the power of God and the saints in everyday life.
Many devotions, although frowned upon by the ecclesiastical authorities since they seemed to flirt with superstition, nevertheless offered people a way of bringing the holy into their lives and of making sense out of a world that offered little but long working hours, grinding poverty, and social prejudice. What many devotions such as pilgrimages to special shrines or veneration of national saints had in common was their reaffirmation of religious and cultural identity--and they served as eloquent proclamations of human dignity. But even more importantly, devotions set out a vision of the world as meaningful--a place where God was active and concerned. Devotions allowed individuals to express themselves perennially in prayer. …