A Renaissance for Devotions

By Malloy, Patrick | National Catholic Reporter, July 24, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Renaissance for Devotions


Malloy, Patrick, National Catholic Reporter


Popular devotions have enjoyed a renaissance. Public prayers to Mary' pilgrimages to apparition sites, the use of sacred objects, prayer before religious images, perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary' and a host of other customs have found their way back into mainstream Catholic life.

Soon after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the customs that are generally called "popular devotions" lost their grip on Catholic piety. The accessibility of a liturgy translated into the vernacular and trimmed of its arcane details as well as the breakdown of the ethnic groups that sustained many of these customs gradually pushed devotions out of the center of Catholic parish life.

Now they seem to have moved back. No statistical studies bear this out, but observation and anecdotal evidence certainly suggest that a grass-roots movement--a movement of those largely born after the council--is breathing new life into these old forms.

This trend raises questions not only about the future of public prayer but also about the future of the church. What does it mean that so many Catholics seek sustenance in customs that only recently were seen as old-fashioned and essentially dead?

From the beginning, Christianity has wrestled with what to do in the face of popular religious customs that are not part of the official liturgy. In most cases, the church has made the best of the situation. It has, for example, embraced a remarkable number of pre-Christian feasts and seasons, customs and structures, with only minimal alteration. It has also regularly embraced movements that have spontaneously arisen among believers, like the charismatic renewal. Still, the embrace has often been hesitant and half-hearted, and in the background tension has smoldered and often flared.

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The popular devotions that reemerge today are kindling just such tension. They fly in the face of a conventional wisdom that deems devotional rites inferior to the liturgy if not dangerous for the church.

In the middle of the last century' for example, a group of scholars and pastors, first in Europe and then in the United States, launched a campaign against non-liturgical popular devotions. This campaign was but one facet of an extensive and ambitious process that came to be called the Liturgical Movement. Despite its name, this movement was not essentially concerned with the liturgy. Its ultimate focus was social reform.

The members of the Liturgical Movement held that in the Catholic liturgy properly celebrated, the church acts as one unified body, and by so acting it can learn to be a body. If the church learns to be a body, it will have undone the lessons it learned from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution--forces that they thought dehumanized society--and will have become a force for genuine social change. As a significant social force, the liturgy would lead the world back from the brink of social chaos and move it once again toward human dignity The reformers believed the liturgy could change the world, and that devotions had precisely the opposite effect, since they were not acts of the body of Christ as a whole.

This thinking slowly gained ground in the church and prevailed at the Second Vatican Council.

In 1975, well after popular devotions had slipped into the shadows of church life, liturgist Carl Dehne examined why they had once appealed to so many Catholics. He concluded that their appeal came from the interweaving of a number of characteristics. The devotional rites were expressive, rather than educational. …

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