National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003

Waning devotions may be sign of liturgical health


Fr. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit weekly America, is to be commended for initiating a series of short articles, “Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions,” to run during the Lenten and Easter seasons. He invited each contributor -- some in their 30s and 40s -- to write about a devotion that has proven especially meaningful in her or his life and to indicate why the devotion might appeal to other Catholics as well.

In his introduction to the series, Martin noted that for some older Catholics the church’s devotional life has never lost its appeal. For many of them, traditional devotions provide a link to the Catholicism of their youth.

Others, however, regard devotions as “inconsistent with a mature faith, antithetical to a contemporary understanding of religion, overly reliant on things -- beads, medals, scapulars -- and even faintly superstitious.” For such Catholics, he writes, devotions “are to be avoided, not embraced.”

However, a “surprising number” of younger Catholics, Martin suggests, “are more likely than their immediate elders to gravitate toward traditional devotions.” Is it because they were never forced to participate in them as children or teenagers? Or is it instead a symptom of the religious conservatism that has become evident among a younger generation of Catholics?

Whatever the case, the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” provides an important guideline for evaluating private devotions of every kind. They should be “so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.”

The conciliar teaching is consistent with the evidence of history. Private devotions flourish when the church’s liturgical life is poorly understood or when it does not satisfy the spiritual needs of ordinary people.

This is a point effectively made by an expert in sacramental and liturgical theology, Franciscan Fr. Regis Duffy, formerly of the University of Notre Dame and currently on the faculty of St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y. In his article on “devotions” in The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, he writes: “As a general rule, when liturgical prayer and ritual are less accessible to people’s understanding and participation, there is usually an increase in devotions.”

In the Middle Ages, for example, when liturgical understanding and participation were at one of their lowest levels, some lay people would run from church to church on a Sunday morning in order to see the host and chalice elevated immediately after the consecration. They believed that this would somehow prolong their youthfulness or protect them from diseases of the eye.

In the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics often recited the rosary at Mass because there were few other outlets for active participation. Saying the rosary was at least “something to do” (as a simpler alternative to following along in a missal) while the priest performed the rites and recited the words of the Mass, often in rushed and barely audible Latin and with his back to the congregation.

Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament served a similar, though more relevant, purpose; namely, to provide lay people with an opportunity for some form of active participation in a ritual that was at least tangentially connected with the Eucharist. The congregation was allowed to pray and sing aloud, and the ritual’s central action -- the showing of, and blessing with, the host encased in the monstrance -- was easy for the people to understand and respond to.

In the light of our own renewed understanding of the communal nature of the Eucharist and of the church’s encouragement of full lay participation in it, it would be as incongruous now to have Benediction immediately following Mass as it would be for a chef to emerge from the kitchen after dinner and walk among the restaurant patrons, showing off the entrees that the customers had just consumed. Jesus left us the Eucharist to be eaten, not adored.

What, then, of the frequently voiced complaint from some quarters that Catholics are less interested today in private devotions than they were in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council?

This should not be taken as a negative reflection on the current state of the church’s spiritual well-being. On the contrary, the lessening of interest in private devotions is more likely a sign that the church is spiritually healthier now because its spiritual life is, as the council hoped it would be, rooted more directly and more deeply in the liturgy itself, and especially in the Eucharist.

The liturgy, after all, is far superior to any private devotion.

Fr. Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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