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You are here: Articles > Pastoral Issues > The Suppression of Popular Devotions in Today's Catholic Church  Back one page.
The Suppression of Popular Devotions in Today's Catholic Church
(New Oxford Review) May 1998

Noel J. Augustyn

We speak often of the changes in Roman Catholic worship since Vatican II: the exclusive use of the vernacular, the priest celebrating Mass facing the congregation; the ill-placed Sign of Peace; the replacement of Gregorian chant with "Kumbaya," and more. What this Catholic litany (pun intended) often omits, however, is the virtual disappearance of a major component of Catholic public prayer, commonly called "devotions." Today, when reportedly only about one of three Catholics in the United States attends obligatory Sunday Mass, it seems almost beyond belief that within recent memory great numbers would also gather in church in the evening on Wednesday and Fridays or other weekdays, and often on Sunday afternoons, for regular and seasonal devotions. Has something better replaced devotions? Or have we properly outgrown them? This essay will consider the surprising answers to these questions.

Not long ago, when they were common, these weekday congregational prayers were most thickly clustered in the Marian months of May and October and the liturgical season of Lent. The format for May and October was standard and familiar: an opening Marian hymn; recitation of the rosary; the Loreto litany; a brief period of silent prayer or another hymn in preparation for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; adoration of the Host in the monstrance; a closing hymn.

The Friday Lenten devotions were the Stations of the Cross, again followed by Benediction. Various ethnic groups had their distinctive practices as well. Devotions on Wednesday in Lent in my childhood took a form known to few Catholics in the United States but intimately familiar to our (first) Polish Pope, John Paul II. Known as Gozkie Zale, literally "bitter sorrow" (the first two words of the opening hymn) and translated as "Lamentations," it consisted of a series of truly Jeremiah-like Slavic songs (St. Paul's "groanings" might be a more apt description) concerning Christ's Passion, during which the congregation would alternately kneel, stand, and sit with each sequential hymn. This devotion, too, concluded with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

In addition to these May, October, and Lenten devotions, there were those held less regularly. At varying times of the year, parishes would hold "Forty Hours" devotions, focusing on Eucharistic adoration, with the climax a solemn procession and the sonorous chanting of the Litany of the Saints by dozens of priests convened from the surrounding area. There were also the occasional special novenas (a nine-day cycle of Masses and prayers), often centered on a parish's patron saint and also involving the now all-but-abandoned litanies and processions, as well as Eucharistic adoration. In June, the Feast of the Sacred Heart was similarly commemorated.

All these devotions, albeit as much popular as liturgical in nature, were led by a priest, either the pastor, assistant pastor, or a visitor. He was accompanied by acolytes and by thurifers with thuribles (that means incense-bearers bearing incense, for younger readers). An organist and at least part of the Sunday choir provided music and led the singing. Devotions, while never obligatory like Sunday Mass, were taken seriously as forms of public prayer. And they were a serious source of, a reinforcement of, and education in Catholic spirituality. Why have they now been reduced to a remnant in those places where they exist at all?

One explanation may be the misunderstanding and mis-implementation of "ecumenism" that has so vitiated Christian life as a whole in the years since the Second Vatican Council. To promote Church unity it was thought that emphasis should be placed on what Catholics and our separated brethren have in common. That is laudable. Yet - unexpectedly - what was not held in common was needlessly de-emphasized and, indeed, actively suppressed. Every facet of Catholic public prayer was suddenly at the mercy of an argument about whether it was "essential" to the faith. There are dangers to this approach that should have been obvious. Centuries ago some Christians taking a similar approach reduced the seven sacraments to two. The effect of the more recent reductionism on Catholic life over the past three decades has been less radical, but the Catholic devotions are among its victims, much to the Church's detriment.

There appears at first glance to be a certain logic to de-emphasizing devotions for the sake of Christian unity. Protestants have no public rosary recitations, or litanies, either chanted or spoken, and there is certainly nothing akin to Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, with its Thomistic hymns and its concluding Divine Praises. If the de-emphasis or abandonment of Catholic devotions would remove some barrier to Christian unity, then such abandonment might arguably be positive.

The flaw in this thinking, however, is that it ignores the easy-to-forget truth that we relate to others best when we are most ourselves, and that richness, not in an artificial, bare-bones condition. Everyday material life teaches us this lesson: Beyond the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, beyond medical care and education and transportation, there are the "inessential" things both great and small - the special things, the homey things, the beloved things - that make us what we are and that we would not want to give up. We live full lives, not diagrams of lives. This obvious lesson from the physical applies as well to the spiritual.

After three decades, we can fairly ask: Has the abandonment of devotions advanced the cause of Christian unity? No. Catholics and the "mainline" Protestants with whom greater unity was sought are separated today by issues far more serious than forms of popular religious expression. Dropping rosaries and litanies and processions has certainly not arrested the development of more and more grave differences between Protestants and Catholics in both dogmatic and moral theology, ranging from the ordination of priestesses to the endorsement of abortion. Instead, what has happened is that the power and beauty and richness of centuries of Catholic devotions have been denied to an entire generation - now adults - born after the Council, and the spirituality of those of us old enough to have experienced devotions as part of our Catholic heritage has been parched.

I would go further, and argue that suppression of devotions has not only failed to advance ecumenism but has actually retarded it. Popular devotional practices were in the past and could still be consistent with the reforms to Catholic liturgy that were intended to advance the ecumenical spirit. Take, for instance, the question of liturgy in the vernacular. Devotions (except for Latin hymns and the sung Litany of the Saints) have always been held in the vernacular, just like public prayer in the Protestant traditions. Take, for instance, the emphasis on "participatory" liturgy. Devotions have always been participatory, with the congregation actively engaged. Devotions (with the exception of Benediction) have always been more "popular" than "official," again consistent with much of Protestant practice.

Indeed, devotions are nothing if not populist and local. Moreover, the idea of the priesthood of all believers and the important scriptural emphasis in Protestant belief that when two or three are gathered in His name, He is with them, are exemplified in Catholic devotional practice. Absent some clearly heretical practice, no sincere Christian of any denomination would discourage the gathering of dozens of worshipers inside a church to pray and sing, to bless and be blessed, especially when that gathering is led by clergy. In hindsight it is clear that devotions were not then and are not now anti-ecumenical. Their practice is not anti-Protestant, but their suppression has proved paradoxically to be, in effect, anti-Catholic.

A second cause of devotional de-emphasis in the years since the Council must be faced - a phenomenon perhaps best called "the exclusivity of the official." With respect to public prayer, this has meant total emphasis on the Eucharistic liturgy, and for nearly all Catholics nearly all the time this translates into the Mass and nothing else. Just as their is a hierarchy in Holy Orders, so there is a hierarchy in public prayer, and the summit of public prayer is the Mass, where God is present in a unique way not only in His assembled people but also in His word, sacrament, and priest. With now practically no restrictions on the time and place of its celebration, and with the Eucharistic fasting discipline reduced to a bare minimum, the Mass has effectively nullified every other form of Catholic common prayer. (We have daily Mass - but we've had that for centuries.)

This was never intended. There was some thinking 30 years ago that such public devotions as the rosary would gradually be replaced by congregational recitation of the Divine Office and that thus the official and the popular would merge. It was hoped that group recitation of the Psalms and Scripture would both enhance ecumenism and maintain popular religious fervor. The problem, of course, has been that with a few rare exceptions (found usually in university settings) this simply didn't happen. Popular devotions were dropped and, as a practical matter, non-official common prayer has been replaced by nothing.

Where, outside of Sunday Mass, do Catholics gather? Some would argue that "prayer groups" and "Scripture study groups" and "small faith-sharing groups" have replaced devotions. Such groups can no doubt be excellent additions to parish life, but they have not proven themselves capable of replacing devotions. They address different needs and attract a smaller population. These groups, for good or ill, tend not to be very public, and their activities have been known to decline from the religious into the social. Nonetheless, their mere existence demonstrates the continuing need for vigorous forms of regular Catholic common prayer and worship outside of Mass.

It must be said that with this emphasis on the official has come a certain clerical condescension. The de-emphasis of devotions correlates with a kind of "correctness" that has pastors asserting intellectual or cultural dominance over their flocks. One example comes from a local parish in connection with the practice of perhaps the strongest remnant of the old devotions, Lenten Friday evening Stations of the Cross. Until recently, the Stations, led by a priest, were concluded with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Benediction was suddenly dropped without explanation. When the associate pastor who led the Stations was asked why he quit celebrating Benediction, he replied that liturgical ceremonies such as Benediction could not be commingled with nonliturgical, popular practices such as the Stations.

This response strikes me as the type of pharisaical distinction the Vatican II reforms were meant to eliminate. And it manifests a clerical attitude as unaccountable as it is prevalent. Priests, pastoral associates, and liturgists do not bother to disguise their opinion that Catholic laity in the United States today - the best educated Catholics in the history of the world - will somehow be "confused" when popular and liturgical devotions are combined.

From an Iowa parish comes a report that regular Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament by several dozen faithful parishioners was canceled by a new pastor and his workshop-trained pastoral associate, who explained that it was "countercultural." Have we forgotten that the Catholic Church must be countercultural these days? Shouldn't the question be whether or not a particular practice brings the people of God closer to Him? We who are 45 years old and up can remember the power of regularly practiced and highly visible devotions - emotional, musical, intellectual, and spiritual power - including Benediction. The diminution of that power in the name of liturgical correctness is nothing less than a tragedy.

Occasionally, the clergy and even the hierarchy seem to understand and acknowledge the void caused by the demise of devotions. A few years ago, the Cardinal Archbishop of an East Coast archdiocese sadly remarked in a homily in his cathedral that few of today's Catholic youth have ever experienced the beautiful power of Benediction. Why he, as bishop, could mourn this situation yet do nothing with his leadership and authority to rectify it went unaddressed. Ironically, it may have been his episcopal policies that allowed that officious associate pastor mentioned above to sever Benediction from the Stations. Surely the bishop should have understood that one cannot divorce a liturgical practice from a more purely popular one, such as the Stations or the rosary, to which it has been traditionally linked, without suffering adverse consequences. The hierarchy and clergy would do well, after three decades of failed negative experimentation, to make a positive experiment by offering abundant Catholic devotions and by explicitly asserting their value. Devotions should be restored, and with their restoration may come a true Catholic rejuvenation.

The importance of episcopal and clerical leadership in such a restoration cannot be overstated. Faddish ecclesiastical populism to the contrary notwithstanding - and how much of it, as in the Iowa parish, is false, intellectualized, dictated-from-the-top-down populism? - any corporate body, the Church included, depends on the leadership of its officers. Those officers decades ago misunderstood and mis-implemented the Council in many ways, but it is not too late to set things right. Devotions, including Benediction, can readily be resurrected and led by the clergy if they so choose. Many hardworking priests would reply that they are stretched too thin as it is and that they have neither the time nor the energy to lead devotions in addition to performing their other duties. One response to this, of course, is that when priests were regularly leading devotions there was no shortage of priests.

Leadership in a revival of Catholic devotions might also be an appropriate role for those who are not priests but who are ordained ministers and who have the keys to the sacristy and the tabernacle. I speak of those in the permanent diaconate. Restored by Pope Paul VI after more than a millenium of dormancy, the permanent diaconate and its purpose remain largely a mystery to most Catholics. The deacons - in all charity - often seem to be fifth wheels in the sanctuary, rolling along at Mass somewhere among the lectors, lay Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, and celebrant. In the devotional context, they could perform now as priests formerly did, leading Stations, litanies, and rosaries, and doing what laymen cannot do - celebrating Benediction. Deacons could help restore a dynamic richness to a whole world of public prayer that has been neglected - even demeaned - to the great detriment of both God's laity and their official leaders

To those who would assert that a restoration of devotional life would be a regression in Catholic intelectual sophistication or a blow against ecumenism, an apt response is the motto of John Paul II and the title of a popular post-Vatican II hymn: "Be Not Afraid." The fear that devotions will supplant official worship or that the laity cannot distinguish between the two is baseless, and the notion that devotions are an obstacle to Christian unity is simply nonsense. God's people should be encouraged to pray and sing and process publicly, led by their bishops, priests, and deacons. The glory of the Church's customs should be celebrated, not suppressed.

More devotions on Tuesday evening or Friday afternoon might well mean more people at Mass on Sunday, and more candidates for seminaries and convents, so that many more will be participating in, celebrating, and leading the official prayer life of the Church. Popular public prayer and official worship are complements, not contradictions, and we should hope that our children and grandchildren will experience to the full the rich spiritual life derived from both.

Noel J. Augustyn is a lawyer who lives in Maryland.

Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). Subscriptions, which must be paid by check, are $19.00 for one year.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2020
The Catholic Liturgical Library