Liturgy and Devotions — expressions of class, status, and economic standing?

Today’s Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus makes me think about the catholic context in which I grew up.  Whether spoken out loud or not, the impression I had was that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a piety mostly for working class Catholics, for the simple minded, and for uneducated women.  Images of the Sacred Heart were deemed to be kitschy.  We even had a derogatory term for a particular kind of pious look (i.e., sweet and heavenward) that translates into English as a “heart of Jesus-face.”  You did not want to be seen wearing one of those.

More recently, Mark Chaves,a sociologist of religion at Duke, has collated features of North American liturgical life with class/status/economic standing of worshipers.  We are used by now to acknowledging how ethnicity shapes liturgical life — a Hispanic Catholic worships differently from a German Catholic.  But how much do we think through the connections between class/status and liturgical and devotional life?


  1. Timothy Kelly’s _The Transformation of American Catholicism_ may deal with this to some extent. I don’t have it to hand or else I’d provide some references.

  2. Pope Pius XII raised and addressed this issue in his Encyclical on the Sacred Heart, ‘Haurietis Aquas’. As a reality can be represented in many ways, so a devotion can take many forms, and it would be a mistake to identify the devotion itself, which goes a long way back in the Church’s life, with some of the forms that it has taken in recent centuries

  3. When I went to Mass yesterday at a nearby parish (where the late Fr Jim Field was last pastor) for the Sacred Heart, there was a clutch of people on the “Mary” side of the church publicly reciting the Rosary. There was no one the “Sacred Heart” side of the church until I went over there, and not a single public devotion.

    This was compounded by the fact that the lector and the pastor-celebrant absentmindedly treated the day as a ferial day with white vestments and the Sacred Heart orations (that is: no Gloria/Creed, readings were for the Friday of the 10th Week of Ordinary Time; sigh – the omitted reading from chapter 11 of Hosea is glorious).

  4. Some of the reasons for less obvious devotion may be the wish not to be seen as presenting oneself as “holier than thou”, not wanting to be seen as imposing the devotion on others, and the intensely private nature of private devotions. My husband and I have had six kids together, and have prayed together every Sunday we’ve been together. Yet our deeper discussions of God are rare and the most intimate experiences we’ve shared!

  5. I find the elitist tone of this list offensive and immediately alienating: “a piety mostly for working class Catholics, for the simple minded, and for uneducated women.” With the pews of American Catholic churches filling with immigrant Catholics (and emptying out already-acculturated and educated Catholics who are finding their way to Protestant churches), you will need to take this attitude down at least a notch or two to keep new members. It bespeaks neither humility nor much grasp of reality to underestimate the intelligence or literacy or, indeed, the educational attainments of members of the working class. Such elitism, which one can associate in the history of American Catholicism with the manipulation of working- class populations by clerics and other church insiders, is not something to present uncritically as a memory of one’s youth.

    1. I am unsure as to what makes you think I don’t view this Catholic culture of my youth critically. I do. In fact, I was describing this culture to highlight how deeply issues of class and status a(and notions of “elite” and “low” culture) are interwoven in liturgical life.

  6. I think what the author of this post is trying to draw attention to is how socio-economic status influences the way we understand, and pray to God. As a convert, it was devotions to things like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and first Friday devotions that drew me to the Church. Even the images, though often “kitschy” have a certain amount of comfort to them.
    I am reminded of some Hispanic neighbors that live down the street from me. In their front yard, they have built a rather large shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Around this shrine are many multi-colored flowers, and even Christmas lights surrounding the little “roof” that covers the statue. To many middle class, white Americans, a display such as this would be termed “tacky.” While I personally wouldn’t display my devotion to the Blessed Mother in such a manner, I’m impressed by this family’s ability to.
    I think that the reason images such as the Sacred Heart, and Our Lady of Guadalupe are often associated with the working class is because their comforting images, especially to those who struggle. When you live in a family that lives paycheck to paycheck, and simply trying to get by is all you have time for, an image of Christ or Our Lady looking down at you with love is sometimes what you need. The working class and the poor don’t want some theological essay written to explain the nature of suffering or something, so much as they want to know that there is a God out there who loves and relates to them.

  7. Teresa, you presented the impressions you had in youth uncritically; that approach led me to believe that you “don’t view this Catholic culture of [your] youth critically.”

    Can you point to an example of one way in which “issues of class and status . . . are interwoven in liturgical life”? By emphasizing the word issues, I mean to ask where liturgy or “liturgical life” presents as problematic, or where it interrogates or critiques, an element of class, status, elitism or “‘low’ culture.” (I’m unsure what “low culture” means: is it what we call pop culture, like guitar music or modern dance during Mass?)

    It seems to me that if we question the “deeply” embedded class-status elements of the new Missal (such as interlinear Latin translation, its archaisms like gender-exclusive language, its biblical allusions that are apparent as such only to those with particular educational backgrounds, chalice/cup, all/many, etc.), we raise such questions when talking or writing about liturgy, not while engaging in the liturgy itself.

    On PrayTell, I’ve read many comments that point to education or cultural exposure of one kind or another as prerequisite to understanding parts of the Roman Missal. (I believe that understanding the words is important to praying the words with one’s whole heart and mind.) Those comments open discussion up to the need for liturgy to be inclusive. Some, and certainly I myself, find inclusiveness lacking in the new translation, so such comments can only help sensitize and motivate.

    The Gospels, of course, continuously lead us to question our presuppositions about class status. I think it’s never amiss to ask which class-engendered values have found their way into the liturgy, which class(es) they privilege, and which, if any, should remain. For example, you seem to think whatever is “kitsch” should be scrapped. Is it some class-related element that leads you to call it “kitsch”? That was the spirit in which I made my earlier comment.

  8. Mary: thanks for your clarification. I still have the sense that we are not on the same page. For example, as to “kitsch,” I think “kitsch” is a category that already points to an elitist view of what constitutes religious art, seeking to describe the kind of devotional images and practices of, usually, non-elite worshippers. What Aaaron Reynolds described in his post is exactly what I had in mind. I myself have actually begun to embrace such forms of piety, not least in order to defy the elite and popular binaries (often shocking my more elite students and colleagues). As to an example of liturgical elements that are marked by class: on the extreme end, I have never seen snake-handling as part of an urban, affluent, “sophisticated” community at worship.

  9. Teresa, I too appreciate Aaron Reynold’s comment, with one caveat. I’ve known of women and men who immigrated to the USA with medical degrees or other credentials from their home countries, such as one with an advanced degree in theology from a South American Catholic university. And I’ve known resourceful, intelligent laborers with little formal learning, who follow the occupations and some cultural traditions of their immigrant ancestors. The medical people spend years raising their children in working class neighborhoods while studying to qualify for American licensing; the working-class theologian has never been able to use her training except in unpaid, volunteer church positions. I think also of my own immigrant ancestors who supported their Catholic parishes though they lacked church support in their own efforts to unionize their workplaces or to assimilate into Protestant, business-oriented urban environments.

    Such working-class immigrant families show us that the connections among ethnic religious traditions, intelligence/ education, and socioeconomic class are complex. Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory tries to elucidate some of the sacrifices and humiliations of such families. As his memoir’s title indicates, cultural “memory” survives over the generations despite socioeconomic mobility. Tom Hayden’s Irish Hunger is another that reveals the power of cultural memory. I think that the actual experience of ethnic groups in American churches probably falsifies most presuppositions and categories that academics and churchmen bring to encounters with them, and rarely do the gracious individuals correct our presuppositions directly.

    So I think we should relate more and analyze less. Sometimes kitsch is simply a material connection with one’s past, like the old photographs of unnamed people in family albums. Sometimes it’s living religion. Whatever, it helps in the transition to new forms.

  10. I have my grandmother’s reproduction of the Madonna of the Chair displayed in my living room, so is that devotion to the Madonna, my immigrant grandmother or both? Since I’ve made pilgrimage to Knock and Crough Patrick, I’m hardly an example of someone who is assimilated! What is interesting to me is to see my daughters wear religious medals, something I never did.

    What I have noticed is that my contemporaries rarely display religious art. If they do, it’s more likely to be a generic angel than anything specifically Catholic.

  11. The attitude that such devotions are for the “middle-class and simple minded” is a very short step from the view that religion in toto is likewise. The implication is that one can “educate one’s self” beyond the need for religion.

    1. There is a certain joyousness to be gained by a proper appreciation of what others might call kitsch and what I prefer to think of as exuberance. I embarrassed my teen aged daughter years ago by beginning Christmas decorations by trimming our print of Guadalupe with artificial roses and finishing it off with a string of light up roses. today my grown up daughter understands where that came from.

      Perhaps it an example of being like children?

  12. Personally, I think it almost goes hand in hand for a certain levity in personal piety and a check on unfortunate forces like rationalism to perpetuate a certain Catholic kitschy-ness. It can be overdone as well, and lead to the equally unfortunate error of sentimentalism or superstition.

    I agree with Jeffrey that the attitude that devotions and such are for the “simple minded” is a very short step to the thought that religion as a whole is for the “simple minded”. This is merely an attitude of hubris, as if dust and ashes (which we all are) has no need of the very tangible helps Holy Mother Church gives us to save our souls.

    This was the same basic attitude St. Louis de Montfort fought with the Jansenists about. They thought devotionalism and such was for peasants and old women, basically superstitious fools. Their attempts to “purify” religion led to irreligion.

  13. After just a little reflection, I’ve adopted the perspective of Jeffrey Herbert and Dominic Montini on this matter. Thanks! Thanks also for Bridget’s help.

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