Rethinking Devotions and the Liturgy in a Catholic Context

Article 13 from Sacrosanctum Concilium strikes me each time I read it:

Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See… But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.

When I teach the reception of Sacrosanctum Concilium, I always ask my students if the liturgical reforms after Vatican II have adequately attended to popular devotion. After giving my students some time to express their own thoughts, I always weigh in on the matter myself. I begin by noting my complete support for the reforms after the Council, especially the need to rebalance the relationship between the liturgy and popular devotion. But I always end by saying that as academics, liturgists, and ministers, we need to spend some time reflecting more intentionally on devotional practices and popular piety.

Church candles” by ASHBERT is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

While the liturgy must always have primacy over devotions, Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us that there is a proper place for popular devotions and popular piety in the church as long as they are derived from the liturgy and lead people back to the liturgy. This was reaffirmed in the 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. The directory commended (and critiqued!) the devotional life of the church and its relationship to the liturgy, while at the same time calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church’s devotions.

While devotions and practices of popular piety are important to the spiritual development of the Christian, they are also intimately connected to our understanding of what it means to be Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.

As a master’s student, I remember being struck by the work of M. Francis Mannion and his articulation of the various approaches to liturgical reform after Vatican II. [1] Speaking from a Catholic context, and in light of the “liturgy wars,” Mannion argued that what was needed to move the liturgical reforms forward in a way that would heal and strengthen the Catholic communion was an approach he termed “recatholicizing the reform.” He describes this approach as follows:

When the church is truly catholic, it is characterized by a high trinitiarian consciousness; it reaches into the very depths of the human soul; it engages profoundly the spiritual heritage of historic Christianity; and its vision is centered on the glory of God and the coming of the kingdom. [2]

This description struck me as a vision of the Church that all churches and Christians should strive for, something Mannion likely signaled by using a lowercase “c.” It is about being Christian – a re-rooting of the Christian in the common baptism we all share. But Mannion also recommended a few suggestions for what recatholicizing the reform would look like within the Catholic context. Concretely it would entail:

  • A living into the reformed liturgy
  • An allowance for inculturation
  • The recreation of the ethos of the Catholic liturgy – “beauty, majesty, spiritual profundity, solemnity”
  • Spiritual, not structural, changes – a renewal of “the spiritual, mystical, and devotional dimensions of the revised rites.”
  • The recovery of the “numinous” against modern “sterility and rationalism”
  • A turn to the aesthetics in worship
  • A turn away from pure ritual-functionalism
  • And finally, a respect for liturgical history

Ultimately, this approach “tak[es] the present rites and work[s] to celebrate them in a much more profound, dignified, and spiritually edifying manner than has generally been the case since the advent of postconciliar revision.” [3] This, Mannion felt, would also lead to a rapprochement between the progressive and traditionalist wings of the Catholic Church.

The last twenty years or so since Mannion published this piece has shown that he was probably too optimistic. Nevertheless, I still think Mannion was on to something. I have also always thought that Mannion could be taken further, and that his recatholicizing the reform must also include a call for the renewal of the devotional life of the Church.

In fact, I have always thought that a concerted renewal of popular piety in the Church – always derived from and directed back to the liturgy! – might do well to heal divides as well as help reign in misdirected devotions that have continued (or have popped back up) since the Council. But more importantly, it might also foster Catholic identity in a time when the Catholic Church could definitely use some (positive) communal identity.

So, what would it mean to reexamine Sacrosanctum Concilium art. 13 in light of a “recatholicizing the reform” approach to liturgical renewal? I think it would mean to re-enliven a number of traditional Catholic devotional practices and to connect them to the liturgical life of the Church. Here I am thinking especially of:

  • Adoration, benediction, and the devotional practices that accompany them
  • The practice of saying the rosary
  • Fostering more pilgrimages
  • The more frequent use of public processions
  • Promoting a number of Marian devotions
  • The recovery of certain novenas
  • Fostering devotional practices around the cult of the saints
  • Catechizing the faithful on relics
  • Continuing to foster the use of the stations of the cross
  • Re-enlivening the passion plays
  • Ensuring there are votive candles in our liturgical spaces
  • and much more!

Some of these devotions and popular practices are already being done well and are successful in our churches. A perfect example is the popularity of the stations of the cross during Lent. Others are somewhat easy to implement, like the presence of votive candles in our liturgical spaces. Still others, like adoration and benediction, require ongoing catechesis and reflection on best practices.

For each of these devotions to be re-enlivened and have their proper place as servants to the liturgy, the faithful will have to be properly trained in these devotional practices. This will have to include catechesis on the liturgy and each devotion.

Liturgists and ministers will also need to ensure that in the renewal of Catholic devotional practices, they remain rooted in the common baptismal identity we share with our Orthodox and Protestant sisters and brothers. Any practice that increases divisions within or between the churches is not “centered on the glory of God and the coming of the kingdom,” [4] and thus is not truly c/Catholic.

While this post has been light on the specifics, I have intended it as an invitation to myself and others on the blog to think through concrete ways the devotional life of the Church can be renewed today. Thus, I invite others to post on specific devotional practices, and how they think they could be fruitfully renewed. I hope to do that myself in a few planned blog posts. But if you have any particular devotional practices you think I should look at, please tell me in the comments below!

[1] M. Francis Mannion, “The Catholicity of the Liturgy: Shaping A New Agenda,” in Beyond the Prosaic, edited by Stratford Caldecott, 11-48 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998). Reprinted in M. Francis Mannion, Masterworks of God: Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice (Chicago: HillenbrandBooks, 2004), Ch.9. Page numbers taken from Masterworks of God.

[2] Mannion, p. 214.

[3] Mannion, p. 219.

[4] Mannion, p. 214.

8 comments

  1. Off the top of my head, I’d say observances connected to the sacraments:
    – a blessing on parents preparing for baptism of a child
    – celebrating baptismal anniversaries at home, and in parish schools as an alternative to birthdays
    – a blessing on newly engaged couples, either at Mass or at the first meeting with the parish minister

    And saints, a deeper awareness of name saints, especially for candidates choosing a “confirmation name.” It seems to make little sense to “use” a name without having a plan to observe that feast day. For a parish, certainly an important celebration on the patronal feast. And if a parish has for example, an active St Vincent de Paul society, I’d think Sept 9 and 27 would be observed in some way. Perhaps a sensible look at saint observances: if a parish isn’t connected with the BVM as a patron, perhaps a careful discernment of one of her feast days as an adopted day.

    I think there’s an effort in some places to have home advent wreaths, chalk above the door on Epiphany, and such seasonal things. Without annual parish leadership, would it continue? Devotions in the home are important.

    Last thing … many parishes offer service trips. Do these include visits to local shrines and churches? Or is the focus exclusively on carpentry, teaching, providing medical services?

  2. Whatever happened to making (adaptations of) Morning and/or Evening Prayer part of the standard parish liturgical schedule? Decades ago it was all the craze. Now people are content to do with the Rosary, adoration and Benediction. No parish in my area of the Chicago suburbs does Morning or Evening Prayer as a regular part of the liturgical schedule. Just please don’t incorporate MP or EP into the Eucharist — disaster!!

    1. It probably wasn’t “received” in an enduring manner by the faithful at large because it’s a liturgy that can’t be as easily owned by the faithful in a repetitive fashion (ritual) without the involvement and dedication/commitment of leaders (Benediction, if done, is much simpler in that regard, and many classic devotions don’t require any organized leadership). I very fondly remember weekday Evening Prayer before Mass during my years in college with a Dominican-run university parish; that, however, is not the typical parish context. I think we need to respect wisdoms embodied in the centuries-long development of devotions in popular piety, and I suspect that any attempt to give precedence for the Office over devotions would be likely to fail in most typical parishes for that reason. (Heck, most parishes don’t have the kind of musical resources that could reliably pull off daily BCP Evensong, which is a kind of simplified Vespers. I am one of those weirdos who might show up if a parish tried a chanted vernacular Vespers of a simplified type that had promise of taking enduring root. But if were the same kind of Missalette Beige music (especially such music for the psalter and ordo) that is typically used at Mass in territorial parishes near me, it would not elicit nearly as much interest from me.)

      1. Agreed, though it would be wonderful and beneficial to the church if the laity prayed some of the liturgy of the hours. I appreciate the way that Give Us This Day has made a modified form of the liturgy of the hours accessible to people.

  3. For me, a major problem is devotional practices that appear to state that they are as important as if not more important than the Church’s official liturgy.

    I confess to being irritated beyond measure by rosary groups that, almost before the last notes of the closing hymn or organ voluntary have been sounded, launch into a loud and robotic recitation of the rosary, as if to say “That Mass was all very well, but this is the real thing.”

    Anyone visiting the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, high in the mountains outside Barcelona, will see this conflict in action. At the far east end of the abbey church, behind and above the main altar on a gallery a number of feet above floor level, is a large statue of the Virgin of Montserrat, standing on top of a large ball that is said to represent the globe of the world. It is reached and quitted by galleries and stairs running the length of the church on both sides. At any given time in the church, you can see a long line of pilgrims passing down the right-hand gallery. When they reach the Virgin, they kiss the ball under her feet, and then leave along the left-hand gallery.

    This devotional procession to kiss the Virgin’s ball continues non-stop, no matter what else is going on in the abbey church at the time. The first time I saw this, I was astonished by the fact that the pilgrims carried on walking towards and away from the Virgin’s ball even during the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, not even pausing during the words of institution. I wondered if they were aware of what was taking place in their midst, or whether they even cared.

    It seems to me that pious devotions need to feed into and be fed by the Church’s liturgical life and should not exist as a kind of parallel universe, if not indeed as acts giving the impression that they have been set up in opposition to the Church’s official liturgy. There has to be some kind of proportional relationship.

  4. That reflection seems partly to partake of the “Father Confessor, may I smoke while I pray?” half of the “Father Confessor, may I pray while I smoke?” chestnut.

  5. The Liturgy of The Hours, unfortunately, does not seem very liturgical. It might have a chance of catching on if we just referred to it as “Praying Daily with The Church” or something along those lines. Priests, religious, and laity, using various written or online resources, praying this liturgy–most of them by themselves–is like priests praying private Masses all over the place. Valid & licit, of course, but of questionable efficaciousness.
    Word on Fire has published a monthly volume which at least simplifies the flow of prayers. No flipping ribbons, no looking up feast days and memorials, etc. A step in the right direction. And let me ask this question: If praying the LOH were not obligatory, how many people would make a commitment to it.

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