Brief Book Review: Rethinking Catholic Devotions

Rethinking Catholic Devotions: Energy, Engagement, Transformation
By Jim Clarke

Who should read this? This would be a good book for discussion in the OICA process or for an introductory parish course on Catholic spirituality.

What’s the main point? The author is convinced that popular Catholic devotions can helpfully make up an important part of the faith life of contemporary believers by using insights from depth psychology, spirituality and theology. He is especially concerned with “reclaiming the original fire of the creator of the particular devotions” (p. ix).

Why does it matter? Since Vatican II many of the devotions on which the spirituality of Catholics depended had been set aside. There has been lately a renewed interest in devotional practices such as Eucharistic adoration and Marian devotions, but often these practices are promoted in parishes without a solid theological foundation. This book helps to answer the need for a better grounding on how devotions can provide a rich source for prayer and inspiration for the Christian life.

Kudos. Drawing on diverse authors such as Elizabeth Johnson, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, and James Martin, the author offers the beginning reader a helpful vision for situating Catholic devotional practice in the Christian life, without falling into superstition and problematic practices that eclipse the redemptive power of the paschal mystery. The text is clear and easy to understand by someone without a background in theological studies.

Quibbles. The presentation gives the impression that devotionalism is uniform across space and time. Apart from some glancing references to a few liturgical or historical studies in the opening chapters, the author takes of “history of ideas” approach to devotions that fails to situate the genesis and evolution of popular religious practices in the cultural context of the worship life of the church.

The author seems unaware of the importance of locating the topic in light of the history of 19th and 20th Century when a revolution took place in Roman Catholic devotionalism. The writings of Emmet Larkin or Ann Taves offer a more complete context that describes how the Roman authorities in Europe and the Americas promoted a devotionalism strongly linked clerical supervision by means of indulgences.

Robert Orsi’s work on popular religion among Italians in New York as well as the many Hispanic authors such as Roberto Goizueta and Orlando Espín who have eloquently presented the particular role that Hispanic popular devotions have played as a mainstay of religious and cultural identity and as a source of liberation are only obliquely referenced in the text. It would have also been very helpful for the author to have cited Pope Francis and his positive re-appraisal of popular religion as a key to the inculturation of the faith.

Clarke, Jim. Rethinking Catholic Devotions. Energy, Engagement, Transformation. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2022. 134 pages. $17.95. ISBN: 9780809155330.

REVIEWER: Mark R. Francis, CSV
Mark Francis is President Emeritus of Catholic Theological Union,
Chicago, Illinois.

2 comments

  1. The authors of the (blog) commentary I have just read, were so deeply into theology
    I felt as if I wasn’t quite the
    person they were searching for.
    But in the latter part, strangely, I
    felt if I read the book, if they have
    Patience with my other agenda, I
    just may be able to contribute to the cause. Maxine Jahn

    Thank you for offering your deep thoughts.

  2. Just wondering if there has been much written about the history of Catholic devotions as a consequence of little or no understanding of the Eucharistic liturgy? When I was growing up, people practiced various form of devotion before, during, or after Mass. No one taught us that we were a priestly people who could offer Mass with the priest. No one encouraged any form of participation other than being present. But I also remember participating in “missions” with some enthusiasm because the service were mostly in the vernacular. We also had a reason for attending inasmuch as we were looking for a deeper closeness with God.

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