Part 2 History

Chapter v22 Popular Religiosity
in the United States

Preliminary Questions


Devotions of USA Catholics: Examples

Charles Lippy

Popular Religion, Devotions, Liturgy



To Think About

Preliminary Questions

How are American Catholics influenced by American Religion?  If you, how?  How does this affect American devotional life? 

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Charles H.  Lippy.  Being Religious, American Style: A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States. Westport ,CT: Greenwood. (Praeger Publishers) 1994 ISBN 0-275-94901-X. Paper. $22.95.  296 pages.

Joyce Ann Zimmerman (Editor). Popular Religion Volume 7, Summer 1998 Edition of Liturgical Ministry.  Collegeville, MN.

Carl Dehne.  "Popular Devotions"  The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, pages 331-340. Editor:  Peter E. Fink S.J.  The Liturgical Press.  Collegeville, MN.

Carl Dehne. "Roman Catholic Popular Devotions, " Worship 49 (1975): 446-460.

Taves, Ann.  The Household of Faith:  Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth Century America.  Notre Dame, IN.  University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.  (When I taught the course in 1995, we used this as a text.)

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Devotions of USA Catholics: Examples

Prayer before meals
Prayer after meals
Prayer before going to bed
Morning Offering
(Liturgy of the Hours)

Visits to the Blessed Sacrament
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament Exposed
Holy Hour
Perpetual Adoration (24 x 7)
Forty Hours Devotion

Sacred Heart:  June
Sacred Heart:  First Fridays
Devotion to the Divine Mercy
Chaplet of Divine Mercy
Wearing a crucifix

Centering Prayer
Mantras / Jesus Prayer
Lectio Divina
Prayer Groups
Faith Sharing
Parish Mission
Bible Study Groups


Seasonal Devotions
Way of the Cross
"Poverty" meals
Acts of "penance"

   Family Rosary
   Rosary at a Wake
Month of May
  "Offering flowers to Mary"
ay Crowning
Month of October (Rosary)
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Brown (Green, etc.) Scapular
Miraculous Medal
Consecration to Mary (
St. Louis de Montfort)
Legion of Mary
Militia Immaculata

Devotions to Saints
Saint Joseph (March)
St. Joseph (happy death)
Saint Anthony (lost objects / marriage partner / birth of healthy child)
Saint Jude (impossible cases)
Saint Teresa of Lisieux
Mother Teresa
Padre Pio
St. Anthony Mary Claret
Blessed Margaret of Castello

Oblates (e.g. Benedictine)
Secular Franciscans (Third Order Members)

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Charles Lippy

The following notes are taken from Charles H. Lippy's Being Religious, American Style -- A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States.  The notes are reprinted here under the Fair Use Act.  It is presumed that the students using this page will have purchased Lippy's book which is being used as a text in this course.  And without the book these notes will not make sense.

Chapter 1.  What is Popular Religion?

Lippy's summary statement at the end of Chapter One:  "My claim is simply that at the heart of American popular religiosity there has always been a lively sense of the supernatural and that ordinary men and women for generations have sought access to the realm of the supernatural in order to find meaning and purpose in life.  Sometimes they gain that access through religious traditions and institutions, but more often through fusing together an array of beliefs and practices to construct personal and very private worlds of meaning.  If we would understand the dynamics of being religious, American style, we must explore the elusive phenomenon of popular religiosity."  (p. 19)

Chapter 2.  Popular Religiosity in Early Colonial America

Chapter 3.  Popular Religiosity in the Age of Awakening and Revolution

Chapter 4.  The Flourishing of Popular Religiosity in Antebellum America

Chapter 5.  Challenge and Change in Traditional Religion: Nurturing Popular Religiosity in the Later Nineteenth Century

Chapter 6.  Popular Culture and Popular Movements: Advancing Popular Religiosity in the Later Nineteenth Century

Chapter 7.  Into the Twentieth Century: Popular Religiosity in the Age of World Wars

Chapter 8.  After the War: Popular Religiosity and Cultural Currents in the Later Twentieth Century

Chapter 9.  Toward the Twenty-First Century: The Interplay of Popular Culture and Popular Religiosity

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Popular Religion, Devotions, Liturgy

Characteristics of American Popular Religion (as found in Being Religious, American Style):

A.  God
1.  God is a transcendent, supernatural power.

2.  God's world makes sense, whereas our world is often in chaos.

3.  Evil exists as a powerful force and often battles with the good force (God).

4.  Religion gives us direct access to this realm of the supernatural.  "There is a latent power within connected to a higher power that, when tapped, can grant the individual control over personal life and hence meaning and happiness." (145)   Viewing Eucharist, Virgin Birth, Resurrection as "miracles" gives us contact with the transcendent. 

B.  Private

1.  Religion belongs to the individual realm.  One does not have to belong to any particular group or denomination or Church. 

2.  Each person can choose what to believe and how to act.

3.  Religion is a private matter

4.  Religion takes place primarily in the home.  "Transforming the home into religious space signals that privatization of religious experience fundamental to popular religiosity. ...Whatever transpires in the home is done without the direct control of religious institutions or authorities."  (155)  Catholic home:  crucifix, religious pictures, statues, "sick call crucifix kit", May altar, Advent wreath. 

5.  Morality is a personal, individual affair.

6.  Popular Religion has no specific moral requirements.

C.  Feeling

1.  As feelings are private and personal, so religion is private and personal.

2.  Religion has more to do with feeling than with knowing or doing.

3.  Popular Religion gives the individual a "sense of order"  (e.g. novenas, First Friday, Lent, Mysteries of the Rosary, 40 Hours, Stations)


Characteristics of Roman Catholic Liturgical Prayer (as found in Sacrosanctum Concilium, etc.)

A.  God

1.  God is both transcendent and immanent -- especially immanent in Christ Jesus.   The Incarnation -- and all that Incarnation implies -- is central to Catholic identity.  See Preface for Christmas Mass.    One of the emphases of the Second Vatican Council

2.  Whereas Popular Religion seeks contact with the supernatural, Catholicism is rooted in the incarnation.  The problem many found with Jesus was that he was too "ordinary"  -- " 'Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him." (Mark 6:3)

3.  There is only one God.  Evil results from free will, ignorance, unrealized teleology, etc.  Evil exists as a powerful force and often battles with the good force (God).

4.  All access to the supernatural is mediated through creation.

B.  Private

1.  Liturgical prayer is the prayer of Christ, head and members.  Hence, it is essentially corporate.  Personal, yes; but personal / collective, not personal / individual-private.   (Note:  Contemporary culture tends to identify the "personal" with the "individual" and "private."  Liturgy is a personal, corporate act.  As it is the prayer of Christ, it is always addressed to the Father.  It only says things Christ would say.  (... That Tell City High School beat Jasper Saturday night, we pray to the Lord.)    It only sings things Christ would sing.  (Amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me).  [Note:  this is one of the principle characteristics of liturgical music:  it is music that Christ, head and members, wants to sing.

2.  Worship, belief, morality are not only individual decisions (conscience) but depend on corporate tradition (magisterium).

4.  Liturgy takes place primarily in the church. [Are your most intense religious moments at liturgy or at private prayer?]

5.  Morality is of course personal, but it is not only personal/individual, it is more importantly personal/social.   Confession is a private devotion.  (see:  Mediator Dei)  Reconciliation is an ecclesial event.  One of the most frequently mentioned reasons for "why Catholics don't go to confession as often as they used to" was "Our idea of sin has changed."  As sin becomes social, so the celebration of its forgiveness.

6.  Devotions can be done by anyone anytime.  They do not need a priest or Church official.  Official, Liturgical prayer always "draws a picture of the Church" and the Church is an ordered community. 

7.  Is Confession a liturgical act or a private devotion?

8.  While the Mass is a communal event, Benediction is individual even though collective.

C.  Feeling

1.  The Constitution on the Liturgy (number 13)  states:  "Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly endorsed, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See.  Devotions proper to particular Churches also have a special dignity if they are undertaken by mandate of the bishops according to customs or books lawfully approved.  But these devotions should be so fashioned 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 far surpasses any of them."

2.  Popular devotions are primarily affective.  One of the concerns of the Council was to make the liturgy more affective.  I never had much "affect" celebrating a Latin side altar Mass.  And the training was such that one prayed before and after Mass, not during it.

3.  Devotions were for us; the Liturgy was for God.    Vatican II tried to put the two together,  "This is the will of God, your Sanctification." 

4.  Popular devotions are primarily personal and individual.   Usually imploring some benefit to the individual.   E.g. "The following petitions have been received at the Shrine of Saint Anthony:  For a safe delivery and normal child; to find lost keys; for a happy marriage, etc.

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Step one:  What positive values are contained in American popular religion?  How can these be reinforced by Catholic liturgical prayer and devotions?

American Popular Religion

American Catholic Liturgy and Devotions


Step two:  What negative values are contained in American popular religion?  How can these be corrected by Catholic liturgical prayer and devotions?

American Popular Religion

American Catholic Liturgy and Devotions

American religion reaches up to focus on the transcendent God, often leaving behind this world.Catholic liturgy is rooted in the incarnation.  The things of this world -- bread, wine, oil, ashes, candles, art, color, etc -- mediate the divinity.
Contact with the supernatural not only gives order to the chaos in our lives, but it also brings material and financial prosperity, which are the sign of God's favor.If Jesus is the revelation of the Father, i.e. tells us who God is and what God is like, Jesus reveals a God who is revealed in the poor and the vanquished. 
American religion is fundamentally a private, individual matter.Catholic liturgy is the prayer of Christ, head and members, i.e. the prayer of the Church.  It is always corporate and collective (even if, by way of exception, it is celebrated by one person alone).
American religion leaves each person free to believe what he or she wants.   Religions which profess little or no doctrine appeal to Americans:  e.g. Unitarianism, Buddhism, etc.  (i.e. a recent book by Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening.) 

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The following article is taken from "Catholic Identity -- Why I Am A Catholic"  c  Saint Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati.  Every Day Catholic, March 2004.

One reason I am a Catholic is because Catholicism is a "healthy corrective" to the way that I would prefer to live and pray. Catholicism is a "we" religion; it is essentially about community.

Why do I consider Catholicism a "healthy corrective"? Here is an example of what I mean by that phrase. Three times a week I get up and go to the gym for aerobics class. When the alarm goes off in the morning, I'd much rather stay in bed for another hour, but I know -- deep down I am convinced -- that even though I don't like it, exercise is a "healthy corrective" to my sitting in front of the computer all day, typing with one hand and eating with the other. And just as the gym is a "healthy corrective" for my inactivity and overeating, Catholicism is a "healthy corrective" for my American individualism.

There are many wonderful things about living in America. But besides being the land of the free and the home of the brave America is also the land of the "Lone Ranger." We Americans love our individual freedom and independence -- and not only in the way we live, but also in the way we pray and in the way we worship God.

Studies show that Americans in general -- regardless of their religious denomination -- like to be independent in their religious beliefs. I decide what I want to believe. I decide how and when to pray. Identifying with an established religious denomination -- Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. -- is not important for most Americans and they tend to move easily from one Church to another. Conversion and salvation are experienced as deeply personal, individual experiences. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, / That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; / Was blind but now I see." "American religion" is about "I", "me", and "my".

The Catholic religion is a "healthy corrective" to the excessive individualism of "American religion" because Catholic identity is essentially a collective identity. Catholicism is a "we" religion. -- it is essentially about community. All of our official Catholic prayers are first person plural: "we", "us", and "our". For example at Mass we pray: "Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, / we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks / through Jesus Christ our Lord. ... Father, we bring you these gifts. / We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit... Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, / may be filled with his Holy Spirit, / and become one body, one spirit in Christ." (Eucharistic Prayer III)

All of our official, liturgical, prayers are the prayers of the whole Church community. They are the prayers of the Body of Christ, head and members, addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Family and community are at the heart of our Catholic identity because the very God we worship is a triune community of life and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The principle petition at every Eucharist is not for some individual gift of grace, but for the gift of unity, the grace to become one body, one spirit in Christ. We pray that we become family, that we become community, that we become Church.

As Christ's Body the Church, we -- all of us together -- are to continue Christ's mission to the world. It is not about what I want, but what Christ, in his Body the Church, wants. Together with the whole Church, we pray: Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.

Personally, I don't always find this "community aspect" of Catholicism comfortable. Often I would rather pray the way I want. I get upset when the needs of the community disturb the way I have always prayed. Why do I have to have listen to the Bible proclaimed in Spanish or Vietnamese at Sunday Mass just because the neighborhood is changing? I like to sing but I am not comfortable singing a hymn in Korean. But -- in a deeper place -- I know that what is most comfortable for me, is not always what is best for my growth. (It's more comfortable to stay in bed, than to get up and go to the gym for exercise.) I have to know when I need a "healthy corrective."

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The Liturgical Year

For a summary of the teachings of Official Catholicism regarding the Liturgical Year, see my notes at Chapter y13 Overview of the Liturgical Year

Compare this with the Popular Latino American understanding of the Liturgical Year, e.g. Advent and Lent.

Role of "Reading the Scriptures"
Function of the Season
Principle characters / actions

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To Think About

1.  In your own spiritual life, what roles are played by American Religion, Official Catholicism and Popular Catholicism?

2.  In the spiritual lives of the people to whom you minister, what roles are played by American Religion, Official Catholicism and Popular Catholicism?

3.  What is the relation between American Religion (and Official Catholicism and Popular Catholicism) and magic or superstition?

4.  As an example:  In what ways does EWTN foster devotion?  Foster liturgy?  Foster American Religion?

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter. All Rights Reserved. This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.   Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own. Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it. This site was updated on 10/06/11. Your comments on this site are welcome at