Part 3 Popular Piety and Theology

Chapter v31 Devotional Prayer:  Overview


Preliminary Questions


Liturgical Prayer

Devotional Prayer: Definition

Devotional Prayer & Liturgical Prayer Compared

Popular?  Un-Popular?

Cultural Context

Generational Differences


Private Devotions / Communal Devotions

Criteria for Evaluating Popular Devotions

Have Devotions Decreased Following the Second Vatican Council?

To think About

Preliminary Questions

What are "popular devotions"? How are they distinguished from popular religiosity and from liturgical prayer?   What is "devotional prayer"?  (Surely all prayer is  "devotional"!)   What is the relationship between popular religious expression, Catholic identity, and culture?  Is there a cause-effect relation between the decline in popular devotions in the United States and the Second Vatican Council -- or do historical studies indicate that the drop off in devotional prayer occurred before, and independently of the Second Vatican Council? 

What can devotions can learn from the liturgy? How can the liturgy become more devotional and popular?  Can you think of devotions that are associated with specific times in the Liturgical Year?   What is the relationship between culture and religious expression?  Specifically, what brought about the demise of popular devotion among Catholics in the years following the council?  Was it due to the liturgical reforms of the council or was this decline due to the relation between the devotions and the culture?  (If a devotion is culturally dependent, and the culture changes, perhaps the devotion in question will no longer be  pertinent?) 

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See the bibliography given in Chapter v17 Bibliography

Rev. Carl Dehne, S.J.,  "Devotions, Popular" in the The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship.  Peter E. Fink, S.J. (editor), 1990, pp.331-340).

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Liturgical Prayer

Before contrasting Liturgical Prayer and Devotional Prayer, it is important to be clear about what constitutes Liturgical Prayer.

Sacrament   The Liturgy makes the Church "visible."  It is the sacrament (i.e. visible sign, manifestation) of the Church, the Body of Christ:  "For the liturgy, 'through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,' most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." (SC 2) 

"There is about all Christian liturgy a givenness: the liturgy is always in the first instance something "handed on"--from one church to another and from one culture to another.  Adjustments, accommodations, exploitations of the given in its new situation always take place.  The adjustment may be as obvious as translation into a new language or a charge of movements to fit a new physical space.  Or the elaborations may over time respond to differences in the sense of cultural and religious propriety." (Dehne, pp. 333)

Trinity   Liturgical prayer is "an act of praise to the Triune God's sovereign majesty."  (Pope John Paul II, quoted by Empereur, p1.)  The Liturgy is the prayer of Christ (head and members) to the Father in the Spirit.

Implications 1.  All liturgical prayer is primarily praise.  (Devotional prayer is usually petition.)  

Implications 2.  All liturgical prayer is addressed to the Father.  (If a "liturgical" prayer is addressed to Jesus, this is often an indication that it was once a private devotion that has been taken up into the liturgy.)

Implications  3.  The Presider -- the one leading the prayer -- always prays in the first person plural, "we" as he is voicing the prayer of the entire community, the Body of Christ, the Church, "us".  The "celebrant" is the entire community, the Body of Christ, the Church.

Prayer of Christ    "... every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree."  (SC 7)

Implications 1. The prayer of Christ himself has a certain precedence over the prayer of an individual -- although it remains true that every baptized person is an Alter Christus.

Implications 2. As liturgical prayer is the prayer of Christ, in liturgical prayer we only "ask" the Father for things that we know Jesus wants.   (Private devotions can petition for what we want.)

Implications 3. As liturgical prayer is the prayer of Christ (E.g. at the liturgy we only sing songs that Christ would sing. In devotional prayer we can sing hymns that express our feelings and emotions.)

Lex Orandi  Lex orandi legem credendi constituit.  The Liturgy is the theologia prima, the primary source, for Catholic theology and belief.   However, this does not mean that devotional prayer has no role in Christian formation.

"All forms of Christian worship, and especially those which are frequently and communally celebrated, express and form the consciousness of Christian believers.  The emotional component of the Christian consciousness, which is set in resonance and is tuned by the experience of Christian worship, is called devotion." (Dehne, pp.332)

Anamnesis   Liturgical prayer makes us present  -- anamnesis -- to the mystery celebrated.   We do not merely "recall" the religious event. 

Official  Liturgical prayer is the "official" prayer of the Church.  The Liturgical Rites of the Roman Rite are contained in the editio typica of the approved Roman Rite Liturgical Books.  The liturgical books of the Roman Rite are:

1. The Roman Calendar
2. The Roman Lectionary
3. The Roman Martyrology
4. The Roman Missal
5. The Liturgy of the Hours
6. The Roman Pontifical
7. The Roman Ritual
8. The Book of Blessings

In general, if the words and rite are not in one of these books, They are not liturgy.  (However, this rule too has its exceptions.  For example, the homily.  Or, for example, "When the penitent comes to confess his sins, the priest welcomes him warmly and greets him with kindness."; for example, his vel similibus verbis.)

Latin  The "Editio Typica" of each of these books is written in Latin.  Liturgical language  plays an important role in the history and development of devotional prayer.  The Latin language has its roots in a culture different from American culture and when the Latin of the typical editions is translated into English using the norms given in Liturgicam Authenticam (e.g. formal equivalence) the "sobriety, brevity, simplicity" of the Latin language is not conducive to devotional piety which is more effusive and affective. 

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Devotional Prayer: Definition

It is difficult to form a precise definition of popular devotions.  The easiest way is to say "devotional prayers are prayers that are not liturgy" -- But the distinction between " the official liturgy" and "popular devotions"  is clear at certain historical periods, and more fluid and less clear during other times.   We have historical examples of devotions becoming liturgical rites [e.g. the veneration of the cross on Good Friday].

We are speaking here of "devotions" -- which are somewhat different from popular "religion".   The Fourth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate describes popular religion as "a privileged expression of the inculturation of the faith.  It involves not only religious expressions but also the values, criteria, behaviors, and attitudes that spring from Catholic dogma and constitute the wisdom of our people, shaping their cultural matrix." (quoted by James Empereur, in Commentary, p 13) 

Popular religion is not to be equated with certain religious practices or devotions.  It is more a matter of having a different perspective on the world.  Popular religion provides a structure of meaning for those who are dominated by a social order not their own.  It helps a community to form a self-identity that is opposed to a world of oppression."  (James Empereur, in Commentary, p 13)

Definition:  Popular Devotions are not Liturgical Prayer

But still, perhaps the easiest way to define popular devotions is to distinguish them from liturgical prayer.  Rev. Carl Dehne, S.J. -- who has written extensively on popular devotions -- in his article "Devotions, Popular" in the The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, Peter E. Fink, S.J. editor, 1990, pp.331-340) says "They are religious exercises--prayers, methods of meditation, orders of service, rituals, gestures -- whose texts and rubrics are not contained in the official liturgical books of the Roman rite. " (Dehne, pp. 331)

History of the Distinction

In the early church, the distinction liturgy / devotion did not exist.  The liturgy was still in a "fluid" state even though some elements were becoming more and more fixed. 

"The church of Jerusalem in the 4th century created the weekly Sunday morning commemoration of the resurrection and the veneration of the cross for Good Friday.  Both have become part of the liturgical heritage of many of the ancient churches.  Had these rites become widespread in the 18th century, they would be popular devotions.  The Way of the Cross, a Counter-Reformation import from Jerusalem in many respects analogous to the earlier veneration of the cross, is proving to be one of the most resilient of the devotions.  If it were twelve hundred years older, it would be liturgy." (Dehne, pp. 333-334)

Charlemagne:  In 787 CE Charlemagne ordered that schools be established throughout the Roman Empire so that clergy and laity might learn to read and write. He wanted everyone to be able to say the Lord's Prayer and the Creed in their own language, but he decreed that priests were to say Mass only in Latin despite the fact that it was no longer the spoken language.  This is the beginning of "sacred language" and the beginning of the distinction between liturgy and devotions.  

The development of popular devotions as a distinct kind of prayer different from liturgical prayer has its origin in this idea of "sacred language."  See:  Chapter d35 Liturgical Language

The Printing Press:  "In the third quarter of the 16th century, the content and extent of the official liturgy were determined in a new way by the issuance of authoritative liturgical books intended for the first time for uniform use in almost all the churches of the Latin rite.  Whatever did not find a place in the books of the new worldwide Roman rite -- no matter how widely practiced in other parts of the Latin West and no matter what its propriety and utility -- was considered in a legal sense non-liturgical." (Dehne, pp. 332)

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As Latin becomes the "official" language of the Church's prayer, the prayer itself takes on some of the characteristics of the Latin language.  As expressed in the encyclical Veterum Sapientia:  "Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin formal structure. Its concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression."   This "formal structure," this "conciseness,"  might be good for the expression of dogma, but it is not good for the expression of religious feelings and emotion.  "The devotions compensated for a deficit in the ability of the official Roman liturgy to engage the emotions of believers." (Dehne, pp. 333)

"Roman prayer texts, in comparison with those of other ancient classical liturgies, are concise, elegant, rational--just as the Roman style in ritual too is restrained and utilitarian.  Classical Roman prayers do speak about religious emotions, but in a distant and abstract way, as theological concepts rather than as actual experiences.  They are prayers of the head and not of the heart.  They do not express and cannot well engender emotion." (Dehne, pp. 333)

The years immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council saw a very clear distinction between liturgy and devotions.  The liturgy was to worship God; devotions were for the people.  One needed to be "deputed" for liturgy (e.g. authorized to speak with the voice of Christ / alter Christus; anyone could pray devotions.   The "official" liturgy was in the "official" language, Latin; popular devotions were in the language of the populus, the people.   The official Liturgy was in the official books, fixed by Rome; devotions were in locally printed books, holy cards, etc.  They were not under "official control" and were not "fixed" as was the liturgy; anyone could change or alter "devotional prayer."  (e.g. The Way of the Cross has no "fixed" words...  one simply needs to  "think about" the 14 stations / events and the person can use any words they want -- or no words at all.)

"A clue to understanding our insufficiency in this regard may be found in the relative absence of rubrics in the devotions; in practice they were controlled by few rules outside the comprehension and experience of the worshippers.  But contemporary reformers are still very dependent on the rubric--the law from outside--for their warrant and their sense of success." (Dehne, pp.339)

The Second Vatican Council and Popular Devotions

When the fathers of the Second Vatican Council set out to improve the liturgy -- if the liturgy was for God, what would God prefer?  Does God like organ music more than guitar music?  Does God want 6 candles or 2 candles?   The Bible is not real clear on these points!   (In fact, the Bible frequently shows God "displeased" by liturgy -- holocausts and sacrifices --  and would pre3fer a clean heart and compassionate action!)   The solution is found in 1 Thess. 4:3.  The "liturgy" that God likes best is the one which makes us holy! 

This insight breaks the sharp distinction between liturgy and devotions.  The liturgy itself is to be devotional, sanctifying, inspirational, etc.  The liturgy itself is to be accessible to the people and they are to actively participate in it.  This implied a change in language and an openness to the vernacular. 

Once both the liturgy and devotions are in the same language, the distinction between the two is less clear.

In 1960 one was deputed for the liturgy by ordination or by religious vows.  (For example, in 1958, if my mother said morning prayer from the breviary with me, I -- a vowed religious -- would be performing a liturgical rite, while my mother would be performing a devotional prayer).   After the Council, it was understood that one is "deputed" for liturgy by baptism.   The entire congregation prays with the voice of Christ.

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.  (Constitution on the Liturgy, 14)

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What role is left for devotions?  Is there any?  Did the Council "do away with" popular devotions?  (It is a fact that the years immediately following the Council saw a sharp decline in the practice of Catholic devotions.)

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.  Devotions proper to individual 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 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.   (Constitution on the Liturgy, 14)

On the other hand, the liturgy can learn from the devotional quality of devotional prayer. 

The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful ...  should take part in the sacred action  ... with devotion.  (Constitution on the Liturgy, 48)

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After the Council

In the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, some people thought that  "devotional prayer" did not have the same prominence in Catholic life as it did during the years before the Second Vatican Council.   Some people thought that was a good thing while others lament the fact.  I have often heard Catholics say that the Second Vatican Council discouraged popular devotions in favor of liturgical prayer.  Today, on the other hand, in some quarters of the Church there is a great resurgence of popular devotions.  This movement seems especially strong among the young.  This trend seems to be encouraged by the magisterium. 

Note the following paragraph from report on the Apostolic Visitation of the American Seminaries and houses of priestly formation, December 15, 2008,  by the Congregation for Catholic Education, (Prot N. 1009/2002):

It is profoundly regrettable that many seminaries do not include traditional acts of piety in their horarium.  Many make the excuse that they prefer to leave such acts of piety to the free choice of the students.  Some institutes even have an atmosphere that discourages traditional acts of Catholic piety -- which begs the question as to whether the faculty's ideas of spirituality are consonant with Church teaching and tradition.  Unless a great many seminaries introduce regular recitation of the rosary, novenas, litanies, Stations of the Cross, and so on, the seminarians will lack an education in the sacramentals and will be unprepared for ministry in the Church, which greatly treasures these practices.

It was about this time that many devotional practices were added to the horarium of Saint Meinrad Seminary. 

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Ministerial Balance  In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the church experienced a shift in the balance between popular devotions and liturgical rites.  As the liturgy was now in a language that people could understand, the liturgy itself became more popular and devotional. 

The change in the rules for fasting before Communion allowed for the possibility to celebrate the Eucharist in the afternoon and evening.  (Formerly afternoon and evening masses were, while not prohibited, were in reality prohibited because of the rule that the priest could not eat or drink anything --even a drop of water -- from the proceeding Midnight. 

For example, in the 1940s, my mother went to Mass every morning.  Dad could not go because he had already left for work.  However, each Tuesday evening, we went to St. Anthony Devotions at 7 pm in the Parish Church.  After the council, the St. Anthony Devotions and benediction were replaced by the celebration of the Eucharist followed by a prayer to St. Anthony and a blessing with the relic. 

In recent years, the decreasing number of ordained ministers has also played a role in the balance of devotions and liturgical prayer.  When I was ordained in 1966, priests had the "privilege" of celebrating 3 masses on Christmas and All Souls Day.  Today, 50 years later, celebrating 3 masses is often a pastoral necessity; it is not exceptional to celebrate 5 masses on a weekend.  And formerly I could say mass in Latin in 15 minutes.  Today, the weekend celebration is usually an hour.  And after 5 hours of Liturgy plus the time spent before and after the masses does not leave much emotional energy for "devotional prayer".  Rather the Eucharist itself has become my devotion. 

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Devotional Prayer & Liturgical Prayer Compared

It has become common terminology to compare "monastic" and "cathedral" styles of liturgy however these terms may be confusing.  In this context, "monastic" refers not simply to monks but to all religious professionals.  "Religious professionals are people with extreme familiarity with the religious sector of life, in whom a state of preparedness for worship (something like a state of recollection) can be assumed.  Monastic worshippers in this sense would include in addition to monks and nuns: clergy; directors of liturgy, church music, and religious education; campus ministers and their devotees." (Dehne, pp.334)

In this context, "Cathedral" does not refer to the high church, solemn liturgies of a bishop and his court, but rather the liturgy of the common people--the non-religious professionals. 


Comparison of Monastic and Popular Worship

The root source for this table is Carl Dehne, S.J., "Devotions, Popular" in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Peter Fink, editor) Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990, p 334.

(Prayer of the religious professionals = liturgy)

(Prayer of the "non-professionals" = popular prayer)

Give ecclesial identity [Lex Orandi]. Text usually long, 94% from Scripture

Personal devotion [not ecclesial identity]; Text relatively brief, little scripture

Thematically diffuse [e.g. Mass with three readings, psalm, eucharist etc.]

One obvious theme [e.g. Devotion to St. Anthony]

Trinitarian: to God through Christ in the Spirit

Christocentric / staurocentric. Often addressed to a saint.

Move in a straight line:  [e.g. Gathering, Story Telling, Meal Sharing, Commissioning.]

Move in a spiral: [e.g. passo of the suffering Christ, passo of the Virgin, of Christ, of Virgin, of Virgin, of Christ, etc.]

transcendent / eternal [e.g. Do this in memory of me.]

specific, transient [e.g. for rain, now!]

Full of variety: Lectionary, Sacramentary, 4 vols of Hours books etc.

Much repetition: One card with prayers used every Tuesday throughout the year.

inner intensity

external exuberance

motionlessness, closed eyes, posture of repose

motion, open eyes, open mouths, open arms, movement, kneeling, standing, processions


In the Gospels we often find Jesus challenging the status quo. Devotional prayer rarely challenges the status quo.

"Instruction (in the crude sense of the transmission of data) and motivation (in the sense of an efficient goad to some particular behavior) are not prominent features of the devotions." (Dehne, pp.340)

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Popular?  Un-Popular?

The term "Popular Devotions" raises yet another problem: what does the word "popular" mean?  Are these devotions popular in the ordinary sense of this word -- something people like, for example popular music, popular TV program.  or does "popular" in this context mean "of the people".  Both of these possible meanings raise further questions.

Popular: "something people like"  The Rosary, Benediction, the Way of the Cross -- we would ordinarily refer to these as popular devotions.  But how popular are they?   The study released July 18, 2011 by CARA "The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes" indicates that 38% of registered parishioners attend Mass on a typical weekend.  According to many standards this would indicate that even the Eucharist is not a very "popular" devotion. 

Popular: "of the people"   The distinction could be made between prayers and rites that come from the piety of the "ordinary" people and prayers and rites that are formulated and designed by "religious professionals" and then "given" to the "ordinary" people.   But this distinction also has it's difficulties.  Much of what we now consider "liturgy" found its origin in popular devotion -- e.g. the veneration of the cross on Good Friday; the "offertory procession," etc. 

It is true, however, that today our official Liturgical Rites have been formed more by "religious professionals" than by the devotional piety of the laity.  For example the 2011 ICEL translations of the Missale Romanum were the work of "professionals" -- they did not come from the people (or even from the bishops!).   Some will find these changes "popular" -- but it already seems that they will be "un-popular" for many Catholics (even among the religious professionals). 

But, in any case, historically the line between what has been handed down by the official Church and what has been "handed up" by the piety of the people is not a line fixed in stone.  It is a very "fluid" border.

The understanding of "popular" in the sense of "coming from the people" leads us to two further considerations: the cultural context of these people, and the generational differences between people of the same culture.

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Cultural Context

Devotional prayer is always related to a specific cultural context.

It is easy to see that these three artistic representations of the crucifixion came from artists living in three different religious/cultural contexts.   (Note that the reforms of Trent were not applied in Spain.  This has a major impact on devotions in the countries of the Americas that were colonized by Spain.)

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Generational Differences

Generational Differences will play an important (and often unseen and unsuspected) role in our course of studies and our discussions during this semester.  There is a different attitude toward devotions depending on when (and where) you were born!  See Chapter d38 Evangelization and Catechetics -- Generational Differences   

These "inborn contextual differences" point up the importance of the subconscious in understanding liturgy and devotions as "primary theology."  See Chapter d41 Liturgy and Psychology -- The Iceberg Metaphor 

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Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples

37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples' way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

38. Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics.

39. Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.

40. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties. Wherefore:

1) The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.

2) To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.

3) Because liturgical laws often involve special difficulties with respect to adaptation, particularly in mission lands, men who are experts in these matters must be employed to formulate them.

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Catechism of the Catholic Church 

LITURGICAL DIVERSITY AND THE UNITY OF THE MYSTERY:  Liturgical traditions and the catholicity of the Church

1200 From the first community of Jerusalem until the parousia, it is the same Paschal mystery that the Churches of God, faithful to the apostolic faith, celebrate in every place. the mystery celebrated in the liturgy is one, but the forms of its celebration are diverse.

1201 The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition. the history of the blossoming and development of these rites witnesses to a remarkable complementarity.  When the Churches lived their respective liturgical traditions in the communion of the faith and the sacraments of the faith, they enriched one another and grew in fidelity to Tradition and to the common mission of the whole Church.

1202 The diverse liturgical traditions have arisen by very reason of the Church's mission. Churches of the same geographical and cultural area came to celebrate the mystery of Christ through particular expressions characterized by the culture: in the tradition of the "deposit of faith," in liturgical symbolism, in the organization of fraternal communion, in the theological understanding of the mysteries, and in various forms of holiness. Through the liturgical life of a local church, Christ, the light and salvation of all peoples, is made manifest to the particular people and culture to which that Church is sent and in which she is rooted. the Church is catholic, capable of integrating into her unity, while purifying them, all the authentic riches of cultures.

1203 The liturgical traditions or rites presently in use in the Church are the Latin (principally the Roman rite, but also the rites of certain local churches, such as the Ambrosian rite, or those of certain religious orders) and the Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean rites. In "faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully recognized rites to be of equal right and dignity, and that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way."

Liturgy and culture

1204 The celebration of the liturgy, therefore, should correspond to the genius and culture of the different peoples. In order that the mystery of Christ be "made known to all the nations . . . to bring about the obedience of faith," it must be proclaimed, celebrated, and lived in all cultures in such a way that they themselves are not abolished by it, but redeemed and fulfilled: It is with and through their own human culture, assumed and transfigured by Christ, that the multitude of God's children has access to the Father, in order to glorify him in the one Spirit.

1205 "In the liturgy, above all that of the sacraments,
there is an immutable part, a part that is divinely instituted and of which the Church is the guardian, and parts that can be changed, which the Church has the power and on occasion also the duty to adapt to the cultures of recently evangelized peoples."

1206 "Liturgical diversity can be a source of enrichment, but it can also provoke tensions, mutual misunderstandings, and even schisms. In this matter it is clear that diversity must not damage unity. It must express only fidelity to the common faith, to the sacramental signs that the Church has received from Christ, and to hierarchical communion. Cultural adaptation also requires a conversion of heart and even, where necessary, a breaking with ancestral customs incompatible with the Catholic faith."

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The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline for the Sacraments, (December, 2001)

23.  Until the second century, expressions of popular piety, whether deriving from Jewish, Greco-Roman or other cultures, spontaneously came together in the Liturgy. It has already been noted, for example, that the Traditio Apostolica contains elements deriving from popular sources.

43. The Catholic Reform strengthened the structure and unity of the Roman Rite. Given the notable missionary expansion of the eighteenth century, the Reform spread its proper Liturgy and organizational structure among the peoples to whom the Gospel message was preached.

In the missionary territories of the eighteenth century, the relationship between Liturgy and popular piety was framed in terms similar to, but more accentuated than, those already seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:

  • the Liturgy retained a Roman character and hence remained, at least partially, extraneous to autochthonous [Indigenous] culture. The question of inculturation was practically never raised, partly because of the fear of negative consequence for the faith. In this respect, however, mention must be made of the efforts of Matteo Rici in relation to the question of the Chinese rites, and those of Roberto de' Nobili on the question of the Indian rites;

  • popular piety, on the one hand, was subject to the danger of religious syncretism, especially where evangelization was not deeply rooted; while on the other, it became more autonomous and mature: it was not limited to reproducing the pious practices promoted by the missionaries, rather it created other forms of pious exercises that reflected the character of the local culture.

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Private Devotions / Communal Devotions

Though some devotions are by their nature either for public and communal use or for private and individual use most of them may be observed either by individuals or groups."  (Dehne, pp. 332)

Liturgy is always "communal"

Note that while devotions can be performed alone or in a group, the liturgy is always communal.

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.  Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.

27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.  This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.  (Constitution on the Liturgy, 26-27)

Personal / Private

The communal nature of the liturgy does not imply that the liturgy is not "personal" because it is not "private".  See:   Chapter d38 Evangelization and Catechetics, Personal / Private    Every liturgical prayer, every liturgical celebration, every sacrament,  is always both personal and communal -- never private or individual. 
In the document  Environment and Art in Catholic Worship published by the [now] USCCB, we are reminded that liturgy is always a communal, personal act:

A culture which is oriented to efficiency and production has made us insensitive to the symbolic function of persons and things. Also, the same cultural emphasis on individuality and competition has made it more difficult for us to appreciate the liturgy as a personal-communal experience. As a consequence, we tend to identify anything private and individual as "personal." But, by inference, anything communal and social is considered impersonal. For the sake of good liturgy, this misconception must be changed. (USCCB, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, #16.  Emphasis added.) 

In our American Culture we think
Personal = Private Communal = Impersonal
Therefore:  Personal Prayer is Private: Liturgical Prayer is Impersonal
But in reality:   Liturgy is both Personal and Communal

Private Devotions

In what sense are devotions "private"?  Does the longing for private devotions relate to the longing for the transcendent which is often, in today's American culture, a privatized search for transcendence?  This sometimes finds expression in the traditional Tridentine Mass.  As one person said "we do not turn to shake hands with our neighbors, we concentrate on God above."  (see Gaillardetz in Worship 68:5, page 403 ff.)

Gaillardetz continues:  "I suspect that many of the strongest advocates for a return to the Tridentine rite are not those who have significant memories of the Latin Mass but those who project their private yearnings for the experience of the supernatural on a liturgical rite that, in its North American historical context, was communal precisely because it was celebrated by ethnically defined immigrant churches who maintained a communal sensibility in other ways."  (p 406 ff.)

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Criteria for Evaluating Popular Devotions

While the Constitution on the Liturgy devotes only one article to popular devotions (Art. #13) the article does contain some criteria for evaluating popular devotions:

1.  Devotions are to be in accord with the laws and norms of the Church
2.  Devotions are to be in harmony with the liturgical year
3.  Devotions are to be in harmony with the liturgy
4.  Devotions are in some way to be derived from the liturgy
5.  Devotions are to lead us to the liturgy

The paragraph in full reads as follows:

13. 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.

Devotions proper to individual 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 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.

Pope Paul VI gives some criteria for evaluating devotions to Mary in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus:  The Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (February 2, 1974)  Text available in English on the Vatican web site.   His five principles are:

Principle 1.  PRIMACY OF CHRIST. 
Principle 2.  BIBLICALLY BASED. 
Principle 3.  LITURGICAL YEAR. 

For more information, see Chapter m63 Marian Devotions of my notes, Marialis Cultus.  These "principles" can be applied to other devotions also.  During this semester I hope that we can develop a fuller set of criteria for evaluating popular devotions. 

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy gives the following guidelines:   

12. The optional nature of pious exercises should in no way be taken to imply an under estimation or even disrespect for such practices. The way forward in this area requires a correct and wise appreciation of the many riches of popular piety, of the potentiality of these same riches and of the commitment to the Christian life which they inspire.

The Gospel is the measure against which all expressions of Christian piety - both old and new - must be measured. The task of evaluating devotional exercises and practices, and of purifying them when necessary, must be conducted against this criterion so as to ensure their proper relationship with the Christian mystery. What is said of the Christian Liturgy is also true of popular piety: "it may never incorporate rites permeated by magic, superstition, animism, vendettas or sexual connotations"(17).

Hence, the liturgical renewal willed by the Second Vatican Council must also inspire a correct evaluation and renewal of pious exercises and devotional practices. Popular piety should be permeated by:

1.  a biblical spirit, since it is impossible to imagine a Christian prayer without direct or indirect reference to Sacred Scripture;

2.  a liturgical spirit if it is to dispose properly for or echo the mysteries celebrated in the liturgical actions;

3.  an ecumenical spirit, in consideration of the sensibilities and traditions of other Christians without, however, being restricted by inappropriate inhibitions;

4.  an anthropological spirit which both conserves symbols and expressions of importance or significance for a given nation while eschewing senseless archaicisms, and which strives to dialogue in terms redolent with contemporary sensibility.

5.  To be successful, such a renewal must be imbued with a pedagogical awareness and realized gradually, always taking into consideration time and particular circumstances.

The Gospel itself gives what is perhaps the "ultimate" criterion for evaluating devotions (or liturgy, or any type of prayer)"  Does it ultimately lead to compassionate action? 

Matthew 25:31-36 (NRSV)   "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'"

Matthew 7:21 (NRSV)  "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

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Have Devotions Decreased Following the Second Vatican Council?

Opinion is divided on this issue, however the majority of Catholics that devotions (and in particular, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary) has diminished.  Why?  Good question!

1)  Liturgical prayer is now more accessible

Before the liturgical reforms of the second Vatican Council the liturgy was directed primarily to God.  It's accessibility to the faithful was not really considered of prime importance.  For example the liturgy was performed in a language most of the faithful did not understand.  This was an obstacle (for some) to participation.  As a consequence of the inaccessibility of the liturgy people turned to devotional prayer, which was accessible as it was in their language. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stressed the active participation of all the faithful.  This was brought about by change in language and ceremonies that were more understandable and accessible. Consequently in many instances liturgical prayer has replaced devotional prayer.  For example, whereas formerly we might say the rosary, out loud, collectively, during Mass, now we attend to the words of the readings, the homily, the prayers.  In one sense this is a diminution of devotion to the Blessed Mother, but, hopefully the result is not negative with regard to Christian spirituality. 

2) Catholics have started reading the Bible

The revision of the liturgical year and the encouragement of the Vatican Council to promote a love for Sacred Scripture has opened many new avenues of devotional prayer for the faithful:  Bible study groups, meditation on the Bible, Lectio Divina, etc. 

3)  Discovery of new devotions

As devotions spring from the people, devotional prayer is continually evolving.  Today there are many devotions available that we did not know of 50 years ago:  Centering prayer, faith sharing, the Emmaus walk, marriage encounter, Christ renews his parish,... 

4) Changes in Christology

Increased Bible reading has led to a deeper appreciation of the humanity of Jesus.  This has enabled him to return to his position as mediator between God and man-- a role that was often filled by the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints when the divinity of Jesus was emphasized to the diminution of his humanity. 

5) Postmodernism

Cultural changes in the United States also play a role in devotional prayer.  In a postmodern society more "rational" forms of spirituality are often preferred (for example, faith sharing).  Some sociologists would consider certain devotions that were formerly very popular to be considered "superstitious" today. [This would make a good topic for discussion.]  Is it better to say the prayers for rotation day for a good harvest, or to use scientific methods fertilize the field?  Or perhaps both?  One might question the promises of the first Fridays, the green scapular, burying a St. Joseph statue, etc.  Are other cultures more attached to devotional prayer because they still live in an age of superstition?  [This would make a good topic for discussion.] 

6) Anglo paternal culture vs. cultures that are more maternal

As Anglo society becomes more patriarchal, one might imagine that devotion to Mary would decrease; whereas in a matriarchal society such devotion would increase.  This is perhaps one of the key differences between a Hispanic culture (and other more maternalistic cultures) and our Anglo culture in the United States.  For reasons I do not completely understand--some say it is in reaction to the machismo of the Arab conquest of Spain--Hispanic culture, particularly in the United States, is much more maternal than Anglo culture.  One turns to mother to find the norm.  These cultures would maximize devotion to Mary (Mother of the Church, Mediatrix of all Graces, etc.)   It has been suggested that Catholic devotion to Mary in the USA has decreased because of fear of offending Protestants.  Admittedly, Pope Paul VI, has named ecumenical sensitivity as one of the criteria for judging popular devotions, it has been my experience that Catholics are seldom influenced in their devotions by "what Protestants might think." 

7)  Feminism and our image of God

For those who see God as beyond gender distinctions, Mary no longer needs to play the role of the "feminine face of God" and can take her rightful place as "the first of the disciples".  Mary our mother is balanced with Mary our sister.

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Why are these things important?

"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  The goal of human existence is to become great lovers -- to become compassionate people -- so as to be absorbed into Trinitarian Love: divinization, theosis. Devotions, like everything else, must be evaluated in this context: do they help us love.

The sacrament of marriage is indeed a sacrament, a visible sign, of who God is and how God loves us. When we see how husbands and wives love one another, we find a large diversity in the way this love is expressed. There are cultural diversities, of course, but even within a single culture there are many different ways of expressing love and these ways very from couple to couple. Standing on the outside and evaluating these various lovemaking techniques one should employ a certain amount of caution in evaluating what techniques are good and which are poor. However at the same time, there are practices which went evaluated objectively, are not helpful to the growth of the couple's love.

The same could be said with regard to devotions. And because it needed to be said, Pope Paul VI wrote Marialis Cultus. The criteria that he lists are not new, but simply a clear statement of traditional teaching.

1. There are devotions which do not meet the criteria listed. For example devotion to Mary as the divine goddess.

2. It is not necessary that every devotion be approved by the Church. But on the other hand, when the Church finds something objectionable in a devotion this fact must be taken seriously by the devotees. E.g. those who are sincere devotees to Our Lady of the Roses

3. Even good devotions can be misused. They can be performed out of routine without due thought. But more importantly they can be performed for the wrong reason. Devotions should not be based on superstition or magic.

4. Returning to the model of married love, would you not think it strange if a husband or wife said to the other: "If you buy me this house, and this car, and provide me with $1000 a week, I will love you forever and never divorce you; and you can live however you want, and do what ever you please." You would also find it strange if someone practiced a particular devotion simply because of the "promise" attached to it and then lived with complete disregard for the commandment of love. E.g. "Whoever shall have a true devotion for the Rosary shall not die without the Sacraments of the Church." "I promise to help at the hour of death, with the graces needed for salvation, whoever keeps the First Saturday of five consecutive months."

Similar things could be said regarding, for example, devotion to St. Christopher. It is a praiseworthy custom to begin a journey with a prayer. However, a prayer to St. Christopher (and perhaps even placing a statue in his honor on the dashboard of your car) does not protect against accidents when the driver has no regard for safety.

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To Think About

Should we spend our ministerial efforts encouraging devotions or making the liturgy more devotional?  What do you think?

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. 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 02/17/14 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at