Our Devotion to Devotions: Catholic and Otherwise

April 07, 2009


VeronicaThe whole area of devotion has come alive again in Catholic circles, presenting something of a headache for liturgists and Vatican officials as well. This is leading to a reappraisal of any hard and fast differentiation between liturgy and devotions, with both coming to be seen more and more as intertwined in the horizons and practice of worship. The headache for liturgists is that they rightly have been stressing full, active and conscious participation in the liturgy as opposed to devotional actions in parallel with a remote priestly set of ritual actions and rites. Any return of pietistic and sentimental devotionalism signals a retreat from the vigour of the reformed liturgy. The same is felt in some Vatican circles, as seen in the document on the place of devotions in the liturgy, The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (December, 2001).

But devotions are on their way back, finding a place in the hearts of believers. This is not only because of the rise of a more Hispanic oriented church in North America or the devotional proclivities of Pope John Paul II and many of his admirers. Rather, we now have a new generation of young faithful who look upon the past dynamics as simply irrelevant. Their perspectives are different, fresh and enthusiastic. The power of the devotional world is opening up for them, just as it was imploding some decades ago. A good example is the Australian travels of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon in 2008. It did capture the imagination. These religious artifacts did galvanize communities young and old. They touched hearts and irradiated energy. The peregrinations of the Cross and Icon established a platform for other devotional exercises, such as the Way of the Cross and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. While there were still some sneezes due to lingering pre-Vatican II mustiness, there was, more importantly, a genuine reappraisal of these forms and a new appropriation of power and life from them.

San PabloBut there are two other reasons why devotions are always on the boil. One is that they have been used as a (deliberate?) strategy of the Catholic Church in many countries to supply religious rites and feed the religious imagination of the faithful fully knowing that there would never be enough priests to supply a regular feast of Sunday worship. The givens here of course are the reliance on a male, celibate clergy in full time pastoral work. The creation of fiestas and the dedication of communities and parishes to saints, along with the centrality of certain devotions across entire dioceses (e.g. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexican dioceses and Señor Cautivo in dioceses in Peru), was a strong and effective pastoral strategy in post-Trent evangelism. It meant, however, that the Sunday liturgy and most liturgical rites were secondary to the driving impulse of devotions, the implicit framework for taking up Christian communal life and belief. While the celebration of the liturgy was unattainable and impractical, the saints were always at hand!

Yet below this Catholic strand is a deeper trajectory of the human experience of time. Our Sunday liturgical practices are built upon the Jewish theological construct of a seven day week. The opening divine action in our current Scriptures is to establish this creation as a divine initiative. Yet many societies and cultures, both in the ancient past and the present, are not entirely wedded to this convenient fabrication.(1) Rather, they count the passage of time as the incessant passing of individual days ameliorated by seasonal festivals and well-timed interruptions of holidays and festal days. The creation and celebration of the designated festivities was and remains a political and social decision, serving to cement the cultural memory of the community. In terms of worship, this is the pattern of the “devotional” calendar: the devoted avidly anticipate and then celebrate the upcoming commemoration of the saint or anniversary that enlivens and informs their living faith.

the Agony in the GardenThere is, then, a tension in Catholic culture and church politics between the understanding of time through the lens of a seven day week, with the pivotal day dedicated to the resurrection, and the view of time as a continuous stream of days happily interrupted by state, church and family sanctioned holidays and festivals. If this is correct, then there will always be play between Sunday worship and devotional exercises, one that will be exacerbated as new measures of time take hold, already presaged in language such as “24/7,” where calculations of day and hour across the globe at any one moment replace the sense of the week as the primary temporal unit. Our devotion to devotions is far from over!

There are pastoral implications in all this. The first is that the movement towards devotions is in all of us. If my reading of the way we calculate time is correct, then as soon as we “stray” from the pattern of the seven-day calendar (i.e., the liturgical calendar) we move into a devotional space. Consequently, before we get too critical or too accommodating, we need to explore our own devotionality and that of our communities. We need to remain mindful that the devotionality of a feast often is a vehicle for its evangelical and discipleship power, such as the many practices around Christmas that signal the birth of Christ to the entire world, believers and non-believers alike.

Mater DolorosaA second is that devotions have a context in the culture and history of a people. When this context is removed, or the history made redundant, the particular devotions either readapt or atrophy. Devotions that are unable to readapt can lose their religious warmth and become overly political or ideological outworkings. The rosary is a good example of a devotion that has regenerated. Less able to diversify is the St. Blaise blessing of throats on Feb 3rd, a devotional practice that makes no sense once removed from the context of the northern hemisphere winter. At the extreme edges, some devotions simply wither, such as the vast medieval fascination with the Magi.

A third implication is that there is always a place for a healthy devotional regimen in the life of believers, parishes and even dioceses.  This includes the "play" between various partners in devotions: personal and local experiences, needs and events, the religious imagination of the culture, official documents, and various ebbs and flows in the devotional tides.  This range of factors and their inherent changeability means that the health of the devotions is best maintained through regular check-ups.

The touchstones for keeping a healthy devotional tension in the religious practices and imaginations of our communities are the scriptures, the sacraments and the teachings. Authentic devotional practices lead us back to these foundational elements of faith effectively galvinising disparate parts of our lives and our experiences into dialogue and prayer through the word of God, worship, and the truths of faith.

(1) I am particularly indebted to the second chapter of Stephen Miller's The Peculiar Life of Sundays (Harvard University Press, 2008) for sharpening my focus on this issue.

Photo credit: Vincent MB Pinpin

Gerard Moore is Associate Profession and Director of Research at Sydney College of Divinity, NSW, Australia and is the author of We Learn About Mass (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2009; ISBN 978-1-56854-759-6) (Español: Aprendemos sobre ISBN 978-1-56854-414-4); Understanding the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2007) ISBN 978-0809144525; and Why the Mass Matters (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006) ISBN 978-0019883094.


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