Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Roman Catholic Devotions
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Aug. 20, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
In December of 2001 the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines. The very first sentence of this rather lengthy document describes its purpose: “to draw attention to the need to ensure that other forms of piety among the Christian people are not overlooked, nor their useful contribution to living in unity with Christ, in the Church, be forgotten.” In light of the appearance (largely unnoticed) of this document, I thought it might be of interest to dedicate a brief series of articles to the topic of devotions in the Church; their history, their current status, their value to individuals and to the Christian community, and their relationship to the Church’s liturgy.
Devotions, simply put, are those forms of prayer, whether communal or private, that are not included in the Church’s official liturgical books. Devotions are not as popular today as they were a few decades ago, for reasons that we will describe in a later reflection, but perhaps it would be useful to review what a parish’s devotional life looked like as recently as the second quarter of the twentieth century – in those decades prior to Vatican II (although many devotions were losing their popularity well before the Second Vatican Council began).
In America, devotion to Christ present in the reserved Sacrament was ordinarily given priority. In fact, other devotions, whether directed to the Lord or to Mary or the saints, were most likely celebrated in the context of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and most frequently these devotions concluded with Benediction – the blessing of the participants with the reserved Eucharistic bread.
Public worship in a typical parish in those days included Mass every morning, to which some devotional prayer might be added, some kind of devotional service on Sunday afternoons, and very frequently some devotion on a weekday evening. The Sunday afternoon service would typically include the rosary or a holy hour concluded with Benediction. In May and October there would be prayers to the Mother of God, in March to St. Joseph, and in June to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The weeknight service was often a novena, a prayer continued over nine days, focusing on a particular devotional theme. It was often the case that when one novena ended, another would begin the following week. The Stations of the Cross were prayed on the Fridays of Lent, and once a year a parish would keep Forty Hours’ Devotions, a three day period of prayer and reflection dedicated to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament.
This description of a parish’s weekly prayer life might seem unfamiliar to most contemporary Catholics, but until a few decades ago, devotional prayer was a typical, if not dominant, feature of a parish’s weekly life. Indeed, the signs of such personal piety, separate from the community’s official liturgical prayers, are to be found in antiquity among the first generations of Christians.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)