Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections

Whatever happened to Devotions?

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Sept. 10, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson We might remember that Pope John Paul II has added an additional five mysteries to the recitation of the rosary. Certainly this reflected the pope’s own devotion to the Mother of God, as well as his hope to foster the rosary as one of the Church’s most cherished devotional prayers. Most likely the rosary will never regain the popularity it enjoyed prior to the mid-20th century. In fact, it is unlikely that any devotional prayers will ever regain their former popularity. The reasons are many and complex.

An exceedingly simplistic explanation is to blame the demise of the popularity of devotional prayer in the Church on the spirit and reforms of Vatican II. But like a number of other changes that some casually attribute to Vatican II, the causes are to be found in earlier history. One likely cause is the breakup of the ethnic neighborhoods, where devotions favored by particular ethnic groups flourished since the days of the great immigrations into our country. Another cause was the invention of television, which began to captivate people on evenings that might otherwise include devotions at church and private prayer at home.

In a significant essay written in 1977, Jesuit Father Carl Dehne identified a number of other reasons for the near extinction of popular devotions, particularly those devotions that were celebrated in groups. Like ethnic neighborhoods, certain socioeconomic groupings have vanished, along with the devotional life associated with them and their parishes. As culture and living became more complex, there was more competition for leisure time. Father Dehne also explains that “since Vatican II the introduction into the Eucharistic liturgy of the vernacular language and light music with a high degree of vocal participation has removed part of the distinctive appeal of the devotions. The growth of the charismatic movement among Roman Catholics is probably in part a response to the need for warmth of expression and religious experience, which was formerly met almost exclusively through the popular devotions.”

The principal factor that the author identifies is that for several hundred years there has been in the Roman Catholic Church no popular theological reason for the celebration of any service except the Mass and the other sacraments. Devotional services were always seen by parishioners as second-best. The popular group devotions (recitation of the rosary, Stations of the Cross, novenas and holy hours) were almost exclusively celebrated only because it was impossible to celebrate Mass, since the rigorous Eucharistic fast and other reasons restricted the Mass to the morning hours. The permission to celebrate Mass in afternoons and evenings was to mark the virtual end of afternoon and evening devotions. Even where these devotions occasionally thrived, people often tried to link them with the Mass – a phenomenon that is contrary to the Church’s teaching about the integrity of the liturgy.

The Church’s liturgical rites and devotional prayers do not mix well, and a sincere attempt to commingle the two does serious harm to both. 

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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