Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Why do people need devotions?
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Oct. 1, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
A technical definition of devotions describes them as religious exercises, prayers, methods of meditation, rituals, gestures and orders of service whose texts and rules for performance are not contained in the official books of the Roman rite. Previous to Vatican II, devotions were sometimes combined with the Roman rite – for example, the prayers for the conversion of Russia that were said after each Mass – but the reforms of Vatican II reminded us that liturgical prayer and private and personal devotions, even if celebrated by a group, are quite distinct from the liturgy and inferior to the liturgy, and thus the two should never be combined.
Another definition of devotions says that they are the emotional component of the Christian consciousness, which is prompted by and tuned by one’s experience of Christian worship. This definition is in keeping with the Church’s teaching that devotional prayers and actions should be derived from the liturgy and lead one to the liturgy. Thus devotions serve to make up for what the official liturgical rites may not offer us. They compensate for a deficit in the ability of the official liturgy to engage the emotions of believers. Our Roman rite prayers tend to be concise, elegant, rational, utilitarian and restrained (witness the discomfort that some Catholics have with something like applause in church). Our official prayer texts do speak about religious emotions, but normally in a distant and abstract way, as a theological concept rather than as an actual experience. These are prayers of the head rather than of the heart. They do not express emotions well, and do not foster emotion well (compare, for example, the Litany of the Saints found in the liturgy of baptism with the classic and devotional Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Litany of the Sacred Heart).
Devotions can provide what liturgical prayer does not. Thus people, particularly in Europe, will applaud, wave, shout and whistle as the pope enters a church or an arena. Would that people would demonstrate the same level of devotional energy to the powerful symbolism in the person of their local bishop! Nothing is more exciting than a wondrous procession winding through the streets of a European or a Central or South American village on a feast of Mary or of some important saint. In our country, perhaps in part due to the Puritan restraint we may have inherited from our earliest American ancestors, as well as due to Americans’ discomfort with any public display of religion, we are not sure that we are comfortable even with something as sterile and religiously safe as a procession of cars to a cemetery. Such processions used to be dramatic and powerful expressions of a community’s devotion to the mysteries of death and hope in redemption and eternal life.
Whatever the current devotions in our parishes, or even in our personal lives, the ideal is that they be derived from the liturgy, which is, after all, the Church’s most perfect prayer. Thus devotions would have Scriptural texts and Biblical concepts as a major component, and they would focus on the same things as the liturgy: the Trinity, the paschal mystery, the Church’s sacramental life, and the lessons to be found in the lives of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Devotional prayer can lead us to a deeper awareness of these realities, and in turn can invite us even more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate in the liturgy.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)