Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Devotions: positive and negative
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Oct. 22, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
When reading the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, as well as other official Vatican statements about Catholic devotions, one might be struck by the significance of two words: Biblical and commitment. The recent Directory, for example, stresses that devotions, such as the Stations of the Cross, or the rosary, or devotions to Mary or the saints, or Eucharistic devotions, should be grounded in the Scriptures: “The Gospel is the measure against which all expressions of Christian piety – both old and new – must be measured.” The Directory says that “popular piety should be permeated by a Biblical spirit, since it is impossible to imagine a Christian prayer without direct or indirect reference to sacred Scripture.”
Other positive elements of healthy devotions are listed as well. Devotions must have a liturgical spirit if they are to be properly derived from the liturgy and lead us to the liturgy. They must have an ecumenical spirit, in consideration of the traditions and sensibilities of other Christians who are not Catholic. Thus Pope Paul VI in 1974 taught that “it is the Catholic Church’s intention to carefully avoid any exaggeration that might lead other Christians to a mistaken idea about the Church’s genuine teaching.” There must also be an anthropological spirit, which can conserve symbols and expressions of importance for a given nation while avoiding senseless archaicisms while being respectful of contemporary sensibilities.
The document goes on to list several elements that are detrimental to good devotional prayer. These include lack of attention to the salvific significance of the Resurrection of Christ, lack of awareness of belonging to the Church, or of the person and action of the Holy Spirit. Devotions are also deficient if there is a disproportionate interest between the saints and the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ and his mysteries, when devotions are inadequately based in Scripture, and when devotions bring “isolation from the Church’s sacramental life, or a dichotomy between worship and the duties of Christian life...” Devotional prayer, simply put, should be prayers and rituals that are centered in the Church’s life – prayers and rituals that make sense, and that are truly joyful experiences. One is reminded of a quite famous Catholic who composed a personal devotional litany which included the petition, “From silly devotions and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!” (St. Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582).
Finally, there is that word commitment that is found in the Church’s teachings about devotions. Pope Paul VI reminded us that Vatican II reproved certain deviations in devotion, among them “a mindless credulity, that is, a concern for external ritual rather than for a serious religious commitment; sheer, passing feeling, utterly foreign to the spirit of the Gospel which requires an enduring and tireless commitment.” The Church’s most recent document on devotions speaks of the “many riches of popular piety, and of the potentiality of these same riches and of the commitment to the Christian life which they inspire.” In other words, devotional prayer, like liturgical prayer, ought to lead us more deeply into the demands of the Gospel – changing and shaping our attitudes and behavior. One contemporary theologian describes how this might happen, telling of a person who spends an hour of devotional prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, then realizing that he or she ought to then spend a corresponding hour volunteering in a soup kitchen, or involved in some other service ministry. There is an example of genuine transformation and commitment to the ethical demands of the Gospel.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)