Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Liturgy and popular piety
by Father Jan Larson
(From the April 16, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)
Liturgy is a word that is generally used to refer to the whole collection of rites that make up the Church’s official prayers. Thus, the Church’s liturgy includes all seven sacramental rituals, the rituals for Christian funerals, the prayers said throughout the course of each day, called the liturgy of the hours, and various blessings for persons and things.
Popular piety, most often called devotions, refers to those prayers and rituals that may well enjoy great popularity, but are not a part of the official liturgy of the Church. Popular piety would include devotions to Christ, to the mother of God and the saints, the recitation of the rosary, novenas, and various kinds of processions. Throughout history, devotional practices grew up alongside the liturgy, and devotional practices also may differ from nation to nation and from culture to culture.
In December of 2001 the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued what is called the “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines.” One of the purposes of this Directory is to describe the various devotions in Catholic life, to encourage them, and to offer practical guidelines so that devotions and the liturgy are kept appropriately distinct, and so that people will recognize that devotions should take their power from the liturgy, and lead people to the liturgy. In introducing the Directory, St. John Paul II said that “The correct relationship between these two expressions of faith must be based on certain firm principles, the first of which recognizes that the liturgy is the center of the Church’s life and cannot be substituted by, or placed on a par with, any other form of religious expression. Moreover, it is important to reaffirm that popular religiosity, even if not always evident, naturally culminates in the celebration of the liturgy towards which it should ideally be oriented. This should be made clear through suitable catechesis.”
In its earliest paragraphs, the Directory makes clear that the liturgy always enjoys primacy in the prayer life of the Church: “The faithful should be made conscious of the preeminence of the liturgy over any other possible form of legitimate Christian prayer. While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional. Such is clearly proven by the Church’s precept which obliges attendance at Sunday Mass. No such obligation, however, has obtained with regard to pious exercises, notwithstanding their worthiness or their widespread diffusion. Such, however, may be assumed as obligations by a community or by individual members of the faithful. The foregoing requires that the formation of priests and of the faithful give preeminence to liturgical prayer and to the liturgical year over any other form of devotion. However, this necessary preeminence is not to be interpreted in exclusive terms, nor in terms of opposition or marginalization.”
The Directory goes on to explain that devotions and liturgy constitute two different kinds of prayer, and that the two must always be kept distinct, keeping in mind that the liturgy always takes precedence in the life of any Catholic Christian community: “The formulas proper to pious exercises should not be commingled with the liturgical actions. Acts of devotion and piety are external to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and of the other sacraments. A superimposing of pious and devotional practices on the liturgy so as to differentiate their language, rhythm, course, and theological emphasis from those of the corresponding liturgical action, must be avoided, while any form of competition with or opposition to the liturgical actions, where such exists, must also be resolved. Thus, precedence must always be given to Sundays, Solemnities, and to the liturgical seasons and days.”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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