Popular devotion and its place in Catholic faith tradition


By Corinne Winter

This Friday is the first Friday of the month of August. That thought brings to mind the First Friday devotions that were extremely popular when I was in grade school.

Nearly every student in our Catholic grade school along with many of our parents, grandparents, and Catholic friends made a special effort to receive Communion on First Friday, having prepared for that by going to confession as close to the day as possible. It was a day devoted to the Sacred Heart and associated with prayer for a happy death. 

This article is not intended to be a reflection on that devotion as such but on the whole realm of popular devotion and its place within Catholic faith tradition. While a significant number of people continue to pay special attention to First Fridays, to pray the rosary, to make novenas, and to include other formal prayers and rituals besides the liturgy at regular times, others find those ways of prayer less meaningful. 

The Second Vatican Council called us to a spiritual renewal marked by the centrality of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. More regular and thoughtful reading and discussion of Scripture was also vital. In pursuit of that renewal, some Catholics concluded that other devotions had played too large a role in their spiritual lives and set those devotions aside in order to pay more attention to participating well in the Mass and to studying the Scriptures both individually and in small groups. Others sought ecumenical prayer experiences which also stressed Scripture and downplayed the saints and the symbolism that are part of many traditional Catholic devotions.


In recent decades, we have seen various movements to retrieve traditional devotions. Some of those efforts are connected with particular causes (for example praying the Rosary for Life) and some are motivated by a desire for traditions or for ways of praying more publically and resoundingly in larger groups.  This past June, for example, a number of parishes and dioceses celebrated Corpus Christi processions as a means of giving public witness to the Eucharist and its meaning for Catholics.

Theologians have also stressed the importance of “popular religion” as an expression of the integration of Catholic faith into daily life experience in diverse cultural contexts. Processions, litanies and celebrations of popular feasts often allow for incorporation of locally important symbols that do not have a place in the Mass or other sacramental celebrations. Stations of the Cross might include stops at places associated with contemporary suffering of members of Christ’s body such as the site of a local tragedy. A statue of Mary might be crowned with local flowers, dressed as the people dress for important days, or led through the streets by children carrying items of local value.  A feast day celebration might include fireworks, energetic dancing or special foods.

Do these celebrations obscure the centrality of the Scripture and the sacraments?  We have a choice about that. The principles articulated at Vatican II and by popes in the times since the council are that devotions to the saints must always lead us to God revealed in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and all forms of prayer must lead us to the sacraments, especially to the Eucharist. They cannot be considered substitutes for liturgical prayer. By causing us to reflect on the importance of our faith, or on models of holiness provided with the saints we are celebrating, these devotions can, in fact, lead us to be more attentive to the Eucharist and other sacraments as well.

Many popular devotions were associated with particular intentions.  First Friday devotions, for example, were associated with prayer for the grace of a “happy death.”

Again, prayer of intercession is an important part of our faith tradition. We must speak carefully about the role of the saints in the process of asking for and receiving blessings. One sometimes sees in the newspaper brief ads thanking St. Jude, for example, for granting a request.

Of course, we know that God is the one who grants all blessings; we see the saints as intercessors who pray with us. We need to make that clear in the way we speak. Further, we must be careful not to speak of any devotions as though they carried “guarantees.” I have spoken with more than one young person who has expressed doubts about God because they prayed and still lost a family member or friend to illness. Somehow, they had integrated a false expectation.

Finally, we must recognize that although many particular devotions are approved and recognized as valid expressions of Catholic faith, they are not required of all Catholics. Any prayer practice that is truly leading me to greater faith will lead me as well to recognize the legitimate diversity of ways in which Catholics maintain their faith relationship with God and their dedication to the Church.

(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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