Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions

A surprising number of recent books and studies have suggested that young American Catholics are more likely than their immediate elders to gravitate toward traditional devotions. The reasons seem varied. Some surmise that younger Catholics, having grown up without being forced to participate in devotions, have no built-in reactions against them. Freer to embrace or ignore devotions, many choose to embrace them. Others see in this phenomenon a turn toward conservatism among younger Catholics. Still others posit that the characteristics of the devotional lifetactile, colorful, often exoticexert a particular influence on young Catholics seeking a greater sense of mystery in their lives.

For some older Catholics, the devotional life has never lost its appeal. Many fondly remember reciting the rosary with parents, attending special novena services (and singing special novena hymns) at their home parish, or receiving their first Miraculous Medal or scapular from a favorite aunt or uncle. Devotions can represent a powerful link to the Catholicism of one’s youth while continuing to nourish one’s faith as an adult. And while the Second Vatican Council reminded Catholics that all devotions remain subordinate to the liturgy, which by its very nature far surpasses any of them, it nonetheless warmly commended the special dignity of the devotional life. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 13).

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Still, for other Catholics the topic of devotions can provoke uncomfortable reactions. Some see devotions as inconsistent with a mature faith, antithetical to a contemporary understanding of religion, overly reliant on thingsbeads, medals, scapularsand even faintly superstitious. Devotions are to be avoided, not embraced, they say.

This variety of reactions raises some interesting questions. What do traditional devotions have to say to contemporary Catholics? How might a devotion that has seen its popularity wax and wane (and now wax again) speak to Catholics unfamiliar with its appeal? Can devotions that sometimes carry heavy theological and cultural baggage find a place in the post-Vatican II church? In short, what might devotions mean today?

To begin to explore these questions, America asked a number of Catholics, some in their 30’s or 40’s, to address this issue in a series for Lent and Easter. Each contributor was asked to write about a devotion that has proven especially meaningful in his or her life. Each was also asked to provide a brief historical sketch and to discuss what the devotion might mean to other Catholics in current times.

Over the next few weeks, our essayists will offer their thoughts on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, pilgrimages, the Angelus, litanies, the Miraculous Medal, novenas, the rosary, holy water, Our Lady of Guadalupe, first Fridays, lectio divina, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, relics, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Stations of the Cross. Obviously, this list of devotions is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it tries to encompass some devotions that may have fallen into desuetude, that may be ripe for a kind of renewal or that may be less well known or understood by some contemporary Catholics. Each of these traditional devotions, however, continues to exert a powerful and undeniable influence on our writers and, not incidentally, on a great many of the people of God.

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10 years 11 months ago
Less than a week after presenting a paper entitled “Pious Prints in Nineteenth-Century France: Radicalism Tamed/Orthodoxy Vulgarized,” at the annual College Art Association, I came upon America’s cover article, “Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions” (3/3). My research has led me to conclude that historically the taste for popular religious images, ones that simplify theology in graphic and emotionally appealing modalities, intensified for two reasons: they served to balance contemporaneous emphases on intellectual and insular theological systems (e.g., neo-Thomism) and theologies focused on the principles of social justice and a communal experience of church; the hierarchy actively encouraged their use. Reproduced in a small format, the images facilitate acts of private piety, promoting devotion by way of an intimate gaze and meditation. Apparently these familiar images satisfy a similar need today.

14 years 11 months ago
Surely, Father Martin knows that the Liturgy of the Hours is not a 'devotion' but rather THE [official] prayer of the Church. Hardly a 'devotion' to be equated with novenas or Stations of the Cross. If he doesn't know that, we (America included) are in bigger trouble than I thought.

14 years 11 months ago
Surely, Father Martin knows that the Liturgy of the Hours is not a 'devotion' but rather THE [official] prayer of the Church. Hardly a 'devotion' to be equated with novenas or Stations of the Cross. If he doesn't know that, we (America included) are in bigger trouble than I thought.

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