What happened to popular devotions and piety? A Cardinal opines.

During the Year of Faith we should work to revive popular piety and communual devotions.

A friend in Rome, Fabricius Magnus, sent me the following:

Sandro Magister has an article related to the pope’s visit to Loreto and reports of a conference on popular piety of last sept. He quotes an excerpt from Cardinal Vegliò’s address.

I was unable to retrieve a full text as it would have been useful to put what he says in a more defined context and Magister’s transcript does not provide the necessary emphases and quotation marks that would help us with a better understanding of the sense of the spoken Italian. For instance, I don’t agree that popular piety is always “sentimental” and necessarily scarce of biblical grounding, but Card. Vegliò might have said those parts with a tone that clarified his disagreement as well.

Bottom line, it is a comforting speech to hear from a cardinal. At least they know what’s going on here, and they deign to say it in public more often, as of late. Hopefully the young guns will put the necessary measures into practice.

I agree.

We need a revival of popular (“for the people”) devotions.

Here is the translation my friend sent.

THE DECEPTION OF A “PURE” RELIGION by Card. Antonio Maria Vegliò

The negative evaluation of popular piety was influenced by causes both internal and external to the ecclesial ambit. Among the former there prevailed the existence of partial and selective post-conciliar readings of the conciliar texts as well as a partial and self-serving interpretation of their doctrine. Among the latter causes we must register the important influence exerted by the theories of secularization. The acceptance of the theology of secularization on behalf of many ecclesial circles implied contempt for a Christianity expressed by exterior forms of which popular piety is certainly the most obvious example.
It was considered to be a superficial Catholicism, separated from life and historical engagement.

One of the results of the Council was the definition of the Church as people of God, which encouraged the associations of lay people. In this context, small groups arose which considered themselves more engaged. These “Catholics of engagement” or “progressive Catholics” adopted an attitude of contraposition against those Christians who would participate in the expressions of popular piety, and considered them as simpletons, ritualists, incapable of adapting to the new times, and in need of purification.

At the same time, they accused popular piety of superstitious nuances, of having moved away from reality, of alienating itself from Christian commitment, of being incapable of forming militants and promoting evangelical attitudes fostering development and liberation.

One of the most evident outcomes of the Council was the liturgical reform. And yet the development of such process wasn’t always as appropriate as hoped for. In the first place, and as a fruit of the enthusiasm the Council generated within the Church, it was presumed to be possible to develop such a reform at dizzying speed, without sufficient time to assimilate the conciliar texts and their subsequent implementation by the universal Church. Besides, and in certain initiatives, the conciliar teachings were subjected to erroneous and self-serving interpretations.

In quite a few instances there was the promotion of an excessively pragmatic liturgy, in which pedagogical and didactic elements abounded, to the detriment of its mysterious character, which led to neglect of chant, silence and gestures.

One of the praiseworthy goals was to achieve a purified religious experience in internal motivations as well as the external forms. The problem arose in the concrete way of the development of all this. A “pure”, rootless and abstract religiosity was promoted, which supposed among other things the elimination of religious traditions that were associated with magic, utilitarian or superstitious traits.

The conciliar assertion of the centrality of liturgy and the Eucharistic celebration led quite a few shepherds to suppress many popular practices on grounds that popular piety manifests itself, in various circumstances, under different forms from those envisioned by the official liturgical texts.  [An American bishop even went so far as to ban Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.]

The reform stressed the greater importance Sacred Scripture had to have in the liturgical celebration. As a consequence, there was a negative evaluation of the scarce biblical presence in popular manifestations, many of which are poor in theology and biblical citations but rich in sentimentalism.

The promulgation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963 coincided with one the moments when the movement towards secularization had greater strength, and this influenced the application of the conciliar reforms. In such context, the liturgy was given an obvious temporal task, with the acquisition of a prophetic tone, the denunciation of social situations of sin and the call to engagement. Thus, popular piety was judged in a negative way, and charged with anesthetic effects in relation to social problems.

All these elements, which somehow made themselves present during the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy, translated into the indiscriminate and arbitrary suppression of numerous practices of popular piety. In this context, the words pronounced by Paul VI in 1973 during a public audience are eloquent:

“Authoritative voices recommend to us great caution with regard to the process of reform of traditional popular religious customs; to guard against extinguishing religious sentiment in the course of giving it a new and more authentically spiritual expression. A sense for what is true, beautiful, simple, a sense of the community, and also of tradition – where deserving of respect – must preside over the outward manifestations of worship, with a view to preserving the affection of the people for them”.

These popular devotions were and are still important.  By eliminating them, we amputated an important dimension of our Catholic identity.

Parish priests would do well to revive popular devotions.

For example, on Tuesdays at my home parish back in my native place, there was a public, communal recitation of the Novena of Our Lady of Perpetual Help by St. Alphonsus Liguori. The translation was thick with all the popular piety of Italians of St. Alphonsus day.  People loved.  After years they had it memorized.  The recitation of long prayers by an entire congregation has a powerful effect.  Following the Novena, there was Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.  While the Sacrament was exposed, the Litany of the Sacred Heart was recited.  And there’s more!  After Benediction, people would come forward and kneel at the rail and the priest, together with another of the priest or deacon of the parish, would give individual blessings.  When everyone was blessed, priests would get into the confessionals and hear confessions, which would last until at least 9:30 pm.

This was the stuff of comfort and of vocations.

It was regular.  People came from all over because they knew it was always going to take place.  The chapel was always full.

This is the sort of thing we need to revive in the Year of Faith.

And yet there was a rush to get rid of these devotions.  Then the parish guilds and associations died away.  People stopped thinking about their church as part of the rhythm of their week.  Devotions were repressed with real brutality.

When I was in seminary in Rome, one summer the rector made a tour of some American cities.  I had to be involved, of course.  I arranged for him to stay for a bit at my home parish.   He was there on a Tuesday and saw what happened in the evening.  He was shocked.  He railed against what was going on and ran it down in no uncertain terms.  He scoffed at the Novena, which he knew in Italian.  He was very superior and knowing.  He was almost angry about the individual blessings after Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.  Why should people want blessings?  Wasn’t Benediction enough?   I offered the explanation that the pastor had given me.  Many of the people who came each week knew they shouldn’t receive Communion because of the circumstances of their lives.  The chance to go forward to the Communion rail was a comfort to them. Devotions helped them remain connected to their Church and not let go.  The various things done each Tuesday reinforced each other rather than detract from each other.

We need more popular devotions.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    One of the more charming moments of St. Jerome’s writings is Against Vigilantius, where he goes completely nasty about people who dare to insult the devotions of the little old ladies of the Church. He was a cerebral scholar of the letter of the Word and it wasn’t his thing, but he didn’t despise popular vigils with lamps and candles, devotion to the saints, etc.

    “And if some persons, being ignorant and simple minded laymen, or, at all events, religious women— of whom we can truly say, “I allow that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2) — adopt the practice [of lighting tapers] in honour of the martyrs, what harm is thereby done to you? Once upon a time even the Apostles pleaded that the ointment was wasted, but they were rebuked by the voice of the Lord. Christ did not need the ointment, nor do martyrs need the light of tapers; and yet that woman poured out the ointment in honour of Christ, and her heart’s devotion was accepted. All those who light these tapers have their reward according to their faith, as the Apostle says: “Let every one abound in his own sense.” (Rom. 14:5)”

    Jerome’s general conclusion is that a person who dislikes popular devotion and wants everyone to worship only in his designated way is a person who wants everyone to worship him, and not God.

    Of course, this is often true only at the source, and such a person’s followers are those whom he has shamed and deceived into distrusting popular devotions as somehow hinky and anti-God. Unfortunately, this kind of zeal to get rid of devotion is very easy to inspire in people who are unsure of their own faith or how to live in the world, and who want to prove to God that they love Him.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I forgot to mention that St. Jerome mentions his own popular devotion:

    “I confess my own fear, for possibly it may be thought to spring from superstition. When I have been angry, or have had evil thoughts in my mind, or some phantom of the night has beguiled me, I do not dare to enter the basilicas of the martyrs, I shudder all over in body and soul. You may smile, perhaps, and deride this as on a level with the wild fancies of weak women. If it be so, I am not ashamed of having a faith like that of those who were the first to see the risen Lord; who were sent to the Apostles; who, in the person of the mother of our Lord and Saviour, were commended to the holy Apostles. Belch out your shame, if you will, with men of the world, I will fast with women….”

  3. Sixupman says:

    Of course the bishop who banned Exposition of The Blessed Sacrament, presumably on the basis that he did not wish to see his flock fall into idolatry, was and is in ‘Good Standing’!

  4. dominic1955 says:

    The people who denounced popular devotion after VII were the heirs of the Jansenists who pooh-poohed popular devotion to the saints in the time of St. Louis de Montfort and at the Pseudo-Synod of Pistoia as superstition and all that. Their problem was that they’d already lost the faith, no wonder they’d be “offended” at expressions of it. An intellectual can appreciate popular forms of devotion even if they might not be his cup of tea. An apostate in all but name cannot.

    Back then, the good folks of Pistoia marched up to Bishop Ricci’s cathedral, threw his cathedra out into the town square and torched it in response to his attempt to curb their religiosity into something of his own making. Too bad we didn’t have more responses like that to the iconoclasts of the past 50 years…

  5. rtjl says:

    This is one of those areas where the church was wiser before Vatican II than it was after Vatican II. Before Vatican II the church treated the Liturgy as a given, something that was was given by God and belonged to everyone: nobody was allowed to tamper with it. But she allowed people to give expression to to many valid spiritualities (and perhaps some not so valid) through a rich and varied devotional life. This devotional life gave people the outlet they needed for bringing creativity into the public expression of their faith. And then devotions were suppressed, ostensibly in order to emphasize the importance of the Liturgy in the minds of the faithful. With the suppression of devotions, it was almost inevitable that many people would end up seeking to make the Liturgy their outlet for creative expression. Besides the intrinsic value that devotions have in their own right, which is important, they also function as a safety valve to help keep the impulse for “creativity” out of the Liturgy.

  6. CatholicMD says:

    Dominic – I was thinking the exact same thing. The Liberals/Modernists seem to be a weird mixture of Jansenists and Gnostics.

  7. Clinton says:

    “The conciliar assertion of the centrality of liturgy and the Eucharistic celebration led
    quite a few shepherds to suppress many popular practices on the grounds that popular piety
    manifests itself, in various circumstances, under different forms from those envisioned by
    the official liturgical texts.

    I suspect that what galls some liturgical professionals is twofold: (1) the popularity of many
    devotions only underscores the tepid reception their own confections have met, and (2) the
    devotions are popular precisely because they have ‘always been done this way’ — and therefore
    are resistant to the tinkering of liturgists itching to ‘fix’ them.

    An anecdote to illustrate: in my college years I attended a parish run by a once-proud order,
    now sadly heterodox. The parish was well-off, and staffed by three priests, a DRE, a full-time
    liturgist, and at the time of my story a seminarian doing his diaconate year. Amazingly, the
    parish had long before stopped doing the Stations of the Cross during Lent. A group of us
    college kids decided that, rather than continuing to go to a downtown parish on Fridays
    in next year’s Lent, we’d revive Stations at our own parish. We told the priest of the downtown
    parish our plan, and he kindly gave us a copy of the booklet used for the Stations.

    Back at St. ____’s we approached one of the priests, told him our idea, and showed him the
    booklet. He sensibly advised us to go to the liturgist next and run it by her. He also told us
    he was familiar with that booklet and liked it very much, calling it “very scriptural”. He also
    told us that St. __’s used to use that very booklet, and a box full sat in the church’s basement.

    The liturgist was polite but hardly enthusiastic. She was dubious that anyone would come.
    But, since the church would already be open during the day, and we had plenty of the booklets,
    and the seminarian had volunteered to lead the Stations, all the practical ends were covered.
    She gave it the go-ahead, and when Lent approached announcements were made at Mass that
    we’d have Stations of the Cross again. My group would be responsible for setting up before
    and clearing up after, which was only fair.

    I don’t recall the attendance figures, but I recall that we were pleased with the turnout which
    increased a bit each Friday. That is, until about halfway through Lent, when folks arrived to
    find the booklets were gone and replaced by stapled mimeograph sheets– the liturgist had
    decided to ‘improve’ on the booklet’s 2 short scripture readings/litany/verse of the Stabat
    format with a ‘guided meditation’ of her own devising. The booklets, we were told,
    did not use inclusive language and so had been discarded. The ‘meditations’ were your typical
    psychobabble boilerplate– I do remember one Station had us express sorrow for beating our
    wives. Anyway, as you can imagine, attendance fell and the liturgist’s prediction that no one
    would come was vindicated by Good Friday.

    I haven’t set foot near St.___’s in years, but I checked the parish bulletin online– as far as I
    can tell, as of last year, they still don’t offer Stations during Lent.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Clinton — That is a scary, scary story.

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    That is an awful story, Clinton. What a terrible thing for that foolish (or worse) woman to do (why is it always the women who do this horrible stuff in the name of “inclusiveness” or whatever? I am embarrassed for my sex.)

  10. Former Altar Boy says:

    I was fortunate enough to be born in the pre-Vat2 Church and also to have parents who sacrificed to send six kids to Catholic school. Every school day began with Mass (the second of the day for our Sisters) and on Tuesdays weas followed by the Mother of Perpetual Help devotion. I was always surprised (even as a kid) how many women, mostly young mothers, came for the devotion (even if they didn’t make the morning Mass). I heard, back then (the Baby Boom era), that many were making a novena for the family to be able to buy their first home. I never understood why Vat2 meant an end to those devotions (not yet caring to learn what the Council said vice how it was “interpreted’) and the even the removal of the BVM’s icon.

  11. Therese says:

    “Many of the people who came each week knew they shouldn’t receive Communion because of the circumstances of their lives. The chance to go forward to the Communion rail was a comfort to them.”

    How compassionate! What a wonderful priest.

  12. Clinton says:

    Suburbanbanshee, I’d say that liturgist was precisely the type St. Jerome had in mind in
    your quote from Against Vigilantius. I recall her describing her disdain for devotions
    like novenas and stations. The gist of it was that they were childish/primitive and that what should be going on in a church was the Mass (“her Mass”) and anything less was a distraction,
    somehow a lessening of the Mass. I don’t think folks like her trust their liturgical confections
    to exert any sort of ‘gravitational pull’.

    It’s a crazy reasoning when you think about it. It’s as though someone were to say the highest
    expression of love in marriage is sex, therefore all lesser forms of love– telling one’s spouse
    “I love you”, remembering anniversaries, keeping her photo nearby– are childish and lesser
    and only obscure and distract from the marital act. I think it would be a cold and horrible
    parody of a marriage where the only expression of love permitted was sex.

    (Incidentally, some readers might take heart that the liturgist from my past had such a
    touching devotion to the Mass. I’m not so sure. I do recall coming into the sacristy after
    serving a Mass only to witness her ‘purifying’ a chalice by dumping the Precious Blood
    down the sink and washing the vessel precisely the way one would wash a coffee cup.
    AnAmericanMother, I suspect she was ‘worse’).

  13. LisaP. says:

    It’s part of the professionalization of America. It started awhile back, in order to do anything serious (practice medicine or law, construct a house) you have to have a government license and an educational certificate of some sort. Soon people started to adopt the idea that in hiring they needed people with credentials, and in more and more cases it was codified (teaching children, basic personal care like washing invalids). Pretty soon anyone who wanted to anything without a piece of paper from an institution, classroom, or government saying they were qualified and allowed to do it were suspect — that meant raising kids (the regs on day care workers are amazing, and I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve met who think their kids will be stunted for life if they don’t have a professional pre-school teacher help form their toddlers); taking sacraments (I’ve railed here before about sacramental prep and RCIA requirements); and obviously in this case, praying.

    The day we accepted the government telling us that we can’t build a shed bigger than 12 x 12 in our own back yard without a permit because we’d kill ourselves with our bad architecture; or that we had to send our kids to a public school for their education by age 7 because “this is a square, and this color is yellow” is too tough for parents to teach; or that our cat can’t be neutered by anyone without a veterinary license and the debt to prove it — that’s when we opened ourselves up to people telling us we need guidance — ministry — professionals to determine what our devotions would be, or whether they would be.

  14. JacobWall says:

    @suburbanbanshee – thank you for sharing the bit from St. Jerome!
    @dominic1955 – thank you for that bit of history; perhaps the best is still to come for us …
    @clinton – your story is saddening. It’s too bad the priest, who according to your story, apparently knew better, didn’t put his foot down

    It’s ironic that a movement that claimed to promote popular participation, worked so hard and methodically to snuff out the most living and thriving forms of popular participation. It’s also ironic that another part of this same movement, claiming to represent the “rights of women” worked so hard to destroy those devotions that (as per St. Jerome) were so feminine and dear to women. It’s ironic that a movement that claimed to be adding life to the Church worked so hard not only to put out the flames, but even to stomp out all the last glowing embers of life … (the list could go on.)

  15. JacobWall says:

    This may not be related, but I wanted to share it. Tonight I went to Mass, and when it was over, I lit a candle and said a prayer to St. Joseph (my family’s patron.) After, from my own candle, I re-lit all the candles that other devotees had lit during the day (there are lots of them here) and said a prayer for each unknown person as I re-lit them. Someone told me that their prayers will continue to rise as long as the candle is lit, so relighting the candles is a little help, almost like an extra little prayer, for the person who lit it in the first place. First time I did this.

  16. Clinton says:

    @JacobWall: the priest of St.__’s we spoke with wasn’t the pastor, so if he’d put his foot
    down he’d have been way out of line. I’ve always kept a high regard for him, he’s better
    than his order deserves.

    Another irony to add to your list, Mr. Wall, is that of a progressivism that pays such lip service
    to ‘diversity’ yet is so hot to eliminate any of the various venerable devotions brought to
    a parish by the Vietnamese, the Irish, the Italians, the Mexicans… It’s as though those
    liturgical professionals are some sort of crypto-Daleks. “E-lim-in-ate!”

  17. JacobWall says:

    @Clinton – thanks for the clarification. And yes, that’s a very good addition to that list of ironies!

  18. Pingback: Chapel Veil Guild Priestly Celibacy Popular Devotion Piety | Big Pulpit

  19. GOR says:

    Yes, I recall the days of popular devotions in Ireland – Men’s and Women’s Sodalities meeting monthly in the church, Sunday evening Rosary and Benediction, Exposition and Holy Hours, Annual Retreats for men and women, May Devotions, October Devotions, First Fridays, First Saturdays, Stations of the Cross, House blessings, pilgrimages to Knock, Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg, public processions, All Souls’ Day visits to the church, Mass Cards, Month’s mind Masses, Making the Sign of the Cross and doffing hats when passing a church or cemetery, etc. etc.

    Then it all changed – abruptly, it seemed. These were un-liturgical, superstitious, the stuff of simple ‘unlearned faith’. The ‘liturgical experts’ ran rampant and had many eager followers. There was a sense of “What just happened?” and “Where did it all go?”

    And the results are plain to see in loss of faith and empty churches. What persecutions could not achieve, was achieved from within. Our enemies were truly “of our own house”. But “porta inferi non prevalebunt” and we will come back – stronger than ever.

  20. AnAmericanMother says:

    You may be o.k. with having a shade tree mechanic neuter your cat, but I’m not. Back when I was a vet assistant I was ‘second chair’ at several tailgate neuterings. We spent the whole time wishing for the nice surgery table and (especially) the electric cauterizer.
    On the other hand, I yanked my youngest from public school and homeschooled him for six months until I could find a good private school placement.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    The best definition of “diversity” I’ve heard: When everybody looks different, but thinks exactly alike.

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