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home : our faith : faith alive July 17, 2019

FAITH ALIVE: Devotions and popular piety
Catholic University of America student Isaiah Burroughs takes time for private prayer May 2 during exam week in one of the Washington campus's chapels. The U.S. Catholic bishops explained in a 2003 document that
Catholic University of America student Isaiah Burroughs takes time for private prayer May 2 during exam week in one of the Washington campus's chapels. The U.S. Catholic bishops explained in a 2003 document that "popular devotional practices do not replace the liturgical life of the church; rather they extend it into daily life." CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Catholic News Service


Popular devotional practices are not a substitute for the liturgical life of the church; rather they extend it into daily life.

The aim of devotions -- like the Stations of the Cross, prayers to a saint, eucharistic adoration, novenas, the rosary -- prompts us to expand as persons.

Around the globe, popular piety becomes part of the culture. Thousands participate in pilgrimages to shrines and processions.

A devotional life will not leave us as it found us

By David Gibson |Catholic News Service

An older man, out in the morning for his first mile-and-a-half walk of the day, silently recites the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" -- or, "have mercy on me, a sinner."

At about the same time of day, somewhere a mother and her toddler are driving to their parish to participate in its biweekly mothers' group. Prayer, spiritual reflection and conversation about parenthood's challenges and rewards lie at the heart of such groups' activities.

Each of these people is involved uniquely in the devotional life, which today assumes countless forms among Catholics. "There is no one Catholic spirituality or way of approaching God in ascetical practices, prayer forms or devotions," U.S. Cardinal Kevin Farrell once said.

During his walk, the older man may recite the Jesus Prayer 10 times, now and then altering its words somewhat. Thus, he asks Jesus to bestow mercy not just "on me," but "on us," as his thoughts turn to others whose needs equal and outweigh his own.

Like a mantra, this prayer focuses his attention, calling to mind the Lord's faithful presence and companionship. He recalls that Jesus, after the resurrection, "drew near and walked with" two disciples making their way to the town of Emmaus (Lk 24:15).

This recollection extends his prayer into the surrounding world. He begins naming others who gladly might welcome Jesus' companionship. Or he shifts attention to a small group of fellow parishioners who that very day are devoting their prayers and supportive energies to the care of yet another parishioner whose health has veered startlingly off course.

Such service to a sick person possesses the capacity to become prayerfully devotional, forming a small community of faith among concerned, worried friends. In "The Joy of the Gospel," his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis spoke of devotions that "are fleshy" and "have a face," and that neither are "detached from responsibility for our brothers and sisters" nor "divorced from" a larger community.

Parish groups for mothers might not seem at first glance like an expression of the devotional life. Yet they tend to couple prayer with spiritual reflection and conversation centered on the concrete circumstances parents face. They offer opportunities to explore the parental, Christian vocation.

Such groups help to extend the Sunday Eucharist into the days of the week as their members nourish each other and share parenthood experiences in compassionate, supportive ways.

The U.S. Catholic bishops explained in a 2003 document that "popular devotional practices do not replace the liturgical life of the church; rather they extend it into daily life." The bishops affirmed that "what is crucial is that popular devotions be in harmony with the liturgy, drawing inspiration from it and ultimately leading back to it."

Scripture serves as a basic resource for many individual and communal devotions. A popular devotional practice today known as "lectio divina" ("divine reading") approaches Scripture as God's living word. The practice has truly ancient Christian roots.

Like many devotions, "lectio divina" can be practiced alone or with others. A married couple might pray and meditate together in this way, as might a prayer or retreat group.

Basic to "lectio divina" is the conviction that God addresses us through Scripture. To get started, it is only necessary to select a biblical passage to spend time with -- perhaps the good Samaritan parable (Lk 10:29-37) or a familiar biblical phrase like "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16).

Pope Benedict XVI outlined the four simple steps of "lectio divina" in "The Word of the Lord," his 2010 apostolic exhortation.

"Lectio divina" opens "with the reading ('lectio')" of a biblical passage, he noted. One asks, "What does the biblical text say in itself?"

The second step is to meditate on the text and ask, "What does the biblical text say to us?" Pope Benedict explained that here each person "must let himself or herself be moved and challenged."

Prayer is the third step, he continued. Its question is, "What do we say to the Lord in response to his word?" Or, what is our prayer now?

Contemplation is the fourth step. It aims "at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality as God sees it" and "forming within us 'the mind of Christ.'"

Thus, a desire to view others and the world through God's eyes is a goal of "lectio divina." Naturally, this desire prompts us to expand as persons. Clearly, a devotional life does not leave us as it found us.

I presume that this aim of "lectio divina" is an aim of most, perhaps all, devotions -- like the Stations of the Cross, prayers to a particular saint whose example is energizing and motivating, eucharistic adoration, novenas, the rosary and other Marian devotions.

In "lectio divina," Pope Benedict wrote, we overcome "our deafness to those words that do not fit our own opinions" and we allow ourselves to "be struck by the inexhaustible freshness of God's word."

Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.

Devotions help Catholics find God in daily life

By Kelly Bothum |Catholic News Service

Weekly Mass offers a wonderful way to strengthen our spiritual lives by sharing the Eucharist with our Catholic brethren. The challenge is how to sustain that liturgical experience throughout the week as we face the challenges of life.

Like a midafternoon snack that keeps us going until dinner, spiritual devotions can nourish and support our faith journey. Whether it's a novena, a rosary or praying to a favorite saint, these devotions can help us deepen our prayer life.

They don't replace our time at Mass. Rather, they give us an opportunity to find Christ in our midst. Life may be messy, but there is always a path that helps us to see God.

For Sister Susanne Bunn, combining the rosary with her physical therapy exercises has given her a chance to connect her real-world experiences with her faith.

"It takes about 10 seconds to pray a Hail Mary. Most of my exercises call for 10 repetitions," said Sister Bunn, a Mission Helper of the Sacred Heart for more than 50 years. "The PT passes much more quickly when accompanied by the rosary."

Maybe you expect a nun to say she prays the rosary, but Sister Bunn admits she didn't actually like it early in her vocation. When another sister asked her to pray the rosary on a road trip with her, Sister Bunn obliged.

"I was a young sister and did not want to scandalize her," said Sister Bunn, of Edgewood, Maryland.

On the first mystery, her companion asked Sister Bunn who to pray for. "My sister-in-law Barb was pregnant. Sister Annette mentioned all women who were considering abortions. We went back and forth naming intentions," Sister Bunn said. "The time flew by as we prayed."

Spiritual devotions have a way of helping our minds cut through the clutter and find what truly matters -- God's plan.

Kathleen Kelly of Ormond Beach, Florida, spends half an hour at eucharistic adoration most Friday mornings after Mass. Doing so helps her center her thoughts as she takes the Eucharist to the sick and homebound who can't get to Mass.

"What it has given me is a knowledge and belief that whatever I do I must do for God," Kelly said. "This is my faith."

We turn to prayer in times of need, but sometimes we may feel unworthy to bring our worries directly to God. He welcomes all intentions, but Patti Christopher of Wilmington, Delaware, said she feels better taking those concerns to the saints with the hopes they will intercede on her behalf. She feels a particular kinship with St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and says a novena prior to her feast day on July 26.

Praying to the saints makes Christopher feel like she has an advocate who understands her needs and advocates on her behalf. Many years ago, when her infant son faced a critical night in the hospital after a life-saving surgery, she attached a green scapular -- also known as the Badge of the Immaculate Heart of Mary -- to his crib.

"The next morning they could not believe how great he was doing. Two days later, after he came out of intensive care it dawned on me we left the green scapular on the crib. I went back to tell them it was left on there," said Christopher, a retired nurse. "They told me this little girl had been in there with a bad outlook and the next morning she sat up in bed. They said, 'Can we keep this?' I said, 'Absolutely.'"

Over the years, she has used other devotions, including a relic of St. John Neumann, to physically involve her faith in a loved one's health battles. "Every time they say, 'I don't know what happened,'" Christopher said. "I know how it happened. We prayed and prayed."

Bothum is a freelance writer and a mother of three.

Catholics worldwide find strength in popular devotions

By Barbara Fraser |Catholic News Service

Three times during October, tens of thousands of people pour into the narrow downtown streets of Lima, Peru, accompanying the figure of the Lord of the Miracles in a procession around the city. The devotion, one of the largest in Latin America, is also celebrated in cities such as Los Angeles and Rome.

"In Latin America, popular piety is part of the culture," says Rafael Luciani, a Venezuelan lay theologian at Boston College. "There is a personal relationship between the person and God through the image that is carried in a procession or is in the church or the home."

Although the relationship is personal, it is celebrated in community.

"It's not something that's done in private," Luciani says, "because people don't understand religion as being separate from the rest of their lives."

The Lord of the Miracles devotion dates to the mid-1600s, when an African slave painted a crucifixion scene on a wall in Lima. The archbishop sent workers to destroy, erase or paint over the image, but each effort was miraculously frustrated.

In 1687, a violent earthquake leveled the city but left the wall with the image unscathed. The devotion received official approval, and for centuries, a replica of the original image has been carried in procession every October. The devotion is organized by a lay confraternity -- another characteristic of popular religious devotions, Luciani says.

Other countries have their own devotions -- Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is one of the best known -- and local devotions may draw even more faithful than the more famous celebrations.

Processions, whether around the neighborhood or to a distant pilgrimage site, are a mainstay of popular devotions.

"The person goes along, telling God about their problems or their joys, and they join their everyday life to that relationship with God," Luciani says.

In Africa, religious celebrations often are accompanied by music and dancing, says Liz Mach, who has worked in Tanzania for most of her 41 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner.

The Sunday liturgy may last several hours, with singing, clapping and the trilling sound that women make with their tongues to express joy.

Pilgrimages are the more serious side of celebration, she says.

A pilgrimage site more than six kilometers from her home in Musoma commemorates the arrival of the first missionaries to the diocese more than a century ago.

"The long, hot, dusty walk to a pilgrimage site reciting the rosary is something parishes and groups do together," Mach says. "Youth often make these journeys."

In Manila, in the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of Catholics throng the streets in January, trying to get close enough to touch the Black Nazarene, a wooden statue of Christ carrying the cross, which dates to the early 1600s.

Kissing, holding or touching the statue is "connecting to the divine, to touch and be touched by heaven itself," Msgr. Jose Clemente Ignacio of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2013.

Pastors in U.S. parishes where immigrants settle must recognize that religious traditions vary from country to country, even in the same part of the world, Luciani says. Although Guadalupe is well-known, for example, it is mainly a Mexican devotion.

"Pastors must understand that this is part of (people's) culture," Luciani says of popular devotions. "That's a challenge for the church in places that are multicultural."

Fraser is a freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru. Her website is


Along with popular devotions and other forms of piety, sacramentals hold a special place in the church's liturgical life.

Sacramentals are not the seven sacraments, yet they are "intrinsically linked" to the sacraments, Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, Canada once wrote. "The church creates sacramentals" for a distinct purpose: "to sanctify everyday life," he said.

Blessings of persons, meals, objects and places are listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as examples of sacramentals (No. 1671).

"For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies," or makes holy, "almost every event" in the lives of the faithful, states the Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (No. 61).

A blessed medal or scapular does not become a cause of grace, Archbishop Miller explained. They are not charms, he said.

Rather, sacramentals prepare the faithful for the sanctifying grace conferred by the seven sacraments. Sacramentals are the "means by which we are to grow in faith, hope and love," said the archbishop.

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