Devotional Development and Liturgical Development

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine May-June 2007

An article in the new Harper/Collins Encyclopaedia of Catholicism caught my eye because in it Fr Regis Duffy OFM (A Professor at St Bonaventure’s University in Olean NY) says that “private devotions flourish when the Church’s liturgical life is poorly understood or when it does not satisfy the spiritual needs of ordinary people.

In saying this Fr Duffy is making two assumptions, firstly that liturgical life is better understood nowadays than it was before the Council and secondly that liturgy is now satisfactorily filling the spiritual needs of the people in the pews. Fr Duffy supports the first point by saying that “when liturgical prayer and ritual are less accessible to people’s understanding and participation, there is usually an increase in devotions”. In his syndicated article, Fr Richard McBrien (Professor of Theology at Notre Dame) makes a similar point: “The lessening of interest in private devotions is more likely a sign that the Church is spiritually healthier now because its spiritual life is, as the Council hoped it would be, rooted more directly in the liturgy itself and especially inthe Eucharist” (The Tidings, Los Angeles 28 March

A Matter of Health

Many theologians in fact rather look forward to the withering of private devotions, as a vindication that maturity has arrived. Fr McBrien is particularly scathing about the rosary which he explains was the popular equivalent of the 150 psalms recited by the clergy “The laity can pray and read each of the psalms on their own, without any need to substitute Our Fathers or Hail Mary’s in repetitive fashion”. Many of us heard similar sentiments in the 1960’s when we were urged to renounce the past with its works and pomps and stride out towards the new horizon. It was accompanied by the same aspersions on the misguided and rather juvenile practices of Catholics who were not able to see the new dawn. It is not realised that nearly one thousand million Moslems are entirely wedded tothe idea of repetition in the Salah, when turning to Mecca five times a day; or the Tibetan lama when he says his prayers, and all the followers of Eastern meditation. Repetition is designed to create a resonance in the body and soul and it is insulting to see it disparaged on the grounds that is immature and unhealthy. At the same time it indicates a rather large chasm between those who talk in terms of a literate laity and the reality of the Catholic recipient of their ministrations. It is as if the average Catholic was expected to be as literate and to be literate in the same way as the theologian concerned. The scene of the man born blind comes to mind, when he challenges his judges and is rewarded with the stinging rebuke: “You were born totally in sin, and you trying to teachus?” (John 9:34).

Popular devotions have always had a place in the Catholic pantheon. They can and often do get out of hand – superstition is the price that religion pays to be vital and popular, as Newman puts it. An earlier contributor to the New Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Religion (Corpus Christi Publications, Washington 1978) was Fr P K Meagher. He writes; “Popular devotions covers a wide variety of optional prayers and practices, often peripheral to the central themes of Christian worship that people find helpful as means of arousing devotion in the primary meaning of the term e.g. the rosary, the way of the cross, such special services as novenas and tridums and the invocation of special saints.” Notice that he focuses in on their helpfulness in arousing devotion.

Popular devotions are not seen as an embarrassment but quite the contrary. Robert Broderick in the Catholic Encyclopaedia (Nelson Nashville 1975) says that they “have promoted the spiritual lives of those who partake of them and have fulfilled in a singular manner the personal ministry of private and public devotion of the body of Christians who make up the Mystical Body of Christ”. Of course we are not diminishing the importance of the liturgy itself or playing it down. Vatican II says very clearly that it is far superior to them, but in the same paragraph it adds that they “are in some way derived from it, and lead people to it” (Constitution on the Liturgy n. 13). This is enshrined in Canon Law which makes the local bishop the moderator of “pious and sacredexercises” so that they are “fully in harmony with the laws of the Church” (Canon 839 #2.

Evaluating not Dismissing

It is precisely because they do in fact lead people to the liturgy rather than fade away as the liturgy shines ever brighter that we need to evaluate them instead of rubbishing them. Fr McBrien says ominously that his column is “not intended as a debunking exercise”. In the order of “seniority” we have four private devotions which, because they have been given plenary indulgence status, are valued especially by the Church. The first is the rosary, the second is the way of the cross, the third is the visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and the fourth is meditative reading of the Scriptures. In the second order of merit we can signal those which are sacramental, those connected with the praise of God and those which are broadly penitential:




Holy Water/Asperges





Striking breast

Sign of the Cross






Visits to Churches




Grace at Meals



Prayers to Saints


Fr McBrien urges that we do not resuscitate (his word) pre-conciliar devotions. But the Church like the scribe in the Gospel is always taking new things and old out of her fund of devotional expertise. Such private devotions with the exception of First Fridays and Saturdays have the sanction of years of use and have become well-worn and a part of Catholic spiritual “furniture”. On one occasion when I was going into Church to collect something and dashing out again, I met an eight-year old who told me very seriously when he saw that I did not take Holy Water “Why didn’t you bless yourself, we all do that”. I was properly chastened. In fact we all should have some private devotions and should question seriously if they are lacking, because they provide that helpful link not onlywith the liturgy but also with the traditions of those who have gone before us in the practice of faith.

Updating Devotions

But Fr McBrien goes on to say that he hopes for the development of new devotions “that grow organically out of the Church’s liturgical life”. The inference is that private devotions which have endeared themselves to millions are not truly organic (the rosary for instance, is merely a repetitive device which can be dispensed with now that people can read the psalter themselves). Fr McBrien does not give specific examples of devotions because he presumably feels either that we should grow out of them or that they should sprout from the liturgy. But it is interesting that the post-conciliar liturgy has not produced of itself any new devotions, and one suspects that it was not supposed to.

Instead the Servant of God Pope John Paul attempted to update certain devotions. He promoted the Mysteries of Light for the rosary (on Thursdays) with decades meditating on the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the marriage feast at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom of God, the Transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist. It was a courageous step to take, knowing how people regard their rosary and it seems to be catching on. He also suggested alternative stations of the Cross, to include the agony in the Garden, the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter and the comforting of the good thief. The addition of a fifteenth station to commemorate the Resurrection which pre-dates his pontificate, has won wide acceptance. Pope John Paul believed in renewal rather than replacement. Hehas followed this policy with regard to the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law and devotions. Finally, he canonised countless saints in the belief that all parts of the Church and all walks of society need examples that they can admire and imitate in the twenty-first century with its new set of challenges. ion and Liturgy

Devotion and Liturgy

The fear among theologians is that there maybe some wholesale assault planned on the liturgy itself which has so far resisted criticism by raising the spectre of Tridentinism. It would seem to be time to question the seeming contradiction between liturgy and private devotion. It is exists – even in some people’s minds – should we not be looking at the liturgy as much as at devotions? Can the post-conciliar liturgy be made more devotional?

I think there must be an affirmative answer to the last question. Many opportunities were missed. Archbishop Bugnini revealed in his memoirs, that he had a masterplan which positively ruled out certain avenues of thought, and seemed proud of the fact. But the final result did leave something to be desired. This is not to yearn for any Tridentine liturgy. If one is totally honest, the Tridentine liturgy as practised by the ordinary clergy in a daily “low” Mass was by and large a hurried and not very reverential exercise. The High Mass was another thing, but we must remember that people could not go to Communion at that Mass because of the fasting regulations, and it was the only Mass to have a homily and last a good hour and a half. But the liturgy which we now have does seem to show signsof un-devotionality. This can be seen in the lack of any real entrance rite, the plainness of the offering of the gifts, the over-long absolution prayer for absolution, and the virtual elimination of kneeling in some countries and of genuflection in others. It is indicated by the tremendous chatter which greets anyone who enters a Church when Mass is due to begin. The emphasis is very much on social interaction, but at the expense of any quiet reflection. It is no wonder that the practice of visiting Churches has declined because they have becom

It is possible that the post-conciliar liturgy, rather than private devotions, needs to become more organic. There should be no contradiction between the two but instead a mutual interaction. The liturgy ought not to be considered so off-limits when private devotions are thought to be fair game. It we are not getting that devotional value out of parts of the liturgy then we should consider making adaptions. Instead of some blue-print handed down from a theological throne, we ought to grow the liturgy from the practice of the pastor in his parish who sees what actually works and knows a bit about the devotional antennae of his people. Only good can come of such endeavour and certainly renewed devotion.  

Faith Magazine

May - June 2007