02 January 2009

On Devotional Practices (Updated 2.0)

My recent post requesting suggestions for a good devotion has prompted a number of readers to write with questions regarding the nature and practice of Catholic devotions.

In this post I want to offer a few definitions and clarify some points of theology.

What the Church teaches

On the question of devotional practices, the council Fathers of Vatican Two, in their document, Sacrosanctum concilium, teach: "The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the Liturgy. The Christian is indeed called to pray with his brethren, but he must also enter into his chamber to pray to the Father, in secret; yet more, according to the teaching of the Apostle, he should pray without ceasing [. . .] Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See [. . .] But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the Sacred Liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the Liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them" (SC 12-13).

Liturgical vs. devotional practice

"Liturgy" is used to describe the rites and rituals of the Church celebrated publicly for the good of the whole Church. The word means "public work." "Public" here does not simply mean "celebrated in front of others" but also "celebrated by, for, and with the people." Almost all liturgical celebrations are celebrations of one of the seven sacraments. Sometimes "liturgy" is used to mean "ritual."

"Devotional practice" is used to describe those prayers and practices recognized by the Church that are prayed and practiced privately or personally for the benefit of the individual or other intended individuals. Devotions prayed in public are still devotional rather than liturgical because they do not involve the Church as a whole.

One of the results of the liturgical renewal post Vatican Two was the trimming away of the excessive devotional practices that had accumulated in the Mass over time. Some saw this as a way of emphasizing the action of the Mass. Other saw it as a "de-sacralization" of the Mass. The debate tended to revolve around what counted as liturgical and what counted as devotional.

Regardless, the council Fathers wished devotional practices to continue. Their principle concern was that these practices "tie in" with the Church's larger liturgical celebrations by following the Church calendar. The Father teach us that our devotions must "in some fashion derive from [the Sacred Liturgy] and lead the people to [the Sacred Liturgy], since, in fact, the Liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any [devotional practice]." In other words, liturgical practices are to be given pride of place over devotional practices any time the two seem to be in competition.

For example, the "full, active, conscious participation" in the Mass should preclude you from praying the rosary while Mass is prayed. Think about this way: you would be a negligent outfielder if you played your Gameboy in the middle of a baseball game! There's nothing wrong with playing baseball. There's nothing wrong with playing a Gameboy. But if you are committed to playing on a team, you do not shirk your duties while playing on that team to play a private game of Tetris.

Devotional Practices

Any and all devotional practices should lead you to God through Christ. Many devotional practices are addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mother. There is nothing wrong with this as such. However, you must be careful! Any devotional practice that pretends to replace the proper role of Christ as our only mediator with the Father is idolatrous. Mary is the mediator of the Word Made Flesh insofar as she was and is the mother of God. As mother, she mediates the Word as we all do when we take on Christ at baptism. However, in no way can Mary ever be understood as our Redeemer. Though immaculately preserved from the ravages of original sin, Mary is a human being. Perfected in the assumption, she is nonetheless a creature and therefore incapable of dying for our sins. Mary was not and is not divine in any sense of the word.

Many Marian devotions call on the devotee to "consecrate" his/her heart to Mary. This is not a problem so long as the consecration is directed to Christ through Mary's intercession. Strictly speaking, such a consecration is wholly unnecessary. Christ is immediately available to anyone who calls on his name. You may consecrate your heart to Mary in order to obtain the Blessed Mother's assistance in living a life of holiness; however, read the consecration prayer very carefully. The end result of any such prayer must be the absolute acceptance of Christ as one's only Redeemer. Mary can be a means, never an end.

I've read some prayers that read "I give my whole self, body and soul, heart and mind to Mother Mary. . ." If the prayer ends there, you are in trouble. If the prayer goes on to read, ". . .so that she may give me to Christ, my savior," that's fine. The question is: why go through Mary? That's a devotional question. a question about your affective needs and preferences. Such a prayer is never necessary for your salvation.

The best way to understand devotional practices is to see them as "icing on the cake" or "gravy on the potatoes." A very good thing to have available but not strictly necessary for good spiritual nutrition. You can live a perfectly holy and healthy Catholic life without ever praying the rosary or attending Eucharistic adoration or consecrating your heart to Mary. You cannot be a healthy Catholic without the liturgy of the sacraments.

Now, I heartily recommend the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and Marian consecrations. All are perfectly good things to do to foster holiness. But remember: your baptismal goal is to become Christ. He is your principal means and your ONLY end.

Update: NB. I am not attacking Marian devotions in this post. I am merely urging Catholics to keep Marian devotions (all devotions) in their proper place. No Catholic is required to offer Mary devotion as a matter of his/her salvation. Assent to the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, however, is not optional for Catholics. These dogmas are "definitive of the faith," that is, they are "de fide," of the deposit of faith and as such must be held by all the faithful.

Update 2.0: I should have mentioned this earlier. . .be very wary of any novena or litany that "guarantees" results. Devotions that make claims like "never known to fail" teach an incredibly magical notion of prayer. Litanies, novenas, rosaries are NOT magical spells that guarantee anything. They are prayers of praise and thanksgiving that help us to align ourselves with God's will for us and better prepare us to receive His gifts. I have seen too many "Novenas to the Big Toe of St Bubba: Guaranteed to Work!" booklets in Churches to know that this sort of thing is legion. You know what I'm talking about: "Pray this novena for nine days while walking counter clockwise around the Church nine times and put nine of these booklets in nine different Churches. . .and your wish will be granted!" This is superstitious nonsense and no Catholic who is serious about their prayer life will bother with it. Now, someone is going to leave a combox message telling me that they have prayed this sort of novena for the last hundred years and everything they have ever prayed for has been granted. Great! God gave you the blessings you asked for. The magical novena had nothing to do with it. You prayed according to God's will for you and received His blessings with thanksgiving. Give God the credit, not the magical novena.


  1. Hello Father,

    This actually dovetails into a question I have been meaning to ask about: what is meant by Mary's title of "co-redmptrix"? I think it dances on the edge you mentioned of replacing Our Lord Jesus as central focus with devotion to His Mother. Am I overreacting?

    Mary has been central to my return to the Church, so I am thankful for her intercession, but there are some devotions that just don't feel quite right to me, and the above is one that almost feels pagan to me....

    Hope I am not off on a tangent from your intended focus.

    Thank you for your blog, it is a great help!

  2. Gosh, Father, I would hate to think that you're sounding Protestant when you say, why bother with consecrating one's self to Mary, and that it is unnecessary: some of the saints said otherwise. She is the spouse of the Holy Spirit and has such a powerful role in leading us to Jesus. I have to defend my awesome Mother :)

  3. Sandy,

    Nothing to defend...I'm not attacking the BVM...I'm attacking an idolatrous use of Marian devotions.

    I love the rosary! But praying the rosary is not necessary of my salvation.

    You will need to cite the saints who say that going through Mary is necessary for our salvation.

  4. Thomas! You read my mind...I'm planning a post on the Co-Redemptrix question for tomorrow.

    Now, tell me where I left the cords for my digital camera...

  5. Father Philip,

    The December 2001 CDW document, "Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines" would be a useful resource here. Happy New Year!

  6. The USCCB also put together a useful Q&A based on the CDW's document and other sources:

    Popular Devotional Practices: Basic Questions and Answers

  7. FYI, I don't care much for your necked Jesus there.

    Just my opinion.

  8. Mom,

    I believe the proper spelling is "nekkid."