In Defense of Devotion

In Defense of Devotion as a Good and Beneficial Act

    Even Catholics who should know better are often against traditional devotions in the Church, taking what I assert is a false interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.  They will argue that getting rid of excesses somehow means getting rid of devotions entirely, that being Christocentric is being saint-exclusionary, which is absolutely not the intent of the authors.  Pope St. John XXIII, for example, called for the Rosary to be prayed "with particular devotion, and to entreat the Virgin Mother of God in suppliant prayer," (Grata Recordatio, 20).  Pope St. John XXIII might well argue, then, that any good fruit to come from that ecumenical council is in part the fruit of the many devotions of Christ's faithful.

     The US Bishops have likewise addressed the use of devotions and their harmony with the Second Vatican Council, writing:

     The Council pointed out that the spiritual life "is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. . . . according to the teaching of the apostle, [the Christian] must pray without ceasing." [Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 12. See 1 Thes 5:17.] Popular devotional practices play a crucial role in helping to foster this ceaseless prayer. The faithful have always used a variety of practices as a means of permeating everyday life with prayer to God. Examples include pilgrimages, novenas, processions and celebrations in honor of Mary and the other saints, the rosary, the Angelus, the Stations of the Cross, the veneration of relics, and the use of sacramentals. Properly used, popular devotional practices do not replace the liturgical life of the Church; rather, they extend it into daily life. [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), no. 1675.]

     The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council recognized the importance of popular devotions in the life of the Church and encouraged pastors and teachers to promote sound popular devotions. They wrote, "Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church." [Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 13.] More recently, Pope John Paul II has devoted an entire apostolic letter to a popular devotion,the rosary,calling on bishops, priests, and deacons "to promote it with conviction" and recommending to all the faithful, " Confidently take up the Rosary once again. Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives." [Pope John Paul II, Apostolic letter On the Most Holy Rosary (Rosarium Virginis Mariae) , no. 43.]

     Our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, himself prays the Rosary without shame and participates in the devotional life of the Church.  He devoted an entire Apostolic Letter to that great Church Father of true devotion, St. Francis de Sales, remarking:

[D]evotion does not exist alongside charity, but is one of its manifestations, while at the same time leading back to it. Devotion is like a flame with regard to fire: it increases the intensity of charity without altering its quality. “In the end, charity and devotion can be said to differ from one another as fire from a flame. Charity is a spiritual fire that, when fanned into flame, is called devotion. Devotion thus adds nothing to the fire of charity but the flame that makes charity prompt, active and diligent, not only in the observance of God’s commandments but also in the exercise of his divine counsels and inspiration.  [Totum Amoris Est, On the Fourth Centenary of the Death of St. Francis de Sales]

  Going deeper into the value of devotion and its tie to love, or charity, Pope Francis is now preparing a reflection on the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, remarking in an audience on June 5th, “I am happy to prepare a document that brings together the valuable reflections of previous magisterial texts and a long history going back to the sacred Scriptures to re-propose today to the whole Church this devotion, full of spiritual beauty."

   St. Thomas Aquinas, that great Doctor of the Church, writes on devotion that, "Devotion to God's holy ones, dead or living, does not terminate in them, but passes on to God, in so far as we honor God in His servants. But the devotion of subjects to their temporal masters is of another kind, just as service of a temporal master differs from the service of God" (Summa Theologiae IIa IIae, q. 83 a.1).  So, in other words, placing ourselves under the patronage of a saint or having a special devotion to one does not lead us away from God, but rather leads us to God.  

    Devotion does not consist in simply rote prayer, but in contemplation, as St. Thomas adds.  "The consideration of such [holy] things as are of a nature to awaken our love of God, causes devotion; whereas the consideration of foreign matters that distract the mind from such things is a hindrance to devotion"  (Summa Theologiae IIa IIae, q. 83 a.3).  Too often modern theologians or Catholics are without devotion, and thus, without any deep love.  A good husband, for example, is devoted to his wife.  As best as he is able, he tells her he loves her, not just for her, but really, for himself as well, since it helps to further cement the bond that perdures through good times and bad.  A husband without devotion might say, "Well, I said 'I love you' when we got married.  So you already know I do, why repeat some mere words?"  

     Indeed, too often the critics of devotions are more concerned, not with holy things, but with corporate and bureaucratic or academic things: mission statements, policy documents, political position papers, getting published, their own "clever" liturgy, which is often more a lecture than an act of love.  Instead of "rote" prayers, their style of devotion consists in word salads that amount to little and inspire few.  Do you want to do great things?  Grow in love and devotion and they will naturally follow!  For them, St. Thomas adds, "Science and anything else conducive to greatness, is to man an occasion of self-confidence, so that he does not wholly surrender himself to God. The result is that such like things sometimes occasion a hindrance to devotion; while in simple souls and women devotion abounds by repressing pride. If, however, a man perfectly submits to God his science or any other perfection, by this very fact his devotion is increased" (Ibid).  

     Finally, I would leave with St. John Henry Cardinal Newman's observation, "that it is not those religious Communions which are characterised by devotion to the Blessed Virgin that have ceased to adore her Eternal Son, but those very bodies which have renounced devotion to her" (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1920, p. 426).

     So, if someone makes some remark, smile, and keep praying that Rosary or devotion.  You've got the angels, saints, popes, and Doctors of the Church on your side. 

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