Popular Catholic devotions once filled churches and were always part of one’s faith life in the course of the week.
People prayed the Rosary regularly, attended novenas, did consecrations to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, venerated sacred images and relics and wore religious medals or a crucifix.
Much of that has waned in the last 40 years.
But this Year of Faith presents Catholics with the perfect time to bring back the popular piety and devotions that were never meant to be forgotten or ignored.
In 2001, when Blessed John Paul II addressed the plenary meeting of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, he said: "Genuine forms of popular piety, expressed in a multitude of different ways, derive from the faith and, therefore, must be valued and promoted."
This faith-focused year gives us the chance to revive beloved devotions.
Father Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal and EWTN television host, gives some reasons why.
"We’ve been blessed with this Year of Faith in which we’re being encouraged to renew our faith and grow in it so that our relationship to God will deepen and our growth in holiness will be strengthened," he said. "As the Council of Trent said: Faith is the beginning, foundation and the measure of the Christian life."
Father Apostoli explained that we can only love God to the degree we believe in him and the degree God becomes very real in our lives through the truth the Church teaches.
Although we entrust our lives to God as Catholics, the priest added, "because we are creatures of body and soul, we need concrete expressions of our faith that make the things we believe in that are unseen become somewhat more tangible through external signs and helps to our devotion. This is why we have devotions in the Catholic Church."
Continued Father Apostoli: "We need these expressions so that the mysteries or teachings of our Church do not remain merely intellectual beliefs. They must affect us in our whole being, and that’s where devotion is such a strong impetus."
For example, we believe by faith that Jesus is in the Blessed Sacrament and that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the supreme act of love and adoration of God because it is Christ renewing his sacrifice on the cross.
But we have devotions like Benediction and Eucharistic adoration to foster a deeper personal union and love for Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
"We also believe by our faith that Christ suffered and died on the cross for our salvation. So when we practice a devotion like the Stations of the Cross, our love and gratitude for Christ’s suffering grows immensely because the practice of the Stations of the Cross helps us to recognize in a more personal and concrete way what Jesus actually went through in his suffering and death," Father Apostoli explained.
"Through faith, we also have great love for the Blessed Mother because of her part in the plan of salvation, both through the Incarnation, in which she conceived Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and also by her role at the foot of the cross in joining with Christ and his sufferings for our redemption — and now as an intercessor of grace for all of her children," he said.
"When we pray the Rosary she herself has asked for so many times at Fatima or honor her with other devotions, such as the May crowning, our personal love and piety for Mary as our Mother and intercessor becomes more concrete in our lives."
At the same time, we use our statues of the Blessed Mother and the saints to remind us of who they are, just as we use photos of our loved ones. We don’t worship the statues, just as we don’t worship the photos of loved ones. Statues and other images of saints remind us of the people we honor and love but who are now hidden from our eyes in heaven.
"Same goes for wearing the Miraculous Medal, the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and other similar religious symbols of the faith that we use to remind us of God’s presence and protection on our lives or to seek protection of Our Lord and his holy Mother," Father Apostoli said. "The novenas we make in preparation for feasts such as Divine Mercy stir up the working of the Holy Spirit in us through our personal piety. Our personal piety then will enliven our commitment to the mysteries of the Catholic faith."
As pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Norwalk, Conn., Register contributor Father Greg Markey has found that popular devotions play an important role in the lives of Catholics.
He explained that, while priests have the Breviary to sanctify their days, the laity have the sacramental practices of popular piety to sanctify their days and keep a prayerful spirit throughout the week.
"By doing the various devotions during the week, it’s a concrete way the laypeople can consecrate time and the day," he said.
"People find so much nourishment from novenas in parish life," he said. "We have the Miraculous Medal novena every Monday. We get such a large crowd for it, and people get so much nourishment from that."
The novena is always conducted before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Benediction follows, after which the faithful venerate the relic of St. Catherine Labouré.
Every year on July 16, Father Markey offers enrollment for the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. All the first Communicants are enrolled in the brown scapular as part of their first Communion Mass as well.
"All these devotions are ordered toward the Mass and enhance the Mass," Father Markey explained. "Those doing these practices get more out of the Mass because they are preparing their hearts and souls outside the Mass with these devotions."
St. Mary’s parishioner Elizabeth Anne Elfreich attests to the faith and spiritual benefits of popular devotions for herself and her three sons and two daughters, ages 8 to 14.
She and the children attend daily Mass, where the boys are altar servers. They pray the Rosary with other parishioners daily after Mass.
Elfreich finds this practice "builds strength in (their) devotion, and the children learn the scriptural readings and the mysteries as different people read them."
She noted their practice of praying the Rosary after daily Mass has "brought my children closer to God and to each other. It’s given them perseverance and patience when they don’t want to do it."
Regularly attending the Stations of the Cross the last three years has also benefited the family. They also attend the weekly novena.
Elfreich said she never had the opportunity to venerate a relic in her former parish in New York. Being able to venerate a saint’s relic is a wonderful opportunity, she said, as is the pious custom of the blessing of throats on St. Blasé’s feast day.
"I’ve seen my children in the last four years grow in faith and knowledge, connecting the relics of the saints to the way they live their lives," she said. "Those saints are an example for children to emulate."
Roberto De Menezes, also a St. Mary’s parishioner, said he and his wife, Alejandrina, and their 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son have also grown strong in the faith through regular popular devotions.
De Menezes finds they are walking with Jesus through the Stations of the Cross. On Monday evenings, the family regularly attends the Miraculous Medal novena as part of their devotional routine.
"God is helping us to grow in the faith. The Blessed Mother gives us a lot of grace," he said. "The children are growing closer to the Blessed Mother because of it." His son is an altar server.
This regular attendance and Father Markey’s prompting inspired them to go on a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia. Visiting shrines is another devotional practice of popular piety.
In their own parish, they find venerating the image of St. John Vianney "helps us to pray for the priests," De Menezes said.
"We pray together at home as much as possible, usually a Rosary every day," he explained. "We celebrate all the feasts, those of the Blessed Mother, like Our Lady of Guadalupe. And before dinner at home we see the Last Supper picture, and we pray the grace before meals. Even in a restaurant, we do a little prayer before meals."
"Devotions are our daily weapon to fight against evil," he stressed.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments lists many of these devotions in the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, including a traditional blessing of the family table and food for Easter Sunday: "Mention must be made of the traditional blessing of eggs, the symbol of life, and the blessing of the family table. … The head of the household or some other member of the household blesses the festive meal with Easter water, which is brought by the faithful from the Easter vigil."
The directory also states: "The magisterium … highlights the importance of popular piety for the faith life of the people of God, for the conservation of the faith itself and in inspiring new efforts at evangelization."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.