The Importance of Devotions June 2000

Popular religion

Eamon Duffy

Was it wise to jettison so many of our popular Catholic devotions after Vatican II under the pressure from liturgists who saw them as 'the hectic fever of a sick Christianity; desperately in need of the healing medicine of liturgical renewal'? Eamon Duffy, Reader in Church History at Cambridge University and author of two best-sellers, gives here a nuanced answer.

Two large framed and matching coloured prints hung on the back wall of the bedroom I shared with my brothers in Ireland in the 1950s. They depicted the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary: life-sized, half-length figures of Jesus and Mary gazed mesmerically down, drawing back their cloaks (red for Jesus, blue for Mary) in order to point to luridly veined and glistening hearts, improbably placed in the centre of their chests and ghosting through their snow-white tunics, ringed and pierced with thorns (in Mary’s case with roses), blazing with flames like coronets of unruly red hair, and each topped by a cross. They had, I think, been given to my parents as a wedding present - in Ireland at that time marriage was sometimes jokingly described as a contract between a man, a woman and a picture of the Sacred Heart. The prints, with their acid chemical colours and excruciating detail, were almost nightmarishly vivid, and I was a devout child: each morning and night I knelt before them to say my prayers, much taken with the fact that their eyes appeared to follow me round the room.

I have since realised that I was in fact probably more than a little afraid of them. At any rate, their doleful and unsleeping eyes, moist, reproachful, appealing, continued to haunt my imagination long after the pictures themselves had been disposed of, when we moved to England in the early 1960s. But these images were utterly characteristic domestic expressions of a form of Catholicism, in which special devotions loomed large - to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to St Joseph (to secure a happy death), to our Guardian Angels, to the Holy Infant of Prague, to our Lady of Perpetual Succour, to the Immaculate Conception, above all to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Every church had a statue of the Sacred Heart, every house and sometimes every room in every house had a picture. My father was a Pioneer, a teetotaller vowed to total abstention from alcohol in reparation to the Sacred Heart for the evils caused by drunkenness. to alert people not to offer him drinks, he wore an enamelled lapel badge, which had on it an emblem of the Sacred Heart.

Vade-mecum of the pious life

The prayer-book my family took to Mass each Sunday was called the Treasury of the Sacred Heart. Originally a Victorian compilation, it was endlessly reprinted till the 1950s, and was designed as a vade-mecum of the pious life. It provided forms of morning and evening prayer, preparation for confession, the hymns and prayers for Benediction, a Latin text and English translation of the ordinary of the Mass, and the Sunday Epistles and Gospels in English. But the bulk of the book was taken up with a host of special devotions. Acts of Reparation to the Sacred Heart, together with a list of the promises made by Jesus to the seventeenth-century French nun who had originally popularised the devotion; the Stations of the Cross; a series of litanies - of the Holy Name, the Sacred Heart, the Litany of Loreto; a variety of rosaries - the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, the Rosary of the Holy Name, the Rosary of the Precious Blood, the Rosary of the Seven Dolours; a variety of novenas, or schemes of prayer spread over nine days, or weeks, or months - in honour of the Guardian Angels, or St Joseph, St Patrick, St Brigid, St Dominic and of course the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There were a series, too, of privileged and indulgenced prayers - the ‘En Ego’, to be said after communion before a crucifix, the ‘Memorare’ to the Virgin, the ‘morning offering’, dedicating the day to Jesus through the most pure heart of Mary.

Indulgences

Most of these prayers and devotions carried indulgences, spiritual benefits granted by the Pope and remitting penance or time in purgatory, mysteriously calculated in days or years - 500 days for the prayer to Jesus, Mary and Joseph for a happy death, ‘plenary’ or total in the case of the ‘En Ego’. And some of these prayers and devotions carried more concrete guarantees: peace in the family and a blessing on the house where a picture of the Sacred Heart was displayed; guaranteed access to a priest and the last sacraments at the hour of death for those who successfully completed the ‘nine first Fridays’, confession and communion at Mass on the first Fridays of nine consecutive months. Devout daily recitation for a month of the immensely long ‘Thirty Days’ Prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ carried the promise that ‘we may hope to obtain any lawful request’, a carefully inexplicit formula which did not prevent the highest hopes being placed on the prayer itself.

And our oleographs of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts were just two in a gallery of special images. We also had statues of both the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Conception, and a battered statue of the Infant of Prague, to me at the time a baffling representation of the child Jesus, dressed in a jewelled cope and oriental-looking crown, one hand raised in blessing, the other holding a jewelled orb. In some places this image was believed to guarantee good weather if left on the doorstep overnight, but not in our rain-sodden town, sandwiched between mountains and sea and rarely dry.

These domestic pieties, available to any devotee with the appropriate prayer-book or holy statue or picture, were part of a wider religious culture in which devotions provided the principle texture and warmth of popular Catholicism. The De La Salle Brothers who ran my school were the sponsors of a devotional association called the Archconfraternity of the Divine Child: we regularly assembled in the school hall (which doubled as the local cinema) for communal prayers in front of a life-sized statue of the child Jesus. The Redemptorist Fathers, who ran the parish church near the railway works, were the sponsors of an annual novena to St Gerard Majella, much patronised by pregnant women, and they also ran a continuous or perpetual novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, a devotion linked to a much-reproduced fifteenth-century Cretan icon of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels holding the instruments of the passion, which was kept in the Order’s mother-church in Rome.

At school we were encouraged to take up other specially privileged devotional practices - like many of my contemporaries I joined the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and wore the ‘brown scapular’, two small, itchy woollen squares, worn suspended back and front round the neck under one’s clothing. I also joined the Legion of Mary, and attended the prayer meetings of the local group (called a Praesidium), gathered round an improvised altar in the living-room of one of the lay teachers at my school, on which was placed a statue of the Immaculate Conception flanked by candles, and a strange free-standing object called a Vexillum, which was a miniature Roman legionary standard surmounting a marble ball, and inscribed with a passage from the Old Testament: ‘Who is she who comes forth fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?’ This exotic symbol, the mysterious verses applied to Mary, and the idealistic solidarity of the group, were all part of the attraction of membership of the Legion.

Baroque

All these were voluntary activities, undertaken by pious individuals. But all the parish churches in the town staged well-attended Stations of the Cross in Lent, and May and October Devotions, Marian services which normally took the form of Rosary, Sermon and Benediction, the sermons anecdotal accounts of the miracles of the Virgin and her power to rescue sinners at the hour of death. Nothing in them would have been out of place a century or so earlier, and indeed I have since recognised some of the stories we were told, in classic source-books like St Alphonsus Liguori’s The Glories of Mary. Most of the devotions we practised were in fact Baroque in origin, going back to the Italian or French seventeenth and eighteenth century, and by the same token, St Alphonsus was the principle author drawn on by the editors of the Treasury of the Sacred Heart. And this sort of piety was entirely characteristic of post-Tridentine Catholicism. Pre-Conciliar Ireland, the most observant Catholic country in the world, no doubt cultivated this type of Catholicism in almost chemical purity, but the devotional world I grew up in was by no means an exclusively Irish phenomenon. Precisely the same sort of piety was, mutatis mutandis, observed by Catholics from Poland and Peru.

The ‘new theology’

Maybe in Poland or Peru, among other places, this sort of piety still thrives. By and large, however, and especially in Western Europe and the USA, though individual components of the pre-Conciliar devotional world survive, its overall close-knit unity of texture and tive hold have weakened and in many places disappeared. This should be no surprise, for a fundamentally negative account of such piety lay at the very roots of the liturgical revival, and of the ‘new theology’ which shaped so much of the liturgical and spiritual revolution inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. Two generations of liturgical pioneers, from Odo Casel to Joseph Jungmann and Louis Bouyer, explained the emergence of this devotional world in the Middle Ages as a sign of decadence, an unsatisfactory compensation for the alienation of the laity from the liturgy, and from the sacramental participation in the mystery of salvation which the liturgy offered.

After the Patristic period, they believed, the laity had been increasingly shut out of their birthright of full and active participation in the liturgy - the words of the Mass and other sacraments were in Latin, not the vernacular, and the laity seldom received communion. At Mass they became spectators at a show which they barely understood: to make sense of what they saw, the actions of the Mass were allegorised as reminders of the stages of the passion, and memory and drama became the principal ways in which ordinary people encountered the work of redemption. The Franciscan Order in particular encouraged lay people to put sorrowing meditation on the minutest details of the passion and death of Jesus at the heart of their religious lives, and a high value was placed on devotional tears, on feeling compassion for Christ’s sufferings, fellow-feeling with the grieving Mary. In place of the sacramental encounter with the risen and transforming Christ which faithful participation in the liturgy brought, sentiment and emotion took over. The Paschal mystery became something to be grasped inside one’s head, instead of a transforming reality which raises and transforms us through encounter and communion.

Preparing for Protestantism

Louis Bouyer indeed considered that the emotional piety of the Middle Ages - the lamentations over the dead Christ embodied in the Way of the Cross or statues of the Pietà or the Man of Sorrows, or the emergence of the devotion to the Sacred Heart as a refinement of earlier devotion to the five wounds of Jesus - had prepared the way for Protestantism, by substituting a sentimental emphasis on religious ‘experience’ in place of what Bouyer called ‘the sober mysticism, completely grounded in faith, of the great Christian Tradition’, and above all enshrined in the liturgy. He and his colleagues particularly deplored the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart, with its piety of ‘reparation’ for sins against Christ, as if the death of Jesus was a defeat for which the Son of God needed comfort or consolation, instead of the great moment of his victory and glorification, transforming and nourishing us and the whole cosmos into resurrection life through the communion of the liturgy. For Bouyer and his associates, the devotional world I have been describing, far from being symptomatic of vigour and commitment, was instead the hectic fever of a sick Christianity, desperately in need of the healing medicine of liturgical renewal.

The historical analysis offered by Bouyer and others was certainly correct as far as it went, and their unease with the devotional world of the pre-Conciliar Church was well founded. Catholic Christianity offers assurance of salvation and nourishes its children in the Christian life primarily through the proclamation of God’s word and by sacramental encounter with Christ in the communal celebration of the liturgy. The devotions of the Middle Ages and Baroque period were sometimes, to put it mildly, rather precariously rooted in the Bible, and looked for alternative forms of assurance - privileged prayers and pious acts validated by legendary visions, in which God or Mary or the saints offered special guarantees or promised special efficacy to particular acts or forms of words. The practice of indulgences did at least help root this quest for guaranteed efficacy in the corporate and liturgical life of the Church. The whole ethos of miraculous promises or special guarantees which often attached to such devotions, however, opened the way to a merely magical or mechanistic understanding of the life of prayer, and ran the risk of locating the most deeply felt aspects of the religious life of the laity in private emotion, outside the liturgy, and outside the corporate experience of the whole worshipping community.

Decadence

It is no surprise, then, that since the Council such devotions have dwindled away and in fact have sometimes been actively discouraged. There are fewer lurid statues in home and church, fewer venerable devotional practices attracting crowds in Lent or May or October, fewer novenas, medals, scapulars. But corrective reactions have a habit of swinging to opposite extremes. If much of the devotional world of the pre-Conciliar world was born from liturgical deprivation, and was indeed a form of compensation, much also was in fact a perfectly legitimate and healthy contemplative exercise, which helped lay people internalise and extend in practical ways the work of the liturgy within them. The explanation of all this devotional growth as a form of decadence which the liturgical pioneers offered relied on too simplistic a narrative. Devotional focus on particular aspects or actors within the Christian story did not begin as medieval decadence set in, but goes back to the earliest eras of Christianity. People need to brood over and digest the things that feed them. To elaborate and extend specific aspects of the Gospel story - the birth or infancy of Christ, the events of Calvary or the resurrection appearances - can enhance rather than detract from our engagement with the liturgy.

In his great book Life and Liturgy, still worth reading fifty years on, Bouyer warned against simply jettisoning the devotional developments of the medieval and Baroque period, whatever their origin. These too had become part of the shaping experience of Catholic tradition: if they were unliturgical or anti-liturgical, they should be reformed and reintegrated into a liturgical framework. Bouyer singled out devotion to the infant Jesus and to the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle as potentially anti-liturgical practices which could in fact become profound meditations on the mysteries revealed in the liturgy. The Child in the Manger could be approached, not as the sentimental focus of human affection for babies, which it sometimes was, but as the embodiment and assurance of the manifestation of God in the mystery of the Incarnation which the liturgy interprets and mediates to us. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament need not be conversations with Christ imagined as a hidden though powerful human friend, or a substitute for communion, but an affirmation, in ‘the permanence of the consecrated bread’, of the reality and power of every eucharistic celebration, the abiding sign of our nourishment and transformation in the Mass.

The Rosary

Bouyer specially singled out the Rosary as the most liturgically positive of all popular devotions. It is hard to say whether or not he had his tongue in his cheek. He was writing in the mid-1950s: very soon, the recitation of the Rosary at Mass would become the symbol par excellence of what was sometimes scathingly referred to as ‘bog-Irish Catholicism’, a prime symptom of an unreconstructedly pre-Conciliar and non-participatory folk religion. Bouyer, by contrast, thought the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary in their simplicity and evangelical purity ‘an easy way of extending liturgical contemplation throughout the whole of daily life ? of bringing the whole of our life continually back to its heavenly source’. If such devotion ceased to be practised or thought of as an alternative to liturgical involvement, and was instead replaced within the context of a liturgically-centred Catholicism, he thought, it could augment and deepen appreciation of the reality celebrated within the liturgy.

Two generations on, we can perhaps take up Bouyer’s invitation to repristinate rather than to reject the devotional tradition with greater sympathy and enthusiasm than seemed possible in the immediate and heady aftermath of the Council. Many Catholics then felt impatience and scorn for the ‘folk’ religion of the past, and believed that everything needed to nourish the Christian life would be found within the new experience of the vernacular Mass. That, no doubt, is true, but we have a better sense now than then of the need to pause to explore, reflect on and deepen the themes of the liturgy, to let single moments or emphases blossom within us, and to give ourselves space and context so that can happen. Some devotions, of course, are so much the products of very particular eras and attitudes that it is hard to imagine their revival. Probably few devotees of the Child of Prague, for example, have been aware that the original wax image was a votive offering given to the church in Prague which had been confiscated from the Lutherans and rededicated to Our Lady of Victories, to celebrate the defeat of Protestantism at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. Knowing that, however, it is hard to see how such an image could be repristinated for an ecumenical age.

The Sacred Heart

But the past can surprise us. Despite his positive attitude to such devotions as the Rosary, Bouyer had serious reservations about the devotion to the Sacred Heart, a Baroque aberration which he thought would be hard to reconcile with a renewed liturgy. Yet an enthusiastically post-Conciliar priest in a difficult inner-city parish once told me that whenever he had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in people’s homes or workplaces, especially when dealing with the unchurched or semi-detached, he invariably used the readings and prayers from the liturgy of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, since their overwhelming emphasis on the love and tenderness of God eloquently and unforgettably expressed the very heart of the gospel. After the Council we were often as a community puritanically suspicious of symbolism, ideologically impatient of the poetry of our inherited tradition, and convinced that those traditions had too often been shaped by bad theology. That was probably true enough, but it is part of the providence of God that the Church is usually more reliable on its knees than at the lecture podium. Our predecessors often got the theological formulae wrong, as we in our turn will no doubt do; but they knew how to pray. We can still learn from them.




More by Eamon Duffy
Contents Page
 Back to Top

Home Page | Buy this Issue | Subscribe | Contents Page | Archive | The Tablet

Emmaus