Growing up I spent most of my childhood attending Catholic schools. One of the things we learned were the many devotional prayers and practices that have for centuries enriched the lives of the faithful. The BVM sisters taught us to say the morning offering to God, how to pray the rosary, and gave us holy cards of Christ and the saints.
One of the first things that I was taught when I began to learn about the Second Vatican Council was the great importance that was given to the liturgy, the Eucharist in particular. I was informed by many priests and other Church teachers that we consider the Eucharist the source and summit of our Christian life and that this might be the most important message of the council. They went on to explain that this was why changing the language to the vernacular was important, why people should not be praying the rosary and other prayers during the Eucharist, and why statues and art had been removed so as not to distract people from what was happening at the altar. At the time, this made quite a bit of sense to me, especially having been raised in the culture of the Bible Belt where there is the commonly held belief that Catholics worship statues and Mary. Being told that the Church itself had undergone change that required less statues, less of what many times seemed like superstitious prayers sounded good to me. But when I later read what the Constitution on the Liturgy actually said, I had to rethink what I had been told.
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. We learn from the same Apostle that we must always bear about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame. This is why we ask the Lord in the sacrifice of the Mass that, “receiving the offering of the spiritual victim,” he may fashion us for himself “as an eternal gift”.
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.
Devotions proper to individual Churches also have a special dignity if they are undertaken by mandate of the bishops according to customs or books lawfully approved.
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.
The intention of the council fathers was certainly to hold the Eucharist in the highest regards, pointing people towards it as the ultimate form of Christian prayer, but it does not in any way discourage the participation in popular devotions. I am well aware of the fact that there are some who mistakenly see things like the rosary as more important than participation at mass, but for the most part it seems that participation in Eucharistic Adoration, making time for daily prayers and devotions, or using religious art as a way of meditating on the sacred mysteries we celebrate each Sunday are ways that strengthen our participation in the Eucharist.
Perhaps it is my affinity for iconography that leads me to think it was a mistake to remove so much of the statuary from our church buildings following the council. Like icons, our statues and art are meant to be in churches as physical reminders of our participation in the heavenly liturgy. The physical aspect of Christ in his Incarnation would almost seem to require us to have these concrete symbols of our faith.
The Church today seems to be in the process of recovering much of what was lost in what, in my opinion, were mistaken interpretations of what was being taught by the council fathers.
What has been your experience of popular devotions in the Church? Do you find religious art helpful in your prayer life or does it distract you? As always, I welcome your comments.