Although you may never mention it to anyone, it’s not some dirty little secret or large fault to not like some Catholic devotions. They may not appeal to you and, more importantly, when you give them an honest try, you don’t find them spiritually helpful. Perhaps — yikes! — you even find them a little annoying or burdensome.
Devotions mandated in Scripture
This isn’t to say Catholicism is a make-it-up-yourself kind of religion with do-it-yourself theology. Not at all. So let’s start by pointing out some hard-and-fast basic devotions that all Catholics practice:
- The Eucharist and the other sacraments: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19).
- The Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:27).
- The Our Father: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1).
- Private prayer: “He went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone” (Mt 14:23).
- Scripture: “He interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27).
- Dogma: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18).
So what’s missing? All the wonderful devotions and practices that the Church has created since the end of apostolic times. (That is, the death of the last apostle who, tradition says, was John.)
Some of those devotions and practices have been, and remain, hugely popular and incredibly helpful to countless people. Others were more tightly focused on a time, a place and a limited number of devotees. But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s back up and ask: “Just what is a Catholic devotion or practice?” It’s one of many forms of prayer and actions.
What does the Catechism say?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the Stations of the Cross, religious dances, the Rosary, medals, etc.
“These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They ‘should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them'” (Nos. 1674-1675).
Private devotions for the faithful
One common devotion is the Stations of the Cross, said in many parishes collectively during Lent and year-round individually. Another practiced in public or in private is praying the Rosary, focusing on Jesus through Mary. Or Eucharistic adoration in a chapel. None of these devotions can replace the Mass, but choosing additional devotions is completely up to you.
You can be an outstanding Catholic and never have attended Eucharistic adoration. Or — and we tread lightly here — gone a time or two but just didn’t care for it. Didn’t find it spiritually helpful. So, too, with all such Catholic practices and devotions: You get to choose. You get to be (personally) led by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s use the late Ann Ball’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices (OSV, $39.95) to bolster this claim. The book features more than 1,000 entries, and there’s no way any of us regularly could practice all of them. And, odds are, most of us have never even heard of some of them.
With all that in mind, here are four points to consider:
1. It’s about preference
Perhaps “dislike” is too strong a word. Most certainly “hate” would be. “I hate the Angelus.” That’s too much. “I don’t care for the Fátima prayer at the end of every decade of the Rosary.” (“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.”) A lovely prayer, but required? No.
It’s probably better to use the word “prefer.” “I prefer the Divine Mercy Chaplet to the St. Frances Cabrini Chaplet.” Or vice versa. No harm, no foul, no sin. Or maybe you like the Divine Mercy one and didn’t even know there was one for Mother Cabrini. It seems very safe to assume Frances and Faustina aren’t duking it out in heaven as each tries to “get more likes.”
2. All devotions are treated equally
This brings up another concern. We aren’t supposed to keep score (or spat): “My devotions are better than yours!” Well, actually, they are, but only in that they’re better for you. Someone else’s choices can be better for that someone else. It’s so easy to give in to the temptation of judging others who don’t like what we like. Others simply use the devotion to which the Holy Spirit is leading them and by which they best hear him.
3. Devotions can be trendy
“Fad” probably isn’t the right word, but some forms of popular piety reach a peak and then dwindle. And, since it’s the Holy Spirit who directs the Church on earth, that’s OK. We, the people, need something right here, right now, and then we move on. An example may be when churches were packed for weekly novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help during World War II.
No, it’s not that devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help isn’t cool anymore. The Blessed Mother is always way up there on the (nonexisting) Popular Piety Chart, but the use of a specific Marian devotion or image can be, at times, gently overtaken by another.
In a similar way, a devotion to Our Lady of Knock is probably always more popular in Ireland than it is in Cuba. And, in Cuba, there’s no local Marian devotion like Our Lady of El Cobre.
4. Devotions are a gift
The bottom line: It’s true that it’s not a sin to “dislike” some devotions, but at the very least it’s plain old foolishness not to explore, choose and use the ones best suited for you. Truly, each — in its own way — is a heavenly gift.
Bill Dodds writes from Washington.
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