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Caravaggio's "Madonna di Loreto"

Devotional life is a necessary expression of the Catholic principle of sacramentality. A healthy devotional life will be marked by balance, humility, and fidelity to the Church.

"The Gospel is the measure against which all expressions of Christian piety – both old and new – must be measured" (Popular Piety and the Liturgy).

I. Devotional Piety and Catholic Life

From the beginning, alongside her specific moral precepts and liturgical rites, the Church has seen a rich development of pious devotional practices. The existence of a strong devotional life is a natural human expression of genuine engagement with the faith, and the Church has welcomed such practices, only keeping an eye on them to be sure that they are genuinely in tune with the spirit of the Gospel and that they represent a healthy human response to the presence of God, both individually and communally.

It might be said that pious devotions are the “love language” of believers in their encounter with God. Just as a married couple who have founded their union on doctrines of the faith and on commitments and duties to be fulfilled will surround those convictions with personal expressions and practices of affection to help sweeten their lives and strengthen their commitments to one another, so Christian believers whose faith is secured by creedal doctrines and the life of the sacraments will find ways of personally and communally expressing their love for God, such that they can walk the path of discipleship with joy and conviction.

The Church encourages devotional piety in general, while not binding any particular devotional practice on her members. An excerpt from the 2001 Vatican document on Popular Piety and the Liturgy notes this attitude on the Church’s part, of valuing devotional life but of insisting on the optional nature of any given pious practice:

While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional. Such is clearly proven by the Church’s precept which obliges attendance at Sunday Mass. No such obligation, however, has obtained with regard to pious exercises, notwithstanding their worthiness or their widespread diffusion.
The optional nature of pious exercises should in no way be taken to imply an under-estimation or even disrespect for such practices. The way forward in this area requires a correct and wise appreciation of the many riches of popular piety, of the potentiality of these same riches and of the commitment to the Christian life which they inspire (para. 11-12).
Here we see the approach of the Church to the many individual and communal devotional practices of her members. She encourages pious devotions as being a great aid to the faith, while at the same time she maintains a certain vigilance toward them to make sure that they lead toward and not away from the vitals of the faith, or lest enthusiasm for a given devotional practice upset the proper balance of the spiritual life. This has been the mind and practice of the Church through the centuries.

II. The Current Pastoral Challenge

We are living through a time of profound cultural change, a time that is seeing new ways of organizing life at the hands of powerful new technologies and ideologies, touching on every aspect of the social and individual world. The Church has not been unaffected by these changes. In every age she has the task of representing the truths of the faith to whatever cultural world she finds herself inhabiting. In times of rapid or seismic changes, the task of communicating and living the eternal truths of the faith requires more than usual thought and care. If the Church's life and message are so bound to the cultural forms of one time and place that they cannot be expressed apart from those forms, she will inevitably become only an artifact, a historical monument that has lost its inner life. On the other hand, if the Church too rapidly or carelessly throws off the cultural language in which she has been clothed for many years in favor of new forms of expression, a spirit of anarchy can ensue in which the perennial realities of the faith can seem up for grabs and can get lost. The sane balance that characterizes the mind and practice of the Church in all ages is especially needed in such a time.

When so much is in a swirl of cultural change, there will be an inevitable tendency on the part of some in the Church to embrace one of two problematic attitudes. St. Augustine once famously praised God as “beauty ever ancient and ever new,” and that is also an apt description for that God-given quality by which the Church finds ever new ways to express the unchanging beauty and truth. Times of change tend to produce people who can see only one half of that divine balance. Some are so entranced with what is new that they run entirely away from the perennial truths of the faith. Others are so attached to or enthralled by what is ancient that they come to think that tradition means “what is old” rather than “what is perennially true.” The first group is ready to throw aside any and every pious devotion that they have often rashly judged to be culturally outmoded, and it isn’t long before they are ready to discard the fundamental doctrines of the faith. The second group is unwilling to alter the smallest article of the cultural or devotional clothing they have discovered or grown accustomed to, and they assign to particular pious practices the same importance they would give to the fundamentals of the faith, setting up a kind of devotional orthodoxy. Both groups are currently very much in evidence, as the Church has been grappling with rapid cultural change and searching for proper and effective ways of addressing the needs of the time.

For the young, this kind of cultural and devotional confusion presents a particular challenge. Youth is naturally a time of extremes. Perhaps a previous young generation was enamored with “the new and the now.” Everything old was bad; all that was new was part of the emerging Church that would finally accomplish a “Copernican Revolution” and overcome the darknesses of the past, bringing us into the promised land. It was a Catholic version of Woodstock and the Age of Aquarius. In the midst of some turbulence, the Church was graced with noble and thoughtful leadership in remarkable popes who re-articulated the divine balance needed to negotiate such a time. The current generation of young Catholics can find a strong temptation in the opposite direction. Noting exaggerations and distortions of doctrine and practice that have wounded the Church and wanting to stay faithful to Christ, they often move in the opposite direction and refuse to admit as acceptable any change in the Church’s devotional life and shared expression of faith, setting in immutable stone one particular cultural expression of the faith.

The situation is made more challenging in that it is characteristic of many young people growing up in our socially detached electronic world that they feel a lack of place and identity even more keenly than youth generally does. Some among them thus gravitate to external means of securing their internal sense of themselves and can find a place of security in exaggerated or rigid forms of piety that promise to locate their otherwise inchoate selves. What can emerge is a kind of Catholic version of the punk sub-culture, in which a strong communal identity is provided by highly visible external markers, and a purported non-conformist stance toward the wider culture hides a profound conformity and loss of proper individuality. This kind of Catholic sub-culture is meant to be, and often is, an expression of a real desire for fidelity to God, and so deserves sympathy and understanding. But because of its inherent lack of balance, it inhibits the spiritual maturity of those who inhabit it. It also seriously compromises the evangelistic attractiveness of the faith, since whatever its possessors may think, it is often repellent to those who encounter it as a “typical” expression of Catholicism.

Hence the pastoral challenge: how to care for our younger brothers and sisters who have embraced an exaggerated piety for reasons not wholly of their own making and to move them toward genuine spiritual maturity, while at the same time not upsetting their (often fragile) faith or wrongly deprecating the importance and goodness of devotional life.

III. Some Basic Devotional Principles

The document on devotion and liturgy earlier cited mentioned some important bases for all devotional life. Here’s what it noted:

“Popular piety should be permeated by:

  • a biblical spirit, since it is impossible to imagine a Christian prayer without direct or indirect reference to Sacred Scripture;
  • a liturgical spirit, if it is to dispose properly for or echo the mysteries celebrated in the liturgical actions;
  • an ecumenical spirit, in consideration of the sensibilities and traditions of other Christians without, however, being restricted by inappropriate inhibitions;
  • an anthropological spirit which both conserves symbols and expressions of importance or significance for a given nation while eschewing senseless archaisms, and which strives to dialogue in terms redolent with contemporary sensibility” (par. 11).

Much of the document is concerned for communal expressions of popular piety in different countries and cultures. The last concern mentioned is the one most in play here: what the document calls the “anthropological spirit.” Devotional life has a human side, and like all human things it can be either healthy or unhealthy. It can be willful and weird, or it can be tender and touchingly beautiful. It can arise from a deep love for Christ and the Church, or it can be a sublimated expression of anger, pride, or disillusionment. What follows are some principles for healthy devotional practice.

1. Devotional life is a necessary expression of the Catholic principle of sacramentality.

Christ, the Word made flesh, always clothes his invisible nature in the visible stuff of life. The Incarnation continues in the Church and in the many cultural expressions of the faith. There have been those in the Church in recent decades who have denigrated devotions as being unspiritual, a matter of externals that get in the way of the inner spiritual vitality of the Christian faith. This is a serious error. Private and communal devotions are a great aid to faith and add richness to life. As we give Christian formation to our students, we want to include a sound formation in strong and healthy devotional life.

2. “Divine balance” is not mediocrity.

Christianity implies a complete and total commitment of the whole of our being. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). But one of the paradoxes of the faith is that this totality of conviction often expresses itself most fully in a kind of balance. Every heresy is an exaggerated imbalance: a seizing of one article of faith without the proper account of other doctrines. Every virtue is a “golden mean” that can be lost either by excess or defect. As Chesterton once wrote: “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands” (Orthodoxy). This principle of divine balance is in play in the area of private devotion.

Believers can be led into devotional excesses when they come to think that the most devotionally radical practice is the truest and best, and that the desire for balance is only a sign of compromise. If it is good to genuflect once before the Sacrament, it is twice as good to genuflect twice. If it is a commendable practice to wear a small cross under one’s clothing and close to one’s heart, it is even better to wear a big one that everyone can see. If gently striking one’s breast at the Confiteor expresses sorrow for sin, a resonant chest thump heard across the chapel is surely more efficacious. There was once a convent of pious nuns who wanted to receive the Eucharist ten times a day, since it seemed obvious to them that the more of Christ one consumed, the better. The Church has needed to curtail that kind of exaggeration and to aim at a true divine and human balance.

3. Healthy private devotion dislikes calling attention to itself.

The consistent teaching of all the spiritual masters in this area is that private devotion, like expressions of affection between lovers, seeks to hide itself from the eyes of others. A good example of this was St. Philip Neri. Philip was a great mystic who had remarkable visitations from God, though he tried to hide them and most of them were not widely known until after his death. He also had a strong and healthy devotional life; he instituted the famous Roman visits to the Seven Churches, his ministry was a fountain of religious vocations, and he spent long hours in adoration. But he had little patience with people who called attention to themselves by their pious devotions. Here are a few of his maxims:

  • “We ought to abhor every kind of affectation, whether in talking, dressing, or anything else.”
  • “Avoid every kind of singularity, for it is generally the hotbed of pride, especially spiritual pride.”
  • “Tears are no sign that a man is in the grace of God, neither must we infer that one who weeps when he speaks of holy and devout things necessarily leads a holy life.”
  • “Let us pray God, if He gives us any virtue or any gift, to keep it hidden even from ourselves, that we may preserve our humility, and not take occasion of pride because of it.”

Neri was especially concerned that there be nothing to distract worshippers at the Sacred Liturgy. He himself was often on the edge of ecstasy when he said Mass, and so he would have an acolyte poke him steadily to keep him from losing his sense of his surroundings. When the visitations from God during Mass became overpowering, he took to saying Mass privately lest he distract other worshippers away from God and toward himself.

4. Properly imitating the private devotions of the saints requires thoughtfulness.

The saints are given to us as examples of faith, hope, and charity, and we will never go wrong if we attempt to gain the same inner life that they have possessed. But we cannot always imitate their manner of expressing that life, an expression often grounded in a particular call and a high degree of holiness. What is authentic and genuine in the devotional life of a saint may be artificial and presumptuous in someone imitating them. Souls very close to God in an ecstasy of prayer may genuinely and unconsciously have a look of passionate intensity as they pray. But if people who are not saints and not in ecstasy determine to pray with the same facial or physical gestures, they are not imitating the saint; they are just copying an external expression of an inward reality that they lack. Whether they do so to convince themselves that they are genuine Christians or to impress others by their piety, either way they are walking a false devotional road, one centered on self rather than on love of God.

St. Francis de Sales once wrote of humility: "I do not call humility the ceremonious assemblage of words, of gestures, prostrations, reverences, and genuflections, when they are all done, as often happens, without any inner sense of real abjection or of real esteem for others; for all that is only the vain amusement of feeble minds, and ought rather to be called the phantom of humility." This is a subtle temptation that haunts our devotional practice and that needs to be guarded against.

5. A true understanding of the Sacred Liturgy should result in great reluctance to make the Mass a place of devotional conflict.

In a time like ours during which there have been many battles over liturgy, it is unrealistic to think that conflict around the liturgy can be completely avoided apart from greater peace in the wider Church. Nonetheless, the Mass is meant to be the point of unity for Catholics, and it should be experienced as profoundly painful for Catholics to find conflicts of whatever kind impinging on the Eucharist.

The Mass is an iconic reality. All that goes on there participates and points to what is beyond it. Anything that forces the participants to take their eyes and minds off the invisible realities behind the various rites and symbols and the reality of Christ in the Eucharistic species is out of place.

This can be seen most tangibly in the person of the priest who celebrates. He is meant to be present and yet in a sense invisible – invisible as an individual with private tastes and eccentricities. When a priest insists on personally “showing up” at Mass by altering the proper prayers, using odd and rare gestures or marking himself out by his manner of speech or dress, he is simply getting in the way of the Mass. He is damaging his iconic quality and is distracting the worshippers from God. The same is true of a lector, or a cantor or choir member, or an acolyte. If attention is called to self rather than to Christ, the person has failed in the liturgical task, no matter how much skill or talent might be present. The principle also holds for the individual worshipper. Anything that is odd or eccentric, anything that calls attention to the person rather than to the sacred action of the Mass, has no place there, whether it be dress, gesture, or external attitude of prayer. The Mass-goer exercises charity by avoiding anything that would distract his brother or sister.

Particularly out of place is the self-righteous attempt to “show others how one should go to Mass.” The worshipper comes in humility to forget self altogether and to give glory to God, not to model holiness for lesser beings.

6. The ultimate authority for determining the health and spiritual fruitfulness of devotions, both private and public, is the Catholic Church.

God has provided for us a way out of the trap of subjective arbitrariness by investing his Church with the authority and grace to sort out questions of doctrine and practice. When it comes to devotional life, it is in the nature of things that different believers will find some devotions more suited to them than others. It is one reason why the Church allows so many different forms of devotional life, and why she doesn’t demand adherence to any specific devotional practice. Individuals are free to choose their private devotions, at the same time allowing for whatever the Church allows and turning from whatever the Church deems problematic. They will be careful not to condemn or disparage what the Church sanctions, even if it is not to their personal taste.

IV. Some Pastoral Suggestions toward Cultivating Healthy Devotional Life

1. Find ways to articulate and model a positive devotional ideal.

Pointing out devotional exaggerations may be necessary at times, but if this becomes primary it can be perceived as mainly defensive and reactive and will be hard to understand and receive. The more our students, especially older students in positions of leadership, can be helped to understand the principles involved in a healthy devotional life and be formed in them, the more easily that life will permeate the campus. It is crucial to take thought for ways to communicate that vision to leaders among the student body.

2. In specific instances where devotional exaggeration is present, it helps to determine whether the main motivation at work is spiritual pride or insecurity.

Among the young, when external things are given an exaggerated importance, it is usually due to some kind of insecurity or fragility, whether of personality or of faith. When the inner form of a character and personality are lacking, it is easy to seek a substitute in externals. This is one reason why such exaggerated forms are often “contagious” among the young. Someone who is unsure about self and faith can easily think, when confronted by exaggerated piety, that they are lacking in faith, and so imitate what they see around them.

Spiritually speaking this is a humble sort of fault and is fairly easily overcome as greater understanding and deeper confidence in faith and in self grow. This is especially true when there are good examples available of strong devotional life. When insecurity and lack of confidence are in play, encouragement and understanding are usually the best medicines.

But it can happen, though more rarely among the young, that the problem is spiritual pride. This was the case with the Pharisees, who really thought themselves better than others because of their pious practices, and who as a result faced the stern anger of Christ. A telltale sign of spiritual pride is readiness to sit in judgment on others who don’t share the same devotional practices, and a stubborn determination to get others to embrace one’s devotions or manner of prayer, even to the point of bringing conflict into the Eucharistic celebration. This is a harder nut to crack. The characteristic attitude of the prideful mind is anger. When a coterie of Christians unite together in a fellowship of anger against “those other people” (whoever they may be), when they find their unity in a shared contempt for the lapsed and center their conversation not on the goodness of Christ but on the stupidities of the unenlightened, spiritual pride will be found close at hand. The cure of such pride is not easy, and it often comes by directly confronting the problem such that it can be seen for what it is. Often there is little that can be done, except to minimize the damage such pride can have on other more vulnerable souls.

To conclude: The many devotional traditions carried by the Church will be a source of great richness and joy for our students, especially as they learn to integrate them well in the overall shape of their lives according to the mind of the Church. In this area, as in all that we do in service to them, let us work with the grace of God to help our students to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

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