Devotions: Separating Faith and Fact from Superstition

In Roman Catholic circles there is little thought among most given to many various innovations now considered standard praxis.  There is little enthusiasm to be had if one recommends Compline after one of the weekday low masses (be prepared to face many a squinted eye or long-faced scowl if you dare recommend replacing Benediction with it). But woe to he who questions the authenticity of a Marian Appartion or popular devotion.
We often forget how much Protestantism deeply scarred the Western church and swept away the old order.  Many do not understand that the Roman Catholicism that emerged from the devastation of the 16th and 17th century religious wars was far different from that which came before. There is much written about it that would be too far reaching for a blog post, so I won’t dwell on it.
It will suffice to say that before Luther Catholicism was THE culture of the West.  Regardless of how well it was followed or how much it was abused, it was woven into the hearts and minds of the people.  The village church was the center of social life, the Pope was a distant figure whose name was known to few, and the devotions were simultaneously local and plentiful (the Lady of Walsingham is one such example).  After the Protestant devastation the common “language” of the faith was shattered to millions of pieces, the Pope was the all-powerful leader who was above question, belief was focused less on the Divine prayers of the Liturgical life and more on a set of recited dogmas, and every devotion went up to almighty Rome where it was dispersed through the entire world no matter how odd or innovative it was.  To question a devotion was to be seen as “protestant” (as if pointing out the apocryphal and dubious “Sabbatine Privileges” is equivalent to those who saw the very priesthood itself as a “Romish superstition”!).
It is with this in mind that I tread into the the waters of devotional discernment.  I know that if I so much as doubt any devotion there is someone somewhere who will take offense, but that is the risk one must take.   I will give a brief and honest opinion on a few devotions below.
The Marian Rosary
There are few prayers more synonymous with Catholicism than the rosary.  Ever since its introduction by St. Dominic it has spiritually enriched the lives of millions.  In times of persecution, when priests were scarce and liturgical books were unavailable (England and Ireland for three centuries, Ukraine under the Soviets, Poles in the Nazi death camps), it was one of the few reminders Catholics possessed to direct their souls to God and His grace. Along with the ancient “Jesus Rosary” of the desert monks, I still pray it on occasion.
Even with all the attachment I have to it, I do not see it as the key to temporal world peace or a liturgical substitute (one can pray the rosary at home; why do churches need to have special time for rosaries while they neglect the Office?).  While it is one of the richest prayers in Christendom, let us not forget its proper place.  It is probably the greatest private devotion in the history of the church (except maybe the Franciscan Stations of the Cross), but it is just that: a private devotion.
The Chaplet of Divine Mercy
I have never prayed the Divine Mercy Rosary.  I have seen it prayed once, and was ambivalent to it.  It is a perfectly fine prayer that serves to enrich the spiritual lives of many.  If it brings you closer to God then – by all means – pray it!
However, I do not endorse the innovative “promises” that Faustina claims come with the devotion.  Many of them attribute graces to the chaplet that seem to be sacramental replacers (“total forgiveness of one’s sins”… I thought confession and the Eucharist had that covered) or promise temporal peace for the world (get in line behind the rosary and Eucharistic Adoration, little devotion).  I dismiss these as pure nonsense, as the Holy Office did on four separate occasions.
I also have some personal misgivings about a devotion focused specifically on Christ’s Mercy, just as I would a devotion to Christ’s divinity, humanity, or justice.  Focusing specifically on one aspect of the God-man seems a bit dangerous in my opinion, regardless of the aspect.
The Brown Scapular
Unlike some of the very strange scapulars in the “five-fold” sandwich, the brown scapular has a long history and a clear purpose.  It is just a pity that the purpose has been lost and obfuscated thanks to some devotionalist forgeries.  I refer, of course, to the “Sabbatine privileges” which promise things that were never even promised in the Eucharist (If the Body and Blood of Christ won’t avail you something, why will a piece of wool do so?) and seem primarily motivated by giving a worrisome and scrupulous faithful a “get out of purgatory” card and a ticket to heaven.
To say that this is the opposite of the original intent is an understatement.  The brown scapular is an abbreviated form of the full Carmelite scapular and is intended for lay use.  The idea is that wearing an uncomfortable piece of wool will encourage the wearer to do prayers and penance, remind them of their sins, and integrate more discomfort into their life.  Much like an abbreviated Divine Office for the laity, this is an abbreviated monastic habit to provide a small taste of monasticism to those who must live in the world.
The Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart
I already am devoted to Christ and the Theotokos.  Why do I need a devotion to their cardiovascular organs specifically?  See my above statements on Divine Mercy and focusing too much one one aspect.  I will admit that the first friday and saturday masses were a precious treasure of my childhood, so these devotions have definitely brought good into the world as strange as they are (and as bad as the art around them is).
One observation I’d like to make in general is that where I take issue with most of these devotions is not the devotion itself but with the promises supposedly attached to them (usually remission of sins, cutting down or elimination of “Purgatory Time”, or world peace).  This Quid pro Quo method of praying seems dodgy and selfish if not outright blasphemous.  It is antithetical to the purpose and the spirit of prayer.  Prayer is not transactional.  One should not pray with a “What am I going to get out of it?” attitude (which is why I generally eschew something or do it privately if a bunch of people are doing it “to get an indulgence”).  As Fr. Robert Taft once pointed out, liturgy and prayer is not about what you get from God but what you offer to God.
As for temporal world peace, such a thing – if possible – will come only through the Kingship of Christ.  It is not a Kingship of social programs, establishing Catholic governments, waiting for the “Great Catholic Monarch”, restoring a lost era, opposing (admittedly heinous) political movements in the West, reducing poverty and hunger through “liberation theology”, or burning “heretics” at the stake.  It is (as venerable Pius XI stated in his encyclical on the subject) a Kingship of Love over the hearts of men, for the Kingdom of Christ is “not of this world”.

One thought on “Devotions: Separating Faith and Fact from Superstition

  1. Years ago, when I went off to college, a transitional Deacon assigned to my parish gave me a “house scapular” as a going away gift. The two woolen pieces were about 6 inches high, one with the Sacre Heart, the other with the Immaculate Heart, connected by a foot or two of woolen string. I think the idea was to hang it on a doorknob. I jokingly told my roommates that if we caused the dorm to burn down, because of that scapular our room would be sure to get out of purgatory on the first Saturday of the month.

    Please share your thoughts on novenas. Nothing says quid pro quo like a good novena to the Little Flower!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s