ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
13. 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.
It is hard to imagine today, but Paragraph 13 was both a radical departure in Church practice and a source of considerable contention in local parishes. I have not addressed the issue of “popular devotions” or “private devotions” as a blog post so far, and I am not familiar with devotional customs outside of the United States, so I will confine the discussion to American experience. However, there is an excellent commentary on para. 13, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001, Congregation for Divine Worship) which provides a rich and surprisingly easy-to-read treatment of the history and role of prayer and piety outside of the Liturgy.
Prior to the Council the Liturgy or Mass was a cerebral event. It is true that traditionalists speak of the glories of the Tridentine Mass I grew up with, but what they recall is either the occasional solemn high Mass—in my church celebrated at 10:30 AM on Sundays with the choir—or the reflective silence of the typical Latin Mass. The “typical” Mass most likely had no music of any kind, contained no English, and was celebrated facing the altar/tabernacle. On Sunday, the Gospel might be repeated in English, but it is a strange quirk that Church law in those times defined the mortal sin of missing Sunday Mass as failure to be in attendance by the beginning of the Offertory. Put another way, missing the Liturgy of the Word (then termed the “Mass of the Catechumens”) was reckoned venially sinful.
The Liturgy of the Council of Trent, the “Latin Mass” of recent memory, had the advantage of ritual and doctrinal purity, but as a compelling affective experience it usually left much to be desired. Not surprisingly faithful Catholics turned to compelling prayers and quasi-rituals for affective engagement and enrichment of their faith. The most popular, in the best sense of that word, were devotions to the Virgin Mary that we continue to this day, notably the rosary and the Angelus. Perhaps because of the austerity of the Tridentine Mass, the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries saw the development of new devotions, often associated with a miraculous appearance. The most famous of this era is probably devotion to the Sacred Heart, sparked by a series of revelations to St. Margaret Mary in the late seventeenth century. One aspect of this devotion became the practice of receiving communion on nine successive first Fridays in reparation for the sins of mankind. Another type of popular local devotion involved saints, particularly in the regions where the saint may have brought the faith originally or successfully preached it. Think Ireland.
The above cited Vatican 2001 document calls attention to Protestant attacks upon Catholic doctrine and practices, and the response of the Church faithful to such attacks. It is probably no accident that much of the post-Reformation devotional life coincided with outside attacks against belief in Real Presence and the importance of the Virgin Mary. The document itself also admits to the increasingly “cerebral” nature of Church life and the inevitable development of popular religious movements and practices. Personally, I feel that, given the poor state of religious education today in the United States, we are drifting into that kind of division again.
The popes of the twentieth century recognized two serious problems. The first was the existence of a kind of two-track Catholic life, between personal devotion and the official Church calendar and ritual. Most personal devotions are not time-bound, having no direct relation to the Liturgical Year. The Mass might be a requirement, but it was becoming more tangential or disjointed from the inner life of the faithful, particularly considering that reception of the Eucharist was rare until well into the twentieth century and the teachings of Pius X. On the other hand, popes understood the Mass itself, as then celebrated, left much to be desired for the Catholic heart. Pius XII wrote in 1947, “those are worthy of praise who, inspired by the purpose of enabling the Christian people to take part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice more easily and fruitfully, properly try to place the Roman Missal in the hands of the people, so that the faithful, joined with the priest, may pray together [silently] with the same words as his, and with the same sentiments as those of the Church.” (Mediator Dei) I quoted this from the daily missal I used in the late 1950’s. But very few people purchased daily missals; the books were expensive for the times and no parish of my acquaintance provided any type of worship aid or hymnal.
Not surprisingly, people took to praying the rosary or litanies from prayer books brought from home. Most, from my memory, brought nothing but sat blankly, either in profound meditation or what a seminary professor once described as “the martini hour of the mind.” I don’t say this in total sarcasm, as after Vatican II I celebrated an immensely popular 10:15 PM weekly Sunday Mass in today’s rite for college students; the Mass was conducted primarily in candle light and gentle instrumental music played throughout. The feedback we constantly received was that the students profited from the hour “to get their heads together.”
The Mass of Pope Paul VI we observe today was reformed to engage the total person: Scripturally, vocally, aesthetically, visually, etc., to engage the head and the heart. In Rudolf Bultmann’s memorable phrase, for example, the role of preaching is to rouse a congregation to stand as one and declare anew its original baptismal faith. Bultmann was Lutheran by profession, and perhaps his twentieth century take on the potential driving faith of public worship may seem strange to Catholic ears, but in fact we do say (but not proclaim) the Nicene Creed immediately after the homily. One would need to do considerable digging, but I suspect that in the minutes of Vatican II deliberations or committee work one would find expressed the hope that the Liturgy of the Eucharist would capture the timelessness of ritual with the human need for catharsis or engaging and purging the human spirit like an ancient Greek drama.
Para. 13, in its final sentence, speaks of a hopeful harmony between popular devotion and the Church’s official liturgy. What is not said here—though it is correctly assumed—is that popular devotion should incorporate Sacred Scripture to a greater degree than in the past. Pope John Paul II provided an excellent example of this principle in his addition of the Luminous Mysteries--Gospel scenes from Jesus' ministry--to the ritual of the rosary. Similarly, the Church has encouraged the use of the Liturgy of the Hours by Catholics. But, as I noted earlier, if the goal is greater integration with the liturgical seasons, has there been a resurgence or a renaissance of personal piety in that direction? (Put more bluntly, are many people aware of the pulse of the liturgical calendar, or its Gospel of St. Matthew?)
I look back on one devotion of my youth, reading The Imitation of Christ after communion, as a truly affective personal experience. Today, decades later, I recognize the book’s limitations as signature literature of the Via Moderna movement of the 1400’s. As age creeps along, truthfully, the Mass seems more like its predecessor: poor music, vanilla preaching, mind-numbing sameness regardless of the liturgical season. Moving personal devotions and exercises are harder to come by, too. From this seat, if para. 13 was intended as a marriage of the head and the heart, the first kiss is still a ways off.