Understanding the sacraments: Nurturing family devotions

Synod on the Family to address Church concerns, including safeguarding and promoting forms of popular piety

On Oct. 5 the third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops begins its work on the “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.”

In preparation for the synod, the Vatican sent out a questionnaire in October 2013. The responses to the questionnaire have been distilled into what is known as the instrumentum laboris or working document, the beginning of a profound reflection and discussion by the Church’s bishops.

One of the sacramental concerns revealed in the working document is the need for families to live the sacrament of confession, which I discussed in my previous column. Another concern revealed in the working document is the “need to safeguard and promote the various forms of popular piety” (n. 57), especially the practice of Marian devotions (n. 42), which is the subject of this column.
It is generally acknowledged that there was a sharp decline in the practice of Catholic devotional life following the Second Vatican Council. “Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, public recitation of the Rosary, novenas, Stations of the Cross, the annual Corpus Christi procession, the Forty Hours devotion — they all vanished in many parishes” (“John Paul II Helped Bring Back Traditions After Vatican II, Our Sunday Visitor, 4/16/2014). Many factors contributed to this dramatic change in the Church’s spiritual life.

In a 2012 interview, Holy Cross Father James Phalan, president of the Mariological Society of America, discussed some of the main factors that led to a decline in Marian devotion. One factor was what he calls an “overly rationalist” historical approach to Marian studies in the years following the Council that marginalized most forms of devotion. This was compounded by the cultural and social upheaval of the 1970s that questioned or dismissed religious traditions and beliefs, developments that affected Marian devotion (“Marian Devotion”, Catholic News Service, 9/7/2012).

The example and teaching of St. John Paul II were crucial in reversing the decline in Catholic devotions. Every year he participated in a solemn Corpus Christi procession in Rome. He led Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum on the evening of Good Friday. He spoke often of his intense devotion to Our Lady, and in 2002 he published the apostolic letter “On the Most Holy Rosary,” encouraging the faithful to rediscover this profound prayer and proposing the Luminous Mysteries.

It also was during his papacy that the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments produced The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (2001). It begins with a historical survey of popular piety, a summary of the Church’s teaching on the subject, and a discussion of the relationship between popular piety and the liturgy. It then discusses specific devotions in detail. Individual chapters discuss (1) popular piety and the liturgical year, (2) the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, (3) the veneration of the saints and beatified, (4) prayer for the dead, (5) and shrines and pilgrimages. It is a wonderful resource for clergy and laity in supporting and promoting the devotional life of families and parishes. It is available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html.
In his recent apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelli Gaudium), Pope Francis devoted a section to “The Evangelizing Power of Popular Piety.” He describes popular piety as “a true expression of the spontaneous missionary activity of the people of God…an ongoing and developing process, of which the Holy Spirit is the principal agent” (n. 122). He stressed that it “is an active evangelizing power which we must not underestimate: to do so would be to fail to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit” (n. 125).

Expressions of popular piety specifically praised in the working document for the upcoming synod include not only the rosary but also the Angelus, “Mary’s Pilgrimage,” in which a statue or icon of Our Lady is passed from one home to another. Other examples cited are folk festivals and celebrations of local saints, a home altar or “Gospel Pilgrimage” in which a Bible and icon are displayed with a commitment to regular prayer and reading Sacred Scripture, and praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a family.

The Synod’s working document concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family, which reads in part: “Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches. Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, its beauty in God’s plan.” May this be our prayer for the upcoming Synod.

Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.