The Mass and private devotions in Catholic life

The Mass and private devotions in Catholic life

Br Barry Coldrey

Some three or four years ago, this writer was at a family funeral for the last of the twelve survivors of my father's five brothers and sisters and their spouses. 'Aunt' Louise, the widow of my father's brother, had died at an advanced age in a nursing home. She lived a devoted family and community-centred Catholic life.

During the funeral Mass, one of the young eulogists mentioned that her grandmother had a strong, life-long devotion to St Jude, the patron saint of the 'hope of the hopeless'. The congregation smiled audibly. There appeared to be nothing in the deceased's quiet, suburban, family life which warranted desperate recourse to the patron saint of hopeless cases!

There is a point in this family memory: while the liturgy is the official worship of the Catholic people and the Church regulates the liturgy closely, there is some latitude in the case of each Catholic's choice of private devotions and personal prayer. They are not 'foundations of faith' in themselves but rather complement these foundations.

As with approved apparitions, such as Lourdes or Fatima, particular approved devotions, while not obligatory for Catholics, are recommended practices for fostering commitment to the essentials, such as the Scriptures, including the central role of Our Lady, the Mass and the sacraments.

Among the Church's more conspicuously promoted devotions are Eucharistic devotions, the Divine Mercy devotion, and veneration of Mary as the Mother of God. These are the focus of this article.


The Second Vatican Council pointed out clearly that the life of the Church centres on the liturgy, the official public worship of God by the Church as the Body of Christ. The liturgy includes, above all, the Eucharist and the other six sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, (Reconciliation), Holy Orders, Matrimony and Extreme Unction (the Sacrament of the Sick).

Christ Himself is at work in the liturgy, so that the action of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, participates in the saving act of Christ as priest.

The liturgy also includes other actions of the Church:

* The Divine Office or the daily prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is said by priests and most members of religious orders.

* The rites of Christian burial.

* And the rites for those making religious profession.

However, in the wake of the Council, devotions such as to Jesus present in the Eucharist and to veneration of the Blessed Virgin tended to disappear from the Church's normal round of worship in many Catholic churches, although not all. There were reasons for this:

* The initiatives in liturgical renewal and the Biblical revival consumed the energies of many active Catholics.

* The secularisation of Western society affected many churchgoers profoundly. The secular trend encouraged some active Catholics to concentrate their efforts on good works for the marginalised, excluded and ignored in their societies; this passion for social justice, the mainstream secular society could understand, endorse and applaud.

* Vatican II's ecumenical thrust distracted some committed Catholics from devotions which might prove a stumbling block to other Christians.

* Some considered Marian and other devotions unsuitable for educated, sophisticated urban Catholics in the post-industrial age.

Today the now ageing 1960s spiritual trend setters appear not to have noticed that the tectonic plates of religious sensibility are moving again. Times keep changing; the '60s mindset is of the heady days of the Council, now almost a half-century ago. They are 'modern' as of two generations ago! Times were changing then and they are changing again; so back to the future.

Moreover, the 'passion for social justice', to which vast energy is given in many quarters, ignores - at a certain stage - the reality that Jesus proclaimed a spiritual message, a Kingdom not of this world. He did not proclaim an earthly paradise. He healed bodies to make them receptive to His message of spiritual liberation. His message embraces service, especially to the marginalised, but in addition, belief, worship and an appropriate lifestyle are essentials.

Whatever the reasons for the eclipse of devotions among many Catholics, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have sought to correct the secularising trend in the Church on many levels. The modern focus is still on the liturgy, but time-honoured devotions are promoted also.

The term, Eucharistic devotions refers to a number of religious practices to honour the Blessed Sacrament outside the celebration of Mass. These practices include private visits to a church, Benediction, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, processions and International Congresses.

These devotions presuppose faith in Christ present in the Sacred Host as well as the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass, a practice which can be traced at least as far back as St Justin in the second century.

Eucharistic devotions are a remedy for a weakened faith in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. They are identity markers for active Catholics in a rough-and-tumble secular society hostile to religious faith and Christian morality.

The Divine Mercy devotion

The story of St Faustina is, superficially, simple enough. She was born in 1905, the third of ten children, to a Polish peasant family making a meagre living on a small property near Lodz in centre of the country. At the age of fourteen she began to have thoughts about becoming a nun, but her parents were opposed. Meanwhile, for one reason or another - including the Russian occupation of Poland during World War I - her education was interrupted and she completed only three years of primary school.

In 1925, she at last entered the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Divine Mercy in Warsaw as a lay sister. Thereafter, until her early death from tuberculosis, she lived - to all outward appearances - a quiet life while working as portress, cook and gardener in various communities of her congregation.

However, internally, Faustina was experiencing a dramatic spiritual adventure centering, she tells us, on frequent, sometimes daily appearances of Jesus, Mary or one of the saints who spoke of many things; but the focal point was always divine mercy - God's desire to give it, humanity's need for mercy and the methods by which Divine Mercy could be obtained.

On 22 February 1931, when Faustina was in her cell, exhausted after a busy day in the bakery, she records how Jesus gave her the first intimation of her mission:

'One hand was raised in the gesture of blessing; the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence, I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord. After a while, Jesus said to me: 'Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: 'Jesus, I trust in you'.

'I wish that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and then throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over its enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I myself will defend this soul as My own glory.'

It is not possible in this short article to trace in the steps by which the Holy See validated St Faustina's visions and endorsed the Divine Mercy devotion along the lines she claimed to have received from the Lord.

The form the devotion was to take was revealed gradually to Sr Faustina over the next few months in 1931 and became the basis for the celebrated Chaplet of Divine Mercy:

'Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, for our sins and for those of the whole world. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.'

According to Sr Faustina, more details were given the next day. The prayer should be recited for nine days in a novena, and the ordinary Rosary beads would be used. Before these prayers, were to be said, an Our Father, a Hail Mary and the Apostles Creed on the three beads near the crucifix of the Rosary. She was then to say the first part of the prayer on the large beads separating the five decades and the shorter part of the prayer on each of the ten beads of each decade. At the end of all five decades Faustina was to recite three times: 'Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.'

Faustina died on 5 October 1938. The devotion itself and the cause for the canonisation of Sister Faustina were promoted vigorously by Pope John Paul II and she was canonised on 30 June 2000, the first saint of the new millennium.

In due course, John Paul II died in the first hours of the feast and his last words and symbolic actions took place in the context of the Divine Mercy vigil and Mass celebrated at his bedside by his long-standing personal aide, Archbishop Stanislas Dziwisz, and a dozen close friends.

Devotion to Our Lady

In the wake of Vatican II, devotion to Our Lady became less conspicuous in many Catholic churches and in some male religious congregations. Statues of Our Lady disappeared from some churches, communal recitation of the Rosary, First Saturday devotions and novenas in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary vanished. Special May and October prayers became rarer than previously, while devotions associated with the Brown Scapular and the Miraculous Medal were rarely, if ever, mentioned.

The relative disappearance of Mary from public view was, some said, 'consistent with the intentions of Vatican II', which declined to issue a separate document on Our Lady and instead treated her role in salvation history in a Chapter on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium, 1964).

However, the Council said nothing - to anyone who actually read the relevant document - to encourage the eclipse of veneration to Our Lady which occurred in its name.

What does Lumen Gentium actually say about devotion to the Virgin Mary?

'Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy Mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ; she is honoured correctly by a special cult in the Church.' There is much in similar vein.

Since the accession of Pope John Paul II, Marian devotion has been encouraged strongly. Vast numbers of Catholics now visit her major shrines every year and special celebrations of her feasts are increasingly lavish.

While some sections of the Church tended to minimise her role in salvation history in the first generation after Vatican II, it seems Mary herself did not remain distant, obscure or hidden for she is believed to have been appearing around the world in a wave of apparitions commencing in 1830 and continuing until the present day. Her tone we are told is urgent, distraught, exasperated! The overall content of the messages remains the same:

* the time for conversion and repentance is short;

* the earth is soon to pass away; in the interim we must pray and do penance for sin, which is the only ultimate evil;

* God's call can come at any time;

* Human disasters can be punishments for sin and wake-up calls to repent. The survivors can act charitably to assist survivors.

While there can be excesses in Marian devotion in some cultures and some periods of history, this is not usually the case in recent years. The Church asks us to venerate Mary whom God honoured with graces which made her the perfect disciple of His Son.

Approved devotions and apparitions have status in the Church because they can, and often do, enrich, complement or fortify a person's understanding, appreciation or commitment to the foundations of Christian faith.

Dr Barry Coldrey is a former teacher in Christian Brothers colleges and the author of numerous books and articles on religious topics.

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