Popular Devotions and Pope Francis

In case you haven’t noticed, Pope Francis is really into what he calls “popular devotions.” In fact, the idea of popular devotions echoes throughout his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”).

Popular devotions are those para-liturgical acts of piety performed by those some deem as “poor” or “less educated.” The Holy Father writes:

Pope Francis and Popular Devotions

I think of the steadfast faith for those mothers tending their sick children who, tough perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified.”

My fear is that we Americans will read that quote by Pope Francis above, and then fall into one of two camps:

The 2 Popular Devotion Camps:

1) Sophisticated theological Catholic: Shrugs and thinks to himself, “How sentimental. This Latin American Pope has a quaint love for the poor and destitute. Anyway, I’ve got to get back to reading Saint Irenaeus before I listen to Catholic Answers at 5pm.”

2) Sophisticated non-Catholic: Shakes his head and thinks to himself, “This Pope doesn’t get. This isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ! This is shanty town syncretism at best, or ignorant magic at worse.”

Those of us accustomed to reading the theological tomes of Pope Benedict XVI might not fully appreciate the teaching of Pope Francis here. So what is Pope Francis trying to express?

What about Popular Devotions?

Pope Francis writes that popular devotions are a form of theology centered more on “ideas” and less on a “train of thought.” Popular devotions, then, differ from reading a book about apologetics. Rather devotions are more about a communal celebration centered around an idea. My friend Father Juan Diego Sutherland in Nicaragua speaks glowingly of this communal joy during public processions and celebrations.

Why don’t we “sophisticated Catholics” partake in “folk devotions” anymore?

Pope Francis lists the following popular devotions and I add a few extra:

  1. group Rosary
  2. group Chaplet of Divine Mercy
  3. Eucharistic processions
  4. Marian processions
  5. outdoor Stations of the Cross
  6. group pilgrimages

One might say, “Yes, if a person is illiterate, the Rosary or Stations are perfect because they teach the poor about the story of the Gospel, but if a person is educated, he should just read the Bible.” This is a typical Protestant response.

Here’s the problem with that perspective. Faith in Christ is more than a discursive path to truth (A to B and then B to C and then C to D). Rather, it is an experience of Christ and a communal experience.

My sense is that the Latin American Catholic has so much more joy and hope because he has an experiential idea of his Christianity. God is there. This is the kind of faith that Pope Francis constantly speaks about and this is why His Holiness is reminding the white-collar Catholics about these devotions.

Question: How do you foster popular devotions again? How do we re-establish public processions and acts of faith in the public square? How does your parish make this happen. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Beth

    Our priest does an amazing job of incorporating processions and corporate devotional practices into the life of our parish. As a fairly new member of the Church, I appreciate these traditions as they help me have a more authentic “fullness of the faith” experience. The first communicants crowning Mary yesterday after their enrollment in the brown scapular and our procession was a beautiful expression of this simple faith.

    And for the intectually superior among us, what was it Jesus said? Oh yeah, something about having childlike faith, I believe. 🙂

  • mike

    Interesting topic. I think we are reluctant to make public displays of our faith, with processions and the like. We as members of the Church in US have been accustomed to “blending in” and not making any waves, to the point that we have forgotten the faith. Additionally, I think the US “individualism” plays into this as well. It is almost like we have become protestant catholics in this country.

    In answer to your question: the Pastor of our parish has held Corpus Christi processions, and public rosaries, etc, (fortnight for freedom). These have been very good. More regular displays would fall at the feet of the laity to organize, as the Pastors typically have their hands full. I think an energetic youth group would be ideal for leading such efforts.

  • Gary Adrian

    I think that as beautiful as the Stations of the Cross are, if you can get an okay from the priest, find a convenient time, and get it well advertised in the bulletin, they will come. Of course, once they are there they need to see that it is both well organized and reverent. Now that you mention it, maybe I will ask Father about it next time I see him. I guess I can try to get it going if the youth group won’t.

    As Mike said, this would be great to have a youth group put on. Gives them something positive to do that will benefit the parish as well as the youth.

    • Darren

      Add free food before, and people will come.

  • Darren

    We can make fostering devotion attractive through images, photos, and words. We can re-establish public processions, and acts of faith in the public square by being brave, supporting, and accepting of everyone through communication. My parish (Sts. Peter and Paul) does this by posting events in the Bulletin (handed out after Holy Mass) and in the announcements. There is a small library of books in the Gathering Space corner, with books that foster devotion to the saints, Rosary, Bible, Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Liturgy, Sacraments. Finally, there is an e-sign near the entrance that posts church events.

  • Mary

    I got wild hare to start praying the rosary,after a 40 yr lull. I had read it was an aid to meditation,the repetitive prayer acting as a mantra.I was having a terrible time trying to meditate with an ADD brain of sorts.It works! Personal devotions allow a personal contact with our Lord,and there is plenty of room in a person’s spiritual life for one or two.

  • Rachel

    One of the things I love is observing Catholics from other cultures and the devotion they have to praying the rosary, going to adoration, etc. Sometimes as an American I can be more stiff–I long to be open with my emotions and love for Christ. I often see people in adoration prostrating before the Blessed Sacrament, and I can’t bring myself to do the same because it feels so uncomfortable. Our parish though, does do a lot to incorporate little ‘t’ traditions: outdoor stations of the cross, outdoor processions from the sanctuary to the adoration chapel during the triduum, we have had a procession from the community center to the sanctuary on St. Therese’s feast day (our parish’s patron saint), communal rosary is prayed after every mass, crowning of Mary, Lent 2013 our parish provided everyone with 33 Days to Morning Glory.

  • Maryanne

    My Parish is very much old school; the priest has made it clear that we are to worship in the “correct format” and that usually implies pre-Vatican II. Sadly, while I am an orthodox Catholic, I find this approach alienating. Our parish has Rosary Processions, but sometimes the priest appears to be so formal that I fear doing anything wrong. Our priest does not let us see the joy in our Faith, so a Procession without joy toward the Lord can look like a forced march. I love my Latin American ancestry, and the love of the Lord that is at the core of their devotions.

  • Victor

    (((One might say, “Yes, if a person is illiterate, the Rosary or Stations are perfect because they teach the poor about the story of the Gospel )))
    I kind of agree with that statement and I’ll add that all Catholic should say the Rosary as often as they can unless what we are saying is not true? I’ve always believed since as a child and although I’ve never always been that devotional as my blessed Mother who use to carry her prayer beads with her anywhere she went. Anyway when we say in so many similar words: Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with Thee, Blessed are Thou amongst woman and Blessed is The Fruit of Thy Womb “Jesus”…..Long story short, Are those not the words that The Angel Gabriel said to our Heavenly Mother Mary while she was pregnant and are we not also showing some respect for Angels or have we Catholics all simply been brained washed for all these years NOW?
    I’ll close by saying that every one of my mother’s grand children and great grand children would probably say that she really was a saintly woman and I’ll just add that for the fact that she had to start over everyday just made “IT” too hard on occasions and truth be known just like some of US (usual sinners), she also had to go through a few GBS if YA get my drift?
    God Bless

  • Ranger

    Protestants, particularly Evangelicals and Pentecostals, have their popular devotions too, e.g. prayer meetings, home bible studies, praise and worship gatherings (indoors and out). They aren’t bad either. In any case, whether Catholic or Protestant, the potential issues would be how soundly based are the practices in solid Christian principles and theology. I don’t mean “theologically sophisticated”, but Christo-centric, grounded in the Truth.

  • Modesto Antonio Ibarra

    We are actually having processions for the Holy Cadaver (santo entierro) every Good Friday in the Philippines. Dawn Procession on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Group rosaries in October, the month of the Holy Rosary.

  • defiant12314

    One of the things I love seeing at the multi-ethnic parish (Poles, Brits, Africans, Filipinos, Chinese) down the road is people kissing the their fingers and pressing it to the wounds on to the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue

  • Colleen Sheehy

    When I taught 2nd grade/First Sacraments Prep CCD, we started each class with one decade of the Rosary and discussion of the Rosary Mystery of the week (There are several children’s reproduceable series out there; we used the one from Holy Cross Family Ministries). By the time they made their First Communion, all of the children had a good working knowledge of the life of Christ and had memorized the basic prayers painlessly. A few of them surprised guest priests who came in for first Penance with their insights…Start young, and continue as you start.

  • Sam

    Our wonderful school incorporates many such devotions, and, I must say, it really leaves an impression on me and the rest of the students. For instance, we have a May Crowning ceremony each year with an outdoor rosary procession, and this year we held a traditional “burrying of the Alleluia” ceremony.

  • Crystal

    Dear Doctor Taylor Marshall,

    First let me say- I thoroughly enjoy your blogs/podcasts. They are an ease to read/ listen to but contain deep truths, as a wife and mother I’m extremely grateful for this!
    In regards to traditional practices what do you think of women in America who are beginning to wear the veil again during mass? My father and I completely disagree on this issue. He says it’s an action that clings to the past when women weren’t allowed any liturgical role but I think it is a outward expression of an inward desire. Not to mention it demonstrates the submissive role a woman should take with her husbands missionary role-which you discussed beautifully might I add in one of the podcasts.

    This quote by Saint John of chrysostom eloquently speaks of how I feel on the issue:

    “Woman, because she was created by being drawn from man’s side, is constantly trying to return to him. She desires the original unity of one flesh and one bone. The desire for unity between man and woman is a mirror of the relationship between Christ and the soul. As woman longs for union with man in human relationships, she is also drawn to unity with God. He calls her to become one with Him: to come under His side and become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. This occurs during reception of Eucharist. The covering of the head with a veil symbolizes the reality of woman sheltered in the side of her Source and becoming one with Him. She becomes covered and hidden in her Divine Spouse.”

    So….is veiling theologically wrong?



    P.S. I have your 5 tips of productivity from St.Thomas written on my mirror 🙂

  • geekborj

    The key is having devotion. It is a necessary human element. Whether a theologian or a simple christian in the street, we all need devotion, popular or otherwise. In the end, the key is Charity.

    I agree with this article so much and this makes the Catholic Church truly a channel of salvation to Man being saved as human beings, not as angels nor beasts.

    The public display of faith also promotes the one-ness of our life (much of truth and consistency of life). What is important however, is the constant education of our devotee on the relevance of all these acts of piety and devotion. To the very least, it could be an act of obedience to the Mother Church or an equivalent act of Faith, both of which when done for Love of God would be very pleasing to God the Father!

    • Darren

      Charity means the same as Christ.

      • geekborj

        Correct. But without the human love mixed, any act is just a straw.

        • Dr Taylor Marshall

          So true.

  • Tigerlily

    As popular devotions decline, so do the population on Latino Catholics. While I do not have the graphs for both to compare, I wonder if there is a correlation of the two trends?

    Outward manifestations of our faith, I believe, are very important to us a a congregation as it cements us together, when we purpose ourselves as a unit before the world and ourselves, it increases our faith and demonstrates it to the young, it brings Catholicism to the non-catholic public, the lessing of the animals on the Feast Day of St. Francis as an example, draws the eyes and attention, followed by questions and interest from the public. Most importantly, outward demonstrations of intense, focused devotion, en mass, pleases the Angels. They are with us in our devotions and they worship with a zeal that makes our distracted mumbled prayer, our clumsy, minute genuflection, our hurried, sloppy Sign of the Cross embarrassing.
    We forget God and Lucifer are battling over us. The Angels do not forget. They are serious and they understand the magnitude of what is at stake here. Our souls and the Everything are the prize.

    Popular devotions are the demonstration and rallying cry of us creatures letting God, the Angels, Lucifer and all other creatures know we are ready to do our part in battle!

  • Patricia Miller

    Great article! Last summer I lead local (to the St. Louis area) pilgrimages for my 7th grade PSR (CCD) students and their families, which was later opened up to the whole parish and neighboring parishes. I can’t wait to lead all new pilgrimages this summer.

    One of my favorite things to do with my class is pray the rosary as we process to our 24/7 Eucharist adoration chapel. I encourage them to pray the rosary with their family and encourage their families to come to the chapel at least once a week.

  • ladyhawthorne

    One of my Orthodox priests teaches that we should worship with all of our senses, something I found sorely lacking in the protestant churches.