When Olivia Newton John was fawning over John Travolta in the 1978 classic movie Grease, she sang that she was “hopelessly devoted” to him. Hmmm. I guess that can be a good thing in a relationship, but it’s actually a great thing in religion! The only difference between the two is that spiritual devotions are not in any way hopeless but very much full of purpose and meaning.
The reason the Church gives us pious practices like devotions is to strengthen our faith. Doctrine is meant for the head. Devotions are meant for the heart – both of which Christ wants to be passionately devoted to Him!
Here are seven awesome devotions that have a long history in the life of the Catholic Church, though I can only present them here in summary form:
- The Most Holy Rosary – The concept of praying on beads while meditating on the truths of the faith has deep roots in the Church, but no one can precisely identify when the Rosary took shape as a particular devotion. It was, however, spread far and wide by St. Dominic and the Dominican Order in the 13th century and has become the Church’s most popular devotion – by far – since then. The Rosary is a simple string of beads divided into five groups of ten beads each on which we pray the Hail Mary while meditating on one scene of the life of Christ or Mary. The Our Father and the Glory Be prayers begin and end each decade. There are twenty scenes of faith upon which to meditate: the “mysteries” of the Rosary. St. Padre Pio, called the Rosary a “secret weapon” in our warfare against the devil and said that “the Rosary is the prayer of those who triumph over everything and everyone. It was Our Lady who taught us this prayer, just as it was Jesus who taught us the Our Father.”
- The Chaplet of Divine Mercy – Another name for the word chaplet is corona (Latin for crown), which often designates a devotion using beads to form a circle or crown that the faithful use for prayer. There are at least twenty types of chaplets promoted by different lay groups and religious orders, the most famous of which is the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Jesus gave the plan for this Chaplet to St. Faustina Kowalska when He appeared to her numerous times from 1930 until her death in 1938. The Chaplet uses the exact configuration of beads of the Holy Rosary to plead that the Divine Mercy may be extended to sinners. Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope St. John Paul II, was the bishop who promoted this devotion to the entire Church and eventually canonized St. Faustina in the Jubilee Year 2000.
- The Sacred Heart and the Precious Blood – These twin devotions are entirely biblical, tracing their roots to chapter 19 of the Gospel of John, where it says: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:33-34). The specific devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus came through a number of apparitions of Jesus to a French nun, St. Margaret Mary Alocoque, from 1673-1675. Among the many spiritual benefits of this devotion is a promise that Jesus will bring peace to every household that displays an image of His Sacred Heart. The Precious Blood devotion has, of course, a profound Eucharistic dimension because the Eucharist is the “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” of Jesus. There are entire religious orders dedicated to propagating this teaching and this devotion.
- First Fridays and First Saturdays – The First Friday devotion derives from the promises of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary, in which Jesus asks that devotees dedicate the First Friday of each month to praying in reparation for sins against the Eucharist. The Lord promised "in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who communicate on the First Friday in nine consecutive months, the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in My disgrace nor without receiving the Sacraments; My Divine heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment." The First Saturday devotion is similar in its promises but comes from the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917. She asked that the faithful pray the Rosary, meditate on the mysteries, and go to Confession and Mass on the First Saturdays of five consecutive months in reparation for all the “outrages, sacrileges, and indifference” by which God is offended. Both of these devotions are at times combined and referred to as the “Two Hearts” devotions.
- Relics – The faithful have, from the beginning of the Church, used relics as a form of devotion and prayer. We see an early expression of this devotion in the people who followed St. Paul in his ministry. They actually touched handkerchiefs or pieces of cloth to him (Acts 19:12) so that they might receive the benefit of his holiness through some tangible contact with him. Relics are kept in simple or elaborate containers called reliquaries (Latin: “place for a relic”). A First Class relic is an element of the saint’s physical body (hair or bone being the most common). Second Class relics are articles of the saint’s clothing or personal effects. A Third Class relic is an item touched to a First or Second Class relic. The Church cautions us to avoid all semblance of superstition in using relics. They are not talismans or magic objects used to obtain favors but tangible connections to the saints. We pray with the relic, not to it, and believe with faith that the saint will assist us by presenting our prayers directly to God.
- The Stations of the Cross – Twenty centuries of reflection on the Passion of Christ have focused attention on numerous specific aspects of His suffering. When we enter a Catholic Church and see fourteen plaques or works of art on the walls, we are look at artistic renderings of the various “stations” of the Cross, which are a tangible expression of this ancient devotion. These are unique points of encounter that people had with Jesus on the road to His death. From the earliest times, the faithful wanted to walk that way with Him. These stations are actually preserved in the Old City of Jerusalem to this day, and the displays of stations in Catholics churches allow the faithful to accompany the Lord spiritually in His holy Passion. They are powerful ways to enter – emotionally and spiritually – into events that occurred while Jesus walked His sorrowful way to Calvary.
- St. Michael the Archangel and the Guardian Angels – Devotion to angels actually pre-dates Christianity by many centuries. Many ancient Middle Eastern cultures worshipped angels as gods (which we do not). Ancient Judaism understood angels in their proper relationship to God and man as servants of our salvation. We inherited that understanding, which is why the Catholic faithful have always sought their intercession. The St. Michael the Archangel Prayer is of recent origin, but actual devotion to the Prince of the Heavenly Host dates back to the Old Testament Book of Daniel and other writings. In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine built a whole city in the archangel’s honor, called Michaelion (in modern day Turkey). The Church also links its veneration of St. Michael with devotion to the Guardian Angels. The Catechism teaches that each person has a Guardian Angel who acts “as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (CCC, 336), and encourages the faithful to pray the traditional Guardian Angel Prayer that dates back over a thousand years.
These are only seven of the Church’s many blessed devotions which nourish the prayer and faith lives of believers. One of the Catholic critiques of Protestantism is that it over-intellectualized the Christian Faith by making the words of the bible the only source of devotion. For many reasons, Catholics don’t believe that. We have devotions to touch the heart, many of which come straight out of the bible and lead us right back to Christ.
That’s the whole purpose of religion, isn’t it?