Amy Welborn has made an interesting connection, that the supposed decline in popular piety post-Vatican II is a form of clericalism. The notion being that the conciliar emphasis on the Mass, requiring the ministry of a priest, is something unfair when it comes to lay expression of faith. Read the full piece here.

One of my fb friends and his cadre all seemed to go along with the notion that Catholic devotions are in decline. But I wonder. Certain devotions seem to have faded, but others have taken their place.

One example: wealthy Catholics certainly have more means to travel the past half-century than at any time in history. I suspect overseas pilgrimages are in ascendancy. I can’t remember the last parish I served that didn’t offer some travel possibility.

Encouraging the laity to be more consciously engaged with the specific prayers and actions of the Mass doesn’t, of course, require a diminishment of devotional, para-liturgical life outside the Mass. But in the iconoclastic, “purifying” mood of the period, that’s what happened, isn’t it? Add to that aesthetic iconoclasm, and you have little left for the laity to do except slap a guitar and write checks.

Or, perhaps not so little. In order to have that iconoclasm, you have to have real art being discarded. To my mind, altar rails aren’t high up on that list. And if statues were really unloaded into the dumpster (and I’m a skeptic that happened very often) perhaps the cheap painted plaster (or plastic) forms of Saint Boniface, Saint Stanislaus, or Saint Anthony were replaced by saints a little more close to the American heart: Elizabeth Ann Seton, Kateri Tekakwitha, or Damien of Molokai.

And so we’re told over and over that We Are the Church and “clericalism” is a sin of sorts—but then some of the primary means that we, the laity, have of expressing devotion in vivid, interesting, engaging and yes, lay-controlled ways are taken away.

Disputing my objection, someone asked me what forms of devotion did I see on the rise. When I thought about it, quite a bit. I mentioned the Camino de Santiago. Divine Mercy, probably the biggest swell in devotees. Bible study since Vatican II, certainly. Our Lady of Guadalupe in North America, and other immigrant observances.

Retreats in the Cursillo tree are certainly on the rise since the 60s. Maybe big church events are in decline, but people have their televisions, their podcasts, and other modern methods of prayer.

Amy’s characterization of Mass …

… the priest in charge, commanding our gaze as we look at his face for an hour, listening to him talk, talk, talk.

… just seems overblown. Of course, in her personal experience, maybe her priests do command and chit-chat all through Mass. Somehow, I doubt the usual “talk, talk, talk” is more than twenty minutes. Certainly less than the old Latin Mass, except that today there’s less mumbling.

Overall, I’d say individual devotional forms go through cycles. Some, like St Jude chain letters, will hopefully cycle into extinction. Others have deep roots in Scripture and liturgy, whether they were dreamed up by clergy, religious, or laity. Those that connect us more deeply to Christ and his mission may be the ones to attend to in the years ahead. And if things died out in the 70s, I’d challenge people to look into the end of ethnic parishes, the rise of suburban communities with their Masses in gyms. You can’t have iconoclasm when simple furnishings are just brushing aside basketball hoops on Sundays.

And the possible bottom line: if certain devotions have fallen away, maybe their roots weren’t so deep to begin with.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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