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Popular Devotions

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Devotion, in the language of ascetical writers, denotes a certain ardour of affection in the things of God, and even without any qualifying prefix it generally implies that this ardour is of a sensible character. On the other hand, by the term "devotions" in the plural, or "popular devotions", we commonly understand those external practices of piety by which the devotion of the faithful finds life and expression. The efficacy of these practices in eliciting feelings of devotion is derived from four principal sources, either

  1. by the strong appeal which they make to man's emotional instincts, or
  2. by the simplicity of form which puts them within the reach of all, or
  3. by the stimulus of association with many others in the same good work, or
  4. by their derivation from the example of pious persons who are venerated for their holiness.

No doubt other reasons besides these might be found why this or that exercise brings with it a certain spiritual unction which stimulates and comforts the soul in the practice of virtue, but the points just mentioned are the most noteworthy, and in the more familiar of our popular devotions all these four influences will be found united.

Historically speaking, our best known devotions have nearly all originated from the imitation of some practice peculiar to the religious orders or to a specially privileged class, and consequently owe most of their vogue to the fourth of the influences just mentioned. The Rosary, for instance, is admitted by all to have been known in its earliest form as "Our Lady's Psalter". At a time when the recitation of the whole hundred and fifty Psalms was a practice inculcated upon the religious orders and upon persons of education, simpler folk, unable to read, or wanting the necessary leisure, recited instead of the Psalms a hundred and fifty Pater nosters or supplied their place more expeditiously still by a hundred and fifty Hail Marys said as salutations of Our Lady. The Rosary is thus a miniature Psalter. Again, at a time when the most ardent desires of Christendom centred in the Holy Land, and when lovers of the Crucified gladly faced all hardships in the attempt to visit the scenes of the Saviour's Passion, those unable to accomplish such a journey strove to find an equivalent by following Christ's footsteps to Calvary at least in spirit. The exercise of the Stations of the Cross thus formed a miniature pilgrimage. Similarly, the wearing of a scapular or a girdle was a form of investiture for people living in the world, by which they might put on the livery of a particular religious institute; in other words, it was a miniature habit. Or again, those who coveted the merits attaching to the recitation of the day and night hours of the clergy and the monks supplied their place by various miniature Offices of devotion, of which the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and the Hours of the Passion were the most familiar.

Even devotions which at first sight suggest nothing of imitation prove on closer scrutiny to be illustrations of the same principle. The triple Hail Mary of the Angelus probably owes its actual form to the Tres preces said by the monastic orders at Prime and Complin as far back as the eleventh century, while our familiar Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has almost certainly developed out of an imitation of the musical rendering of the antiphons of Our Lady, notably the Salve Regina, which to the popular taste were the most attractive feature of the monastic office. To classify these practices of piety, and especially those others which concern the observance of special times and seasons, for example, the consecration of the month of May to Our Lady, or of the month of June to the Sacred Heart, is not easy; for the pious ingenuity of the faithful is fertile in new devices, and it is difficult to decide what degree of acceptance warrants us in regarding a new devotion as legitimately established. The dedication of May and June just referred to, and that of November to the Holy Souls, is recognized everywhere, but there is far less unanimity about the consecration of October, for example, to the honour of the Guardian Angels. This devotion is no doubt indicated in many prayer books, but it has been in a measure obscured of late years by the special papal commendation of the Rosary in October, while Indulgences are also granted for the novena and other exercises in honour of St. Francis of Assisi during the same month. We may note that the consecration of March to St. Joseph, of September to the Seven Dolours, and, less directly, that of July to the Precious Blood, are also recognized by the grant of indulgences.

Again, there are other devotions whose popularity has been limited to certain periods or certain localities. For example, the various sets of "Little Offices" (e.g. of the Passion or of the Blessed Trinity), which occupy so much space in the printed Horæ and Primers of the early sixteenth century, are hardly heard of at present. The "Seven Blood-Sheddings" or the "Seven Falls" of our Blessed Lord, once so much honoured, have now passed out of recollection. Similarly the exercise of the Jesus Psalter, which was incredibly dear to our ancestors in the old penal days, seems never to have spread beyond English-speaking countries and has never been indulgenced. On the other hand, the prevalence of more frequent Communion since the sixteenth century has introduced many new practices of devotion unknown in the Middle Ages. The Six Sundays of St. Aloysius, the Five Sundays of St. Francis's Stigmata, the Seven Sundays of the Immaculate Conception, the Seven Sundays of St. Joseph, the Ten Sundays of St. Francis Xavier, the Ten Sundays of St. Ignatius Loyola, and especially the nine Fridays in honour of the Sacred Heart are all in various degrees authorized and familiar. And, as these last examples suggest, there is everywhere a tendency to multiply imitations. We have now not one Rosary, but many rosaries or chaplets (of which imitations perhaps the best known is the Rosary of the Seven Dolours), not one scapular but many scapulars, not one "miraculous medal" but several. Neither must we always expect to find consistency. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Seven Dolours and Seven Joys of Our Lady were commonly Five Dolours and Five Joys (see "Analecta Bollandiana", 1893, p. 333), while this last reckoning probably owed much to the great popularity of the devotion to the Five Wounds. On the other hand, indulgences, which may be found in the Raccolta, have been granted to certain prayers in honour of the Seven Sorrows and Seven Joys of St. Joseph.

It must not, however, be supposed that devotional extravagances are suffered to multiply unchecked. Although the Holy See as a rule refrains from intervention, except when abuses are directly denounced to it (the practice being in such matters to leave the repression of what is unseemly or fantastic to the local ordinary), still, every now and again, where some theological principle is involved, action is taken by one of the Roman Congregations, and some objectionable practice is prohibited. Not very long since, for example, the propagation of a particular form of prayer was forbidden in connexion with the so-called "Brief of St. Anthony". The history of the slow recognition by the Church of the devotion to the Sacred Heart might very well serve as an illustration of the caution with which the Holy See proceeds in matters where there is question of any theological principle. The precise number of Christ's blood-sheddings, or of Mary's joys, the fashion or colour of scapulars, medals, or badges, the veneration of Our Lady under one particular invocation rather than another, are obviously matters of subordinate importance in which no great harm can result if some measure of freedom is allowed to the pious imagination of the faithful.

No good purpose would be served by attempting a catalogue of approved Catholic devotions. It may be sufficient to note that the list of indulgenced prayers and practices provided in the Raccolta or in the larger works of Beringer and Mocchegiani afford a sufficient practical indication of the measure in which such practices are recognized and recommended by the Church. Most of the principal devotions are dealt with separately in THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, whether we regard different objects and motives of devotion--such as the Blessed Sacrament (See EUCHARIST), the Passion, the Five Wounds, the Sacred Heart, the Seven Dolours, and, in a word, the principal mysteries and festivals--or, again, devotional practices--e.g., the Angelus, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross--or, again, confraternities and associations identified with particular forms of devotion--e.g., the Confraternity of the Bon Mors or that of the Holy Family.


There seems to be no authoritative general work on popular devotions, but for the Indulgences and some historical details connected with them see MOCCHEGIANI, Collectio Indulgentiarum (Quaracchi, 1897); BERINGER, Die Ablässe (many editions and a French and Italian translation); LÉPICIER, Indulgences, tr. (London, 1906). Several of the more familiar popular devotions have been treated historically by the present writer in The Month (1900 and 1901).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1911). Popular Devotions. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Popular Devotions." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas J. Bress.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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