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The Spiritual Power Of “Popular Devotions”

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By JAMES MONTI

The midnight Mass of Christmas, when celebrated with all the “pomp and circumstance” that befits the Incarnation of the Son of God, can be a very powerful spiritual event in our lives, leaving in its wake impressions that can profoundly shape the course of our path in entering the new year to follow. Even those Catholics who sadly neglect their faith for most of the year feel instinctively drawn to it and show up in large numbers.
At a Christmas midnight Mass I attended last month at St. John’s Church in Stamford, Conn., what particularly struck me was the manner with which a statue of the Christ Child was borne to the altar in the entrance procession. Behind the acolytes and clergy leading the procession there came into view a magnificent gold canopy carried by four older acolytes. Beneath this baldachin the pastor held aloft the simple figure of the Infant Jesus, which was subsequently enthroned atop the church’s splendid high altar aglow with the golden light of forty wax candles.
Like so much of what the Church does in communicating the faith to us through the senses, this scene depicting a baby treated as the highest royalty, symbolically expressing what the Magi expressed in presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, drove home just how utterly incredible is the sacred truth we profess in believing that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
The above rite of carrying a figure of the Christ Child in the entrance procession of Christmas Mass, most famously observed in the papal liturgy, is not to be found in the rubrics of the Ordinary Form Roman Missal, nor in those of the 1962 Extraordinary Form Missale Romanum, nor in any edition of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (“Ceremonial of Bishops”).
Yet it is a venerable and highly laudable tradition of devotional origin fittingly inserted into the Christmas liturgy. And it aptly illustrates the value and importance of those forms of Catholic worship and practice that are known as “popular devotions.”
Since the 1960s, it has been the mindset of certain liturgists to denigrate and even denounce much of what constitutes popular devotion as unwelcome distractions or diversions from “pure liturgy.” There is in some of this rhetoric the stale scent of arrogant elitism, a mentality that scorns as “theologically uninformed” the heartfelt piety of the faithful.
Of course, for theologians and liturgists who want to overturn and uproot the traditional theology of the Church and the sacraments, longstanding popular devotions represent a “threat” to their agenda, because such devotions continue to teach and enshrine in the souls of the faithful a traditional understanding of who God is, the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, and the intercessional roles of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
My late mother used to tell me about a conversation she had around 1968 with a devout Catholic religious-articles shop owner in Manhattan. The man related to her the story of a nun who walked into his shop one day, and eying the rosary beads he had in the display case, pointed at them with contempt and remarked, “We won’t be needing those anymore.”
For a time, this war against popular devotions became quite successful in eradicating these practices in many Catholic homes and parishes. More than one generation grew up without even knowing what these devotions were. And there were cases of seminarians getting in trouble with their superiors because they had been “caught” saying the rosary. In all too many cases church architecture was weaponized by theological leftists to snuff out devotional aspirations by turning church interiors into barren, heartless, visual wastelands, greeting the worshipper with empty walls devoid of any images, or presenting images so incredibly ugly that they numbed the soul.
Such ideologues claimed that popular devotions were invented merely to give the laity “something to do” when in the past they were allegedly “excluded” from any “active participation” in the liturgy, “locked out” by a supposedly elitist clergy that “turned its back” to them during the Mass.
Despite all this anti-devotional propaganda and nonsense, there has been a huge revival of popular devotions, thanks to the energetic promotion of these practices by Pope St. Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as the re-evangelization of many American Catholics by the EWTN television network and faithful Catholic news outlets and publishers.
Popular devotions make visible and tangible what we witness and profess invisibly in the sacred liturgy. When understood in this way, popular devotions can be seen for what they truly are, valid forms of Catholic worship that amplify the meaning of the sacred liturgy and its influence upon our lives.
This latter point can best be illustrated by the special devotions that in many countries mark the days of Holy Week, and in particular Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Earlier we reflected upon the Christmas imagery of Christ as a baby borne beneath a baldachin of gold cloth. Here we turn to a ceremony in which the figure of Christ slain for our sins is carried beneath a canopy of black cloth. It may seem a bit out of place to be discussing a Good Friday rite at this time of the year; yet even now in January, Lent and Holy Week loom on the horizon, and indeed, the mystery of Good Friday is with us daily in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The chapel of the Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria da Alcobaca is said to be Portugal’s largest church, the sanctuary of a religious community that at its height was the home of over nine hundred monks. In a book of ceremonies published in 1788 for the Cistercians of this monastery, the Libro dos Usos e Ceremonias Cistercienses de Congregacao de Santa Maria da Alcobaca, there appears a particularly beautiful example of the Good Friday devotional procession known in Portuguese as the Santo Enterro (“Holy Interment”), a rite commemorating the death and burial of Christ found across most of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Latin America since the sixteenth century, and in some places even earlier (1788 text in Solange Corbin, La Deposition Liturgique du Christ au Vendredi Saint: Sa Place dans l’Histoire des Rites et du Theatre Religieux, Paris, Société d’Editions “Les Belles Lettres,” and Lisbon, Livraria Bertrand, 1960, pp. 274-277).
For the procession in the monastery chapel, a bier is prepared, upon which is placed a black mattress covered with a black cloth embroidered with gold lace, and a black pillow with a black covering cloth similarly embroidered. Upon these is laid “a devout image of the dead Christ,” with the feet facing forward, and it is covered with a black veil embroidered with gold or silver thread.
The procession sets out from the sacristy on the Gospel Side of the high altar and follows a circuit around the church to the south transept on the Epistle Side of the altar. A cross draped with a winding cloth, carried by a lay brother flanked by two torchbearers, leads the procession. The master of ceremonies follows, with two thurifers who continually incense the course of the cortege directly in front of the bier. Two other acolytes carry incense boats, with the master of ceremonies taking additional incense from them to resupply the thuribles when necessary.
Four priests in cowls carry the bier on their shoulders beneath a black canopy, with six torch-bearing brothers escorting the bier, three on each side.
A statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is borne immediately behind, followed by the celebrant, vested in a black cope, the fringes of which are upheld by the ministers accompanying him. The monastic community walks two by two in the procession, carrying candles with their hands together, the abbot following behind them. All in the procession cover their heads with amices or with the cowls of their habits, a practice most probably inspired by what King David and those with him did when his son Absalom had raised an insurrection against him:
“But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered; and all the people who were with him covered their heads” (2 Samuel 15:30).

The Heavenly Liturgy

During the procession, a Good Friday chant of Italian origin but found mostly in Portugal is sung, known as the Planctus, intoned by a cantor and continued by the four priests carrying the bier, who temporarily halt to sing: “Alas, alas, Lord; alas, alas, our Savior” (“Heu, heu Domine. . .”). The verses follow: “We are become orphans without a father: our mothers are as widows. The crown is fallen from our head: woe to us, for we have sinned.”
The rubrics repeatedly speak of the demeanor to be observed in this procession — that the participants should walk slowly, devoutly observing gravity and modesty in their deportment so as to edify the faithful present. The chant should be sung in such a way as to inspire “compassion and sorrow.”
When at length the procession reaches the place of the sepulcher, “well provided with lights” and prepared with fragrances, erected in the south transept, the crucifer, torchbearers, and canopy-bearers depart for the sacristy as the four priests carrying the bier lower it from their shoulders and reverently transfer the statue of our Lord from the bier into the tomb, positioning it “with the sacrosanct head to the east,” and covering the figure with a red veil. On a table nearby veiled in red, the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is placed.
The celebrant kneels at the foot of the statue of Christ and incenses it three times, each time bowing low before and after. The sepulcher is then closed, and the rite concludes with the celebrant reciting a series of versicles and a concluding collect that recalls the grief of the Blessed Virgin and prays that those contemplating the Passion “may be delivered from present evils, and from eternal death.”
In his description of the heavenly liturgy as recorded in the Book of Revelation, St. John speaks of seeing Christ as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6). The vivid funeral imagery of “the Lamb who was slain” in the Santo Enterro procession reminds us that the death of Christ wasn’t just a theological abstraction — that His sacrifice meant a death as real as our own. Devotional rites such as this help us to visualize the sacred mysteries that are veiled in the sacraments. And they communicate the eternal truths to us through our senses, inviting the human heart to respond to its Creator with love.

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