Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Catholic Devotions: Mechanical, Repetitive, Useless Practices?

One major criticism of the Catholic Church from many non-Catholic Christians is that Catholic devotions such as the Rosary, novenas, or even the Stations of the Cross are just repetitive, shallow practices which produce no spiritual fruit and, moreover, are a direction violation of the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:7.

Devotions in the Catholic Church are called "vocal prayers", and many have been handed down for hundreds and hundreds of years, coming to us directly from the saints, such as the Rosary which, according to tradition, the Blessed Mother gave to St. Dominic in 1214 as a means of converting heretics.  Another example is the Stations of the Cross. which tradition says also began with Our Blessed Mother who visited the scenes of Our Lord's passion every day during her lifetime.   The Catholic Church has many hundreds of different devotions.

However, in recent years many people in the Church have begun to look at these devotions as merely mechanical and empty, and believe that not only do they not aid in our spiritual growth, they might even hinder our growth. Many say that Catholic devotions, or vocal prayers, are at best, a beginning. We are told that a much better way to pray is mental prayer, which is basically meditation and contemplation of God, a time of silence and oneness with God,  There is no doubt that mental prayer is the highest form of prayer, when one can become truly united with God, as stated in a transcript of a talk on mental prayer given by Brother Andre Marie, which you can read HERE. Below is a small quote from this talk:

The active apostle needs the interior life if he is to be effective, and Mental Prayer is necessary for cultivating a fruitful interior life.
While it is not of strict necessity for salvation — which prayer in general is — the specific exercise of mental prayer is, to quote Adolphe Tanquerey, “the most effective means of assuring one’s salvation.” The same author goes on to state that the more one is involved in any active apostolate – no matter what one’s state in life – the more one is in need of this practice. Sad experience shows the fruits of the active apostolic worker who feeds himself a spiritual starvation diet. Dom Chautard, in his highly-recommended The Soul of the Apostolate, gives a devastating description of such an individual. His arguments, and more importantly, his appeal to experience, show that for the active apostolic worker, mental prayer is virtually indispensable. He is only reaffirming the doctrine of the saints. Saint Alphonsus goes so far as to say that mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation. Saint Theresa of Avila, who seems almost fanatical in her insistence on mental prayer, goes further: “He who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there with his own hands.” Her fellow Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross, said, “Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon.
Brother Andre's talk is an excellent explanation of mental prayer and its virtues, and I would highly recommend reading the transcript.

However, where does that leave the beautiful devotions given to us down through the ages? Should we have any room in our lives for these devotions, or are they just a waste of time, which would be much better spent on mental prayer?  Is it a matter of choosing mental prayer over vocal prayers?  Or do we need both?

The most popular form of vocal prayer is probably the Rosary.  Countless saints and others have extolled the beauty and excellence of the Rosary through the centuries.  However, a priest once told me in confession that the Rosary is nothing more than a mantra, and it is much better to just talk to God from our hearts.  Just recently I heard another priest dismiss these "mechanical" prayers as not being able to bring true graces into our lives.  

But then I look at how others have praised the Rosary.  St. Padre Pio always had a rosary in his hand and would pray it many, many times throughout the day, up to 40 or 50 times.  When he was asked about the repetitiveness of the Rosary, he replied: "Pay attention to the mysteries. They change at every decade."  He praised the Rosary by saying, "The Rosary is the weapon of defense and salvation."  

Padre Pio going on with his rosary while conversing with Padre Ermelindo di Capua
Every year on October 7, the Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  October 7 is the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto when the Church defeated the Ottoman Empire after Pope Pius V called for all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory, and led a rosary procession in Rome.  St. Pope Pius V gave all the glory and credit to Our Lady of the Rosary.  In fact, St. Pope Pius V wrote the first papal encyclical regarding the rosary shortly before the Battle of Lepanto on September 17, 1569, entitled, "Consueverunt Romani [On the Rosary]."  Many succeeding popes followed his example by writing their own encyclicals extolling the beauty of the Rosary, right down to St. John Paul II, who wrote two encyclicals regarding the Rosary..  In fact, St. John Paul II declared the year 2002 the Year of the Rosary. in which he gave us a fourth Mystery - the Luminous Mysteries.

Our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, says three rosaries every day, a practice which he said he began when he learned the Pope John Paul II prayed three rosaries every day.  

But the Rosary is just one devotion.  There are countless others in the Church.  Do they serve any purpose, or do we abandon them as being mechanical, repetitive and basically useless?

I personally love Catholic devotions for many reasons.  First, they are a great aid in discipline.  When I pray, I try to concentrate on what I am saying and what I am asking for.  Catholic devotions help me shut my mind off to all the distractions in the world, all of the many ways Satan tries to take our minds off of God.  Devotions bring to mind the many promises we have been given, and the many ways Our Lord protects us and guides us through this life.  I look at the courage and faith of our Blessed Mother and of the angels and saints, and realize that I can have that same faith if I will only ask for it.  

Different devotions bring to mind the different aspects of salvation.  The Rosary helps me experience Christ's earthly life as seen through the eyes of His Beloved Mother.  I found a wonderful resource from the Knights of Columbus which is scriptural meditations on the Rosary, which can be found HERE  I have downloaded this small booklet and use these meditations as often as I can, and have found them a great aid to focus on the meanings of the mysteries.  

Walking the Stations of the Cross allows me to, once again, walk with Mary as she suffered along with Her Son, and brings the Passion of Christ alive in my mind.  I love to pray the Chaplet of St. Michael, in which we pray to the nine choirs of angels, bringing to mind how active they are in our lives and what a wonderful gift they are in protecting us from the devil.  The St. Michael Prayer reminds me that St. Michael will always be victorious over Satan.  The Angelus reminds me of Mary's magnificent Yes which brought salvation to the world.  Even a little prayer like the Prayer to Our Guardian Angel puts me in remembrance of how God never leaves me, even personally giving me one of His angels to look after me.  

I find these and so many other devotions absolutely essential to my life.  It is with these devotions that I have learned of God's great love for me, and this actually enables me to approach Him in mental prayer.  I see Catholic devotions as a kind of workout that we need to do every day, to strengthen us spiritually, getting our spiritual muscles into shape.  No athlete looks to sit-ups or jumping jacks as a goal, but athletes see these exercises as vital in keeping them in shape.  

This is how I view devotions. I won't be doing these devotions when, God willing, I receive my eternal reward. But they are vital to me now in order that I stay on the road to receiving eternal life.

Mental prayer is absolutely a goal to which all Christians should strive. But that does not mean abandoning the beautiful devotions given to us by Holy Mother Church. They are not vain, useless repetitions, but great aids to meditation and experiencing oneness with Jesus Christ, His Blessed Mother, the saints and the angels.


  1. Hi, just wanted to tell you that I have missed your posts -
    hope you write again soon - Consolata -

  2. What do you have to say about the Lepanto Institute, Catholic in Brooklyn? Michael Hichborn, founder and President of the Lepanto Institute, has been critical of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). Mr. Hichborn did appear on "The World Over" in 2009, but it's my understanding that he essentially can't appear on EWTN anymore.

    1. I know the Lepanto Institue is highly critical of Church hierarchy and they are close with Michael Voris. Those two facts alone tell me that they have nothing to say which I am interested in hearing.


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