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Catholic Culture News

The Spirit of the Liturgy, Part Two: Liturgy and Popular Piety

By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 28, 2016 | In The Liturgical Year

I’m continuing my discussion on Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy with Leila Lawler. In Part One I considered Guardini’s discussion of our work or "mental exertion" so as to receive greater benefits from the Liturgy. This week I'm discussing the primary aims of liturgy, but also the balance of liturgy and personal devotions.

One of the aims of the Liturgical Movement leading up to Vatican II was stressing the importance of Liturgy. Too often personal devotions were chosen over active participation in Liturgy. One example often used was the personal praying of the rosary instead of following along the Mass. My own great-great-grandmother chose to attend novenas and other popular devotions rather than attend daily Mass. The Movement strove to clarify the difference between the different types of private and public worship, with Guardini's book leading the way as an example of this instruction. He emphasized throughout The Spirit of the Liturgy how there needs to be a balance of Liturgy and popular piety (popular and personal devotions). In the first chapter, "Prayer of the Liturgy," he explains how the prayer of the Liturgy is more objective in nature, in contrast with popular devotions which are more individual in nature:

Now, side by side with the strictly ritual and entirely objective forms of devotion, others exist, in which the personal element is more strongly marked. To this type belong those which are known as ‘popular devotions,’ such as afternoon prayers accompanied by hymns, devotions suited to varying periods, localities, or requirements, and so on. They bear the stamp of their time and surroundings, and are the direct expression of the characteristic quality or temper of an individual congregation.

I find the Lent and Easter seasons a perfect time to reflect on this balance of liturgy and popular piety. The Church has recently completed celebrating the holiest and greatest weeks of the Liturgical Year, Holy Week and the Easter Octave. Alongside the beautiful liturgy, this is a time of many popular devotions, such as Stations of the Cross, Passion Plays, St. Joseph Altars, Divine Mercy novena and chaplet, the changing of the Angelus to Regina Caeli, etc.

Before Vatican II, there were more public devotions that seemed to blur the primary importance of liturgy. Guardini emphasized that liturgy takes front stage and should be the standard for devotional practices:

But in spite of the fact that the liturgy and popular devotion have each their own special premises and aims, still it is to liturgical worship that pre-eminence of right belongs. The liturgy is and will be the lex orandi. Non-liturgical prayer must take the liturgy for its model, and must renew itself in the liturgy, if it is to retain its vitality.

The Latin phrase "lex orandi" is part of a larger Latin maxim "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi" adapted from 5th century Prosper of Aquitaine: "The law of prayer is the law of belief." Guardini states that the law of prayer is the liturgy.

Lex Orandi Taught by the Church

The Spirit of the Liturgy was first published in 1918. What Guardini stated in his small book has been reiterated by the Church multiple times. In 1963, Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) echoes Guardini's very guidelines:

12. The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. The Christian is indeed called to pray with others, but he must also enter into his bedroom to pray to his Father in secret; furthermore, according to the teaching of the apostle, he must pray without ceasing. We also learn from the same apostle that we must always carry around in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal Flesh. That is why we beg the Lord in the Sacrifice of the Mass that "receiving the offering of the Spiritual Victim" he may fashion us for himself "as an eternal gift." 

13. Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, are to be highly recommended, especially where they are ordered by the Apostolic See....

But such devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.

In 1988, St. John Paul II echoed Vatican II in his Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus commemorating the 25th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

18. Finally, to safeguard the form and ensure the promotion of the Liturgy it is necessary to take account of popular Christian devotion and its relation to liturgical life. This popular devotion should not be ignored or treated with indifference or contempt, since it is rich in values, and per se gives expression to the religious attitude towards God. But it needs to be continually evangelized, so that the faith which it expresses may become an ever more mature and authentic act. Both the pious exercises of the Christian people and also other forms of devotion are welcomed and encouraged provided that they do not replace or intrude into liturgical celebrations. An authentic pastoral promotion of the Liturgy will build upon the riches of popular piety, purifying and directing them towards the Liturgy as the offering of the peoples.

Eighty-three years later in 2001 the Vatican's document Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy reiterated this relationship with popular piety and Liturgy, especially in our modern era:

50. The relationship between the Liturgy and popular piety, in our times, must be approached primarily from the perspective of the directives contained in the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, which seek to establish an harmonious relationship between both of these expressions of piety, in which popular piety is objectively subordinated to, and directed towards, the Liturgy. 

Thus, it is important that the question of the relationship between popular piety and the Liturgy not be posed in terms of contradiction, equality or, indeed, of substitution. A realization of the primordial importance of the Liturgy, and the quest for its most authentic expressions, should never lead to neglect of the reality of popular piety, or to a lack of appreciation for it, nor any position that would regard it as superfluous to the Church's worship or even injurious to it.

I first read Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy as I began writing regularly on living the Liturgical Year. The document was a tremendous guide in viewing personal devotions all through the lens of the liturgy and applying this perspective to our domestic church. 

The Directory is also the document that helped Catholic Culture weigh the resources for the Liturgical Year section on the website. At times we decided against adding some devotional practices because they were discouraged. One example was the practice of burning blessed palms during storms, or using the palms to "bless" farms. This was specifically mentioned in the Directory:

Palms or olive branches should not be kept as amulets, or for therapeutic or magical reasons to dispel evil spirits or to prevent the damage these cause in the fields or in the homes, all of which can assume a certain superstitious guise.

Discarding this particular devotion affected me personally, because my family lived in tornado-prone areas for most of my life. My mother's family from south Louisiana passed down this devotion to burn the blessed palms before an impending storm. I had to extract my personal feelings of family connection and realize that it was better to follow the Church's guidance. Since then it has helped me see more clearly that the purpose of the palms is witness, a "witness to faith in Jesus Christ, the messianic king, and in his Paschal Victory," and not for use in invoking God's protection.

Community and Co-operation in the Spiritual Life

Guardini (and the Church) does stress that there needs to be a balance and co-existence of both the spiritual life of the liturgy and spiritual life of the individual. There is a place for our personal prayer, but we need recognize the depths of the liturgy, as Guardini says:

…They are not mutually contradictory; they should both combine in active co-operation.

When we pray on our own behalf only we approach God from an entirely personal standpoint, precisely as we feel inclined or impelled to do according to our feelings and circumstances. That is our right, and the Church would be the last to wish to deprive us of it. Here we live our own life, and are as it were face to face with God. His Face is turned towards us, as to no one else; He belongs to each one of us. It is this power of being a personal God, ever fresh to each of us, equally patient and attentive to each one's wants, which constitutes the inexhaustible wealth of God. The language which we speak on these occasions suits us entirely, and much of it apparently is suited to us alone. We can use it with confidence because God understands it, and there is no one else who needs to do so. 

Jesus as the Good Shepherd calls us each by name, and we know him and hear his voice. We have this personal relationship with God. At times personal devotions can seem more attractive that are less formal and seemingly artificial than the liturgy. But we have to remember that 

[w]e are, however, not only individuals, but members of a community as well; we are not merely transitory, but something of us belongs to eternity, and the liturgy takes these elements in us into account. In the liturgy we pray as members of the Church; by it we rise to the sphere which transcends the individual order and is therefore accessible to people of every condition, time, and place. For this order of things the style of the liturgy--vital, clear, and universally comprehensible--is the only possible one.... 

The voice of the liturgy is more universal in nature because of the community aspect. We need that reminder that we belong to a larger community that extends to all time. Again, this was another aim of the Liturgical Movement: the reiterating and instruction on the Mystical Body of Christ or the Vine and the Branches. The family or the Domestic Church is a miniature version of the Church, which includes reflecting this community. All prayer, both liturgical and personal affects the whole Church.  And instead of losing oneself in the vast community and the "solemnness" and "formality" of the liturgy, Guardini explains how with the uniqueness of the liturgy we become even more independent:

Only a system of life and thought which is truly Catholic--that is to say, actual and universal--is capable of being universally adopted, without violence to the individual. Yet there is still an element of sacrifice involved in such adoption.... Yet in so doing he is not swallowed up by, and lost in, the majority; on the contrary, he becomes more independent, rich, and versatile.

Guardini was not trying to undermine personal devotion. Even as he is stressing primacy of liturgy, he recognizes the mutual and beneficial connection of personal and liturgical prayer: 

Both methods of prayer must co-operate. They stand together in a vital and reciprocal relationship. The one derives its light and fruitfulness from the other. In the liturgy the soul learns to move about the wider and more spacious spiritual world... On the other hand...side by side with the liturgy there must continue to exist that private devotion which provides the personal requirement of the individual, and to which the soul surrenders itself according to its particular circumstances. From the latter liturgical prayer in its turn derives warmth and local color. 

If private devotions were non-existent, and if the liturgy were the final and exclusive form of spiritual exercise, that exercise might easily degenerate into a frigid formula; but if the liturgy were non-existent--well, our daily observations amply show what would be the consequences, and how fatally they would take effect.

Examination within the Domestic Church

Guardini led to way to illustrate that faith is lived by worshipping with the Church through Her Liturgy and also with personal prayer, but recognizing the pre-eminence of the Liturgy, and forming our devotions with the Church's liturgy as the guide. It is with careful consideration that I try to examine our family prayer life, with a three-pronged examination:

  1. Is the liturgy considered first for prayer choices (Mass readings, Divine Office, etc.)?
  2. If not using liturgy, is it connected to or inspired by the liturgy (i.e., follows the Liturgical Year)?
  3. Does the popular piety we choose bring us closer to the liturgy? (Am I choosing personal prayer time over an opportunity for Mass?)

For example, May is the month dedicated to Mary. The Directory on Popular Piety and the LIturgy mentions how this Marian devotion doesn't necessarily reflect the focus of the Liturgical Year, as May is almost always the Easter season. The suggestion is not to wipe out the devotion, but to adjust the focus a bit:

For example, since the month of May largely corresponds with the fifty days of Easter, the pious exercises practised at this time could emphasize Our Lady's participation in the Paschal mystery (cf. John 19, 25-27), and the Pentecost event (cf, Acts 1, 14) with which the Church begins: Our Lady journeys with the Church having shared in the novum of the Resurrection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The fifty days are also a time for the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation and of the mystagogy. The pious exercises connected with the month of May could easily highlight the earthly role played by the glorified Queen of Heaven, here and now, in the celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.

The document then suggests that Advent is more liturgically pointed to Mary:

Bearing in mind that the four weeks of Advent are an example of a Marian time that has been incorporated harmoniously into the Liturgical Year, the faithful should be assisted in coming to a full appreciation of the numerous references to the Mother of our Saviour during this particular period.

That is only one small example. The Church is careful to take consider all aspects of devotions. Instead of condemning or discouraging them from use, like a mother She guides the faithful into a direction that can more closely unite them together as a community through the liturgy. The Directory is not comprehensive, but it provides a pattern that we can use to apply within our own domestic churches and personal prayer lives.

Reading through Guardini's The Spirit of the Liturgy reminded me that I need to continue to view our family prayer life through the lens of the liturgy. Even busy housewives and mothers (like me) can benefit from his description of the richness and beauty of liturgy. His voice echoes through Church teaching on the primacy of Liturgy and balancing popular piety and liturgy. It may take some "mental exertion", but we can ascertain and apply aspects to our own prayer lives and church in miniature.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is a wife, mother, homemaker, CGS catechist, and Montessori teacher. Specializing in living the liturgical year, or liturgical living, she is the primary developer of’s liturgical year section. See full bio.

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