“Devotions promote the faith of the people” (St. John Paul II)
Rosaries, chaplets, novenas, the Stations of the Cross, the Angelus, grace before meals, the veneration of relics, and sacramentals: all of these are related to devotional prayer. These practices often grow out of a local or cultural interest in and devotion to a particular aspect of Christ’s life, of the Blessed Virgin or a special saint, season, or feast of the Church.
You can engage in devotional prayer on your own or with a group. In many parishes, you will find groups who remain in the church after Mass each day to pray the Rosary, a chaplet, or a novena. Or you may find a solitary person visiting each of the Stations of the Cross and stopping to pray briefly before each one. There are even apps for devotional prayer: with a smartphone, you can virtually join others in praying novenas, Rosaries, chaplets, and other devotions, either by reading the prayer or listening to live or recorded audio.
Sacramentals “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them … various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1667). Along with the prayer and sacraments of the Church, sacramentals “prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (CCC, No. 1669). Sacramentals can include blessings, exorcisms, and objects such as rosaries, religious medals, relics, scapulars, and holy water. The Sign of the Cross is itself a sacramental (whether or not holy water is used).
Sacramentals are not good luck charms, but are holy objects and actions that help us grow closer to God. Our physical human nature benefits from the use of objects and actions that increase our focus on prayer. Rosaries don’t simply help us count repeated prayers. Holding the rosary in our hands and moving our fingers from bead to bead draws our attention away from what’s going on around us and helps us concentrate on the life of Christ through the four sets of mysteries the Church calls us to contemplate.
In the encyclical Mediator Dei, Venerable Pope Pius XII observed that devotional prayer helps to direct our souls to God, encourages us to practice virtue, purifies us from sins, and helps us advance in holiness. Most importantly, the spiritual benefits we can reap from this type of prayer help us pray more fruitfully during liturgical celebrations.
Some types of devotional prayer, such as novenas (nine days of prayer to a particular intercessor for a special intention) and the Nine First Fridays devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Five First Saturdays devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary involve reciting devotional prayers for a certain number of days. These devotions are not superstitious practices, but are an exercise of perseverance in prayer, a practice Jesus encouraged. In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus teaches, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?” (Lk 18:7).
We are encouraged to take part in prayerful devotions that “harmonize with the liturgical seasons, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 13). For example, it is customary in some cultures to bless the home at Epiphany; this seasonal devotion involves the whole family in prayer, and includes these sacramentals: Sign of the Cross, holy water, and blessed chalk for inscribing the initials of the Magi and the date on the doorpost of the home. At many parishes, devotional prayers after Mass vary by the day of the week associated with particular saints or intentions: Monday: the holy souls in Purgatory; Tuesday: the holy angels or St. Anthony of Padua; Wednesday: St. Joseph; Thursday: the Holy Eucharist; Friday: the Sacred Heart of Jesus; Saturday: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Because Jesus died on a Friday, some parishes or individuals pray the Stations of the Cross each Friday, or each day during Lent. In October, the Church calls us to focus on the Rosary, and in November, we pray for the holy souls in purgatory. And we pray the Angelus, a daily prayer associated with specific times of day, throughout the year — except during the Easter season, when we pray the Regina Caeli devotional prayer instead.
Through devotional prayer, Catholics sanctify time (time of day, days of the week, and months of the year) as well as observe holy days and liturgical seasons. Devotional prayer allows us to incorporate prayer seamlessly into our daily lives. Children can easily learn devotional prayers and practices, because of their frequent association with physical actions or holy objects as well as their regular (daily, weekly or seasonal) repetition. Devotional prayer allows us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).
Barb Szyszkiewicz, a Secular Franciscan, is editor at CatholicMom.com and author of “The Handy Little Guide to Prayer” (OSV, $5.95). Read more from the prayer series here.