Candles, incense and rosaries. Holy water, scapulars and bones of the saints. Prayers at noon and prayers at meal. All are seemingly little things, small acts of devotion and love that Catholics have performed throughout the centuries. As little as the acts may appear, however, their importance in the life of faith is not so little at all.
In his newest book, “Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots” (Doubleday, $23), Scott Hahn makes the case that all those seemingly little devotions and sacramentals actually possess the power to give form and thought to the great mysteries of the Faith and are therefore essential in the life of every Catholic.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor sat down with the author and professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, to talk about the importance of those little things.
He believes a renewal of the Church in America requires a recovery of long-neglected pious devotions.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why are devotional practices so essential to the Catholic life?
Hahn: Because the Catholic life is caught more than it is taught. What I mean is that you assimilate the truths of the Faith more by what you do together with other Catholics, experiencing the grace of Christ in the family of God, than by sitting in a classroom and taking it in through lectures, or by listening to homilies and talks on CDs.
OSV: Why is that?
Hahn: I’m a teacher. Professionally speaking, I’m all in favor of the didactic element of the Faith. But faith is meant to be lived, not just studied and taught. The foundation for our Catholic faith is the Incarnation, where eternity entered into time.
The sacraments extend the Incarnation into the life of the Church. In turn, sacramen-tals extend the grace of the sacraments into everyday life. Wearing a scapular, carrying a rosary, using incense and candles, venerating relics, praying the Angelus, doing all the things Catholics — whether scholars or peasants — have done throughout the ages and around world make the Faith present to us in the midst of the ordinary moments of our lives.
OSV: One of the criticisms both Catholics and non-Catholics make of pious practices is that they are unbiblical. In your book, however, you show that isn’t the case. Which sacramental do you think people would be most surprised to discover is actually quite biblical?
Hahn: Maybe the veneration of relics. Most people think of relics as a medieval invention, but in fact you find it in 2 Kings 13. That’s where Elisha’s bones bring somebody back to life.
Likewise, think about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, knowing that would heal her. There was no question in her mind that all she needed to do was touch the clothes he wore and she would be healed.
Then, there’s Peter’s shadow in Acts 5 and Paul’s handkerchiefs in Acts 19, both which bring healing. And in the Book of Revelation, we see the souls of the martyrs under the altar, which is why we always have relics of saints under the altars in our parishes.
OSV: What has been the most common sacramental practice through the centuries?
Hahn: The Sign of the Cross has to be one of, if not the most, common acts of devotion. It was absolutely everywhere in the early Church, not just among the faithful and friends of the Church, but among her enemies as well. Take the Emperor Julian the Apostate, for example. Christians were all convinced he was demon possessed, and he actually thought so, too. Even though he was renouncing his faith and uprooting it throughout the empire, people witnessed him making the Sign of the Cross whenever he felt afflicted by evil spirits.
Also, in the late second century, Tertullian described how everywhere he went he saw people making the Sign of the Cross. We can’t even identify where this devotion began because it goes back as far as we can trace. It’s just always been there.
OSV: Historically speaking, what can we learn about the Catholic Church from the practice of pious devotions?
Hahn: In his book “The Stripping of the Altars” (Yale University Press, $23), Eamon Duffy looks at the English Reformation and pretty much answers that question. Historians are always tempted to deal with the English Reformation in ecclesiastical and political terms. But what Duffy did was look at the ordinary English Catholics, those who weren’t powerful or scholarly, and assess the health of the Church in England at the time of the Reformation based upon their practice of the faith.
He showed that the ordinary Catholic in the English countryside was praying the Rosary and saying the Angelus. Pilgrimages were huge. Advent and Lent, as well as Christmas and Easter, were the highlight of the social fabric of their lives.
Through all this, Duffy convinced me that you can’t take the Church’s temperature by looking at her political fortunes in any given place and time. Instead, it’s the way the faithful practice the traditions of the Church, in ways always below radar, that gives you the best sense of the spiritual health of the people.
That wasn’t just true for England in the 16th century. It’s true wherever the Faith has spread and taken root. It isn’t primarily what is happening between the monasteries and universities, or between bishops and princes, but rather the lived experience of the faithful that tells how healthy the Church is.
OSV: So, in other words, strengthening the spiritual health of the Church in America depends upon a revival of pious devotions and sacramental practices?
Hahn: Well, it isn’t as though those things are all we need to reinvigorate the Faith, but to act as though we’ve outgrown them is naïve at best, stupid at worst.
Today, you see a lot of Catholics focusing primarily on apologetics. Others are focused almost exclusively on spirituality, or liturgy, or social justice. But it seems to me that the Catholic faith calls us to weave together apologetics and spirituality, liturgy and social justice in order to find a way to reach the average Catholic in the pew.
We have to find a way to communicate the Faith to those Catholics, and the best way to do that is not primarily through making academic or apologetic arguments. We have to do it in a way that can really touch them where they are in their everyday lives. We have to get them to begin carrying a rosary or wearing a scapular, or to rediscover the importance of almsgiving.
It’s through those ordinary things that people come to discover the extraordinary truths of the faith. That’s mystagogy — moving from the visible to the invisible, from the material into the mysteries.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Looking to weave traditional Catholic devotions back into your life? Here are a few places to begin:
- Make a morning offering. Give God your all at the beginning of each day by praying this simple prayer: “Oh Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father.”
- Keep a holy-water font by your front door and bless yourself upon coming and going.
- Make the Sign of the Cross whenever you drive by a church or religious house where a tabernacle is located.
- Wear a scapular (and have it blessed by a priest first).
- Pray a novena for a special intention.
- Abstain from meat or other treats on Fridays.
- Ask your guardian angel for protection each morning. You can do that by praying the prayer children have prayed through the ages: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love entrusts me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule, and guide.”
- Hang a sacred image of Jesus, his mother or the Holy Family in your home where everyone can see it throughout the day.
- Make a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine on one of Mary’s many feast days.