Clericalism and the disappearance of popular devotions

Encouraging the laity to be more engaged with the Mass doesn’t require a diminishment of devotional life outside the Mass. But in the iconoclastic, “purifying” mood of the 20th century, that’s what happened.

Photo by Amy Welborn

Steadily they walked, well-dressed, serious, each carrying a staff or a lit candle about a meter long, even the children.

Over the two hours or so that we watched, there were hundreds of them—men and women, teens and children, members of confraternities and sodalities, walking in the Corpus Christi procession in Seville.

And not, I realized about midway through, a cleric in sight.

Oh, they were there at the end, of course, escorting the Blessed Sacrament. But up until that point, it had been a sea of lay people.

The Corpus Christi procession in Seville. Photo by the author.

I considered the chapel around the corner from our apartment. Busy all day, bustling with women and men and even some teens once in a while, stepping through the open door from the street outside, taking a moment in the midst of ordinary life in office, home, and classroom, to pray.

Men who had carried an image of St. Anthony during a procession for the saint’s feast day in Seville. Photo by the author.

I thought about the scores of roadside shrines of all sorts I’d seen in various parts of Europe through the years, from Sicily up to France, and over here on this side of the pond in Mexico and Central America and yes, even sometimes in these United States. Perhaps at one time blessed by an ordained person, yes, but mostly erected by and cared for now by the laity.

I remembered the Holy Week activities we saw in Mexico in 2018: processions on Good Friday, and, most memorably for me, the visitation of churches on Holy Thursday night. There were priests around, yes. There were a few in every procession and of course they’d celebrated Mass and through their hands Jesus under the form of bread rested on the altars in those open churches in Puebla, but those throngs in the processions and celebratory waves moving in and out of the open church doors, stopping to kneel, leading prayers and music—lay people.

Back in Spain, I considered the art. Art everywhere—in galleries, but mostly in churches. All sorts of art from stained glass to ceramics to sculpture to painting to the architecture and adornment of the tiny chapels and massive cathedrals. Oh, religious were involved, yes. Bishops directed and planned, religious played their roles and did their work, painting, lettering, carving.

But most of it? Most of the stone-laying and laying down vivid colors and shaping wondrous images that it was hoped, in some small way, evoked the glories of heaven? Lay people who, after the labor was done, walk by these beautiful structures every day with their children, sit surrounded by beauty during the Mass or simply in prayer, look up and around and see the work of their hands. Their hands.

Photo by the author

The Liturgical Movement, as envisioned by its early and mid-century movers and shakers, was all about helping the laity engage more intimately with the Mass and the other prayers of the Church. The pastoral concern (as distinct from the historical concerns) was that the laity saw what happened on the altar as a drama involving the ordained to which they were spectators. All of it—from introducing the vernacular, to moving away from ad orientem postures, to encouraging the use of missals and more frequent Communion—was, ideally, directed at that goal. I’m not judging the accuracy of this assessment. I’m just telling you what’s there in the history of the movement.

And so, after decades, we get, in a way, the climax of the Liturgical Movement in the Second Vatican Council. The Council which proclaimed—in the quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium that anyone who’s ever taken The Mass 101 knows by heart—that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Which meant, in practical terms, that everything became about the Mass.

Which of course, requires a priest to happen.

Unlike processions. Unlike visiting open churches. Unlike roadside shrines. Unlike saying the Rosary alone in your car or with your neighbors or family. Unlike putting the final touches on a garment for your parish’s image of Mary.

There is no logical, necessary connection here. Encouraging the laity to be more consciously engaged with the specific prayers and actions of the Mass doesn’t, of course, require a diminishment of devotional, para-liturgical life outside the Mass. But in the iconoclastic, “purifying” mood of the period, that’s what happened, isn’t it? Add to that aesthetic iconoclasm, and you have little left for the laity to do except slap a guitar and write checks.

And so we’re told over and over that We Are the Church and “clericalism” is a sin of sorts—but then some of the primary means that we, the laity, have of expressing devotion in vivid, interesting, engaging and yes, lay-controlled ways are taken away.

Leaving us with the Mass, the priest in charge, commanding our gaze as we look at his face for an hour, listening to him talk, talk, talk.

One can argue, and probably correctly, that these religious cultures that developed these devotions were actually heavily clerical—that is, the word of the ordained was law, wielded often with an authoritarian hand. Well, yes—and devotional life was the space in which the laity could operate, relatively free of that. My point: it’s no different now. And in fact, the focus on the Mass (legitimately, yes) and the loss of popular devotional life intensifies that clerical focus. It may not be with such a heavy hand these days, but it’s still there.

So yeah, fight clericalism: throw yourself into those Works of Mercy, celebrate the feasts, make things for God’s glory, and then build a shrine, process to it with your friends, and keep the candles burning.

Photo by the author.

This post originally appeared at Charlotte was Both, and is reprinted here with permission.

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About Amy Welborn 37 Articles
Amy Welborn is the author of over twenty books on Catholic spirituality and practice, and has written extensively on gender issues at her blog, Charlotte was Both.


  1. As I got older, got better educated, and had traveled more in countries where the old devotions are somewhat practiced, I saw many similarities between those devotions and the pagan ones that are still being observed in some countries (I won’t say which ones). Whenever this connection is mentioned in Catholic circles, it is attacked in an overly defensive way which tells me that the connection is probably there.

    Wellborn does not mentioned how these devotions have not been transformed, or translated, so that they are accessible to the 21st century vocabulary and will appeal to what is now (overall) a very well-educated laity. For instance, the words to the Novena of the Immaculate Conception have not changed in over 150 years. It is a poor translation, and it is redundant, as though more prayers present a more meaningful novena. I have tried to find a novena that speaks to my young adult children, to no avail.

    Regarding the “talk, talk, talk” of the priest at Mass – yes, sometimes a priest might make the liturgy all about himself but that is rare. More often, the laity has left the pastor to do the plumbing, repairs, schedules, finances, outreach to the local food bank, etc. No wonder their children don’t want to become priests. And oh yes – most of the laity has not more than two children even in the countries that practice devotions. None to spare there for the religious life.

    You can have all the devotions in the world but the facts of life are such that when the laity reproduces feebly, the Church it claims to adore suffers horribly, and the wealth of intellect in both the laity and the clerical state is diminished.
    So, lighting candles and processing with the Blessed Sacrament are empty gestures if they are not built on the rock of the Church’s Teaching – which precious few Catholics know anything about, even with all their education.

    So, after lighting the candles, go home and make many babies with your spouse. The Lord will bless you in ways you never imagined.

    • One can find updated translations and devotions. Laity can be well-educated in the secular sense, but have an 8th grade religious education. Likewise in many places people are still not well educated, especially the poor. I have several graduate degrees, but I pray the rosary daily and am always saying a novena for something. Just because pagans did some things similar to our devotions doesn’t mean that they, or we, are pagan. Pagans prayed and so do we, does that make all prayer pagan? Pagans used water to purify, so is baptism pagan? Most Catholics don’t know any devotions at all and are not taught them at home, that is the problem. We replaced the core of Catholic non-liturgical devotional life with nothing.

      • The vast majority of Catholics don’t even bother to attend mass regularly (do they even know it’s a mortal sin not to fulfill one’s Sunday obligation?), so a dearth of extra-liturgical devotions should be no great mystery. If one isn’t devoted to the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary that is renewed at every mass, why bother with anything else?

      • I must agree with you, J. Divine Sunday being just recently, I called the Bishop of Dallas, Texas office to find out which Churches in the diocese actually had a Diving Mercy Sunday service. The Bishop’s office did not not what I was talking about! Divine Mercy Sunday, can you believe that! After writing to the Bishop’s office I asked the pastor of my parish and he replied he did not even know if there was a service! I easily went on the internet, retrieved a copy of a service and sent it to him. I heard nothing yet. Bishop Barron has recently said that we need a spiritual renewal in the Church to assist in get over the terrible crisis that has engulfed our Church. I suggest that we everyday, practicing Catholics learn more about the various devotions available to us, learn what indulgences are, learn what exactly are we doing during the Mass, learn what we are actually praying during the Our Father and learn the teachings of the Church that are not often spoken of from the pulpit! This, I think, will make us better Catholics and bring us closer to God and bring us, as indidivuals, a spiritual renewal.

    • “…how these devotions have not been transformed, or translated, so that they are accessible to the 21st century vocabulary and will appeal to what is now (overall) a very well-educated laity.”

      Is the problem really that they’re too well educated, or that they’re so poorly catechized?

    • If you hold that certain devotions are of pagan origin, they why did you not go into details. As you weren’t willing to do that, then you ought not to have introduced the topic. In any case, the Church has always “baptized” and transformed cultural expressions from non Christian countries. When I was in Peru I learned how in Cuzco, the Inca Capital in June there was a custom of bringing out awful mommies in procession. This was stopped and replaced by the Corpus Christi procession. Also, I learned from one of my students, now a priest, that the Indians used to sing songs while working in the fields. The missionaries retained the melodies and changed the words making them songs in honor of Jesus and Mary.

  2. Rosemary have some faith! Jesus does not rely on man or woman. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and yes these are indeed strong waves that must be sailed through but please never forget who the Captain is!!!
    Peace my sister.

  3. I believe the downplaying of devotions outside of Mass that occurred after Vatican II had much to do with the desire to make the Catholic Church look more Protestant for the purpose of ecumenism. Thus, the emphasis was on beliefs that the Catholic Church had in common with Protestants. As a result, Marion devotions, such as the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and intercessional prayers to saints were all pushed aside.

  4. I believe that the emphasis on Ecumenism that prevailed after Vatican II led to the diminishing of devotions such as the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration that were not in common with Protestant faiths. However, there now seems to be a resurgence of these devotions with many parishes now having a Rosary before or after Mass, including daily Mass, and Eucharistic Adoration on a regular basis.

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