Popular Devotions are a recognized part of the Catholic piety. They have significance in the life of the people who flock in large number to our devotional centers and shrines. The church encourages popular devotions in as much as they can lead the faithful to a deeper experience of God. The church also envisages that every devotional center become a school of faith.
Sacred as they are, shrines become for people places of freedom for the spontaneous expression of their piety. Pilgrimages to the shrines of their choice help people express their life-linked piety and faith through their devotion. The church not only upholds devotions but also studies the origin of such devotions and corrects false notions if any, directing them in the proper paths.
The term ‘devotion’ stands for the first act of the virtue of religion and is based, according to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas on the promptness of the will to give oneself to those things which pertain to the service of God. Explaining the term devotion Gabriel M. Braso says: “It is to give oneself to God in order to remain ever submissive and ever well-disposed to whatever refers to his worship or his service.
Devotion springs from the will and hence it is suffused with charity, a fervent love of God, which makes us forget ourselves and our own interests. It places us always at the disposal of anything that is an object of divine pleasure. Devotion also signifies a life given or devoted to God. One is therefore considered devote who lives no longer according to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but according to the sole will of God, considering and serving God in everything.
Elements of Devotion:
Devotional practices are our attempts to experience and foster a relationship with the Divine. For theologians, devotion means homage and allegiance manifested to someone because of some inherent excellence. Thus they point out to several elements in a devotion.
Homage and allegiance: Homage in its current use signifies reverence, which also implies dependence. Reverence and allegiance must somehow be manifested exteriorly because a person is composed of both soul and body.
The second element is the object to which homage and allegiance is paid. The object must be a person because no one can lawfully subject oneself that is a being of lower order.
The definition of devotion includes the reason why a person pays homage and allegiance to another person, viz., and excellence or greatness inherent in that person.
The motive of a devotion is the trust and reliance on the assistance of the person one is devoted to which is the result of faith and confidence of the devotee.
The Second Vatican Council on Devotions:
Vatican Council Second did not discuss much on devotions but to aid the faithful, reference to popular piety was made extensively. “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly endorsed, provided they conform to the laws and norms of the Church, are to be highly recommended, especially where they are ordered by the apostolic See.” The center of devotions must always be the liturgy, i.e., the celebration of the mystery of Jesus Christ. They must be related in a meaningful way to this center from which they flow, to which they lead and to the rhythm of which they should be tuned. (Sacrosanctum Concilium. No. 13).
One thing that the Second Vatican Council asserts is the superiority of liturgy over popular devotions. “Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest, and of his body, which is the church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree”. (Sacrosanctum Concilium. No. 7). The Church does so to highlight the centrality of Jesus Christ in all liturgical celebrations and popular devotions. But at the same time it highly recommends popular devotions. Therefore according to Vatican council II Devotions are away of Christian worship and their center is always liturgy. Hence, they should be celebrated as complementary to the liturgy without considering it as a world of their own outside and apart of the official liturgy. J. Neuner, well known theologian observes that devotions are like flowers that grow spontaneously in such great and amazing variety in the jungle that surround the cultivated gardens. Even Jesus preferred to speak of the lilies of the jungle rather than of the well-protected flowers. Hence it is to be noted that devotions have their own place of prominence and in celebrating them the teachings of the church must be kept in mind.
Origin of devotion to Infant Jesus in the church:
We have a good account of evidence of the devotion to Infant Jesus in the lives of several saints from the early times. St. Jerome was attracted by the mysteries of the birth and childhood of Jesus. He did go to Bethlehem and lived near the cave, which Christians believe to have been the birthplace of the Divine Child. Other Greek Father of the church like St. Proclus, St. Basil, St. Ephrem and St. Gregory Nazianzen also praised the child of Bethlehem. St. Francis of Assisi was specially devoted to the mystery of the Incarnation, observing the feast of the birth of Infant Jesus with great rejoicing and calling it the feast of feasts. Devotion to Infant Jesus was specially prominent during the 16th century and it was St. Teresa of Avila, the Carmelite saint who did the most to make Infant Jesus known. St. Teresa found great spiritual benefits in the meditation of the Child Jesus and she loved to consider him in the mysteries of his infancy. This devotion was later adopted by St. Therese of Child Jesus, another Carmelite saint, popularly known as the “Little Flower”. The holy infancy was for her a source of spiritual
Merits of devotion to Infant Jesus:
First of all this devotion is centered on Jesus Christ, who is the only mediator between God and humanity and our sole intercessor.
This devotion makes the devotees reflect on the incarnation dimension or God made human and enables the devotees to relate themselves to him existentially, personally, simply and spontaneously.
Appealing to all devotees thropological in its origin structure and approach.
People have great attraction to this devotion because of its existential relatedness to their felt needs eg., success and failures, sickness and health, unemployment etc., all are referred to the Infant Jesus’ favors and blessings.
This devotion affords opportunities and possibilities for active participation by people of every category, class, age-group and social status because of its simple structure, dialogical character and scope for simple spontaneous devotional expressions.
Being a popular one, this devotion often leads people to frequent the Sacraments of communion, Reconciliation etc., and to make a deeper commitment to live their Christian life more meaningfully.
Devotion to the Infant Jesus attracts people of other religions too, since they have some similar devotions to the infant gods of ‘avatars’ like ‘Bala Krishna’, ‘Bala Murugan’, Bala Raman’ and others.
This devotion provides an occasion for entire families and communities to come together to strengthen the bonds of spiritual and social relationship on various occasion.
Due to a variety of celebrations and ceremonial activities (prayers, processions, offering, singing etc.,) that surround this devotion, it becomes very effective as a means towards ecumenism and integration.
Lastly, on account of this devotion, which brings in a lot of non-Catholic brethren, greater opportunities are created to pre-catechize or to evangelize those who are willing to know more about Christ.
It is a matter of great joy to know that vast numbers of devotees have found solace comfort, physical well-being, mental stability, meaning in life through the devotion to the Infant Jesus. One is really brought to admire the faith of the people who surrender themselves without reserve to the protection and promise of Infant Jesus. Besides this, devotion to Infant Jesus plays an important role both in is a tangible way of preaching the Good News of salvation and sharing faith experiences with one another. This type of simple devotion brings many believers close to Christ and makes them experience his goodness. It seems the will of God that his name would be spread in this manner. We can see, experience the grace and protection of God flowing from this devotion, from the time of its origin because Infant Jesus is always true to his promise, “The more you honor me, the more will I bless you”.
Fr. Rathan Almedia
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