More than a century ago, Southern gospel singers made “gimme that old-time religion” a popular refrain. Today, church leaders are singing a comparable tune by calling believers to take up once again some old-time devotions.
As in many dioceses around the country, Archbishop Chaput has exhorted the faithful to say the Prayer of St. Michael in all parishes. Pope Francis has suggested the same for Catholics worldwide, as a conclusion to reciting the rosary each day during October. This month and next also mark the time, especially around Philadelphia, when parishes celebrate the Forty Hours devotion.
The current state of affairs in the church gives occasion to this sought-for revival. The call to devotional prayer seeks healing for victims, reparation for sin and the protection of the church against the wiles of the devil. But the actual devotions reflect a much longer religious tradition.
Pope Leo XIII penned the Prayer of St. Michael in 1884 to invoke the aid of the archangel known from Sacred Scripture as engaging in combat with demonic forces. The history of the rosary dates as far back as the 12th century; in the 16th century, a universal feast was established in remembrance of the Blessed Mother’s intercession on behalf of the Christian defeat of Muslim Turks at the battle of Lepanto.
The tradition of 40 hours of prayer in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament also harkens to that time, particularly in war-torn Milan and Rome. Its primary proponent in the United States was St. John Neumann, who introduced the practice in 1853 amid riotous anti-Catholic agitation in Philadelphia.
These devotions admit of bellicose beginnings, with violent uprisings providing the context in which added prayer was sought for the sake of sustaining the faithful from calamity. But the historical contexts disclose an even greater spiritual truth, one that resides in the reality of being human in a temporal world.
From the beginning of time, the struggle between good and evil takes place around us and within us. Concomitant to the freedom that characterizes being human, the choices we make for right or wrong shape our lives. While singular decisions do not permanently define who we are, learning to do good and avoid evil — the first principle of practical reason in the natural law — remains the pathway to becoming the best persons we can be.
Nevertheless, good and evil go beyond this world. As metaphysical realities, they mark the ultimate and opposite extremes between which everything we do falls somewhere. Likewise, the value of religious devotions also transcends the logic of this world.
Some may see these three practices as relics of a religious past. Invoking the aid of an armor-clad, sword-wielding archangel seems anachronistic in an age of laser-guided projectiles that reach their targets with stunning accuracy. Repetitiously reciting words while working a set of beads conjures a mind-numbing trance accompanied by a quasi-magical sense of spiritual power. And 40 continuous hours of any one thing, let alone still and silent prayer, appears impossible given the pressing tasks and responsibilities of our increasingly hectic lives.
But there’s a reason why these traditional devotions continue. They work!
They work to make us more conscious of the spiritual dimension of our lives. They raise our minds above the here and now in which we can so easily become mired. They draw our attention to the realm of eternity: to the merciful God in whom we believe, to the divine Providence in whose hands we remain, and to the supernatural grace that aids us in all our endeavors. They confirm, by way of personal disposition and intentional action, our conviction that God remains present and active in our midst.
Visions of angelic superheroes may be left to the imagination, but the spiritual combat between good and evil is no less real. Meditative prayer with rosary beads may be repetitious, but its constancy provides a user-friendly lifeline linking us ever more closely to the Gospel mysteries of salvation.
And acknowledging Jesus really present in the Eucharist does demand the attention of faith, but such humble adoration enables us to experience a deeper communion with him whose death and resurrection bring about the defeat of evil and the victory of eternal life.
Old-time religion was celebrated in song as “good enough for me.” The devotions we are called to practice this month can be, too — when we celebrate them as spiritual exercises for the good of all.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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