May 1979 Print

Dubious Devotions

by Reverend Mr. Douglas Laudenschlager

THE DEVIL, as we know, works night and day to turn men away from God, and certainly has no scruples about the means which he employs to this end. The weaker and more ignorant he perverts by idolatry and heresy and foul sins of impurity and intemperance. But he knows that he cannot often conquer more upright Christian souls with such vile temptations. To ensnare them, he must transform himself into an "angel of light," as St. Paul warns us (2 Cor. 11:14)—that is, he must conceal his revolting features under a more appealing exterior. He must tempt those who would less readily succumb to flagrant vice into devious snares which have all the appearances of something noble and good. As long as he succeeds in turning souls away from God, the method matters little to him.

This explains why the devil seeks to insinuate himself even into the sacred realm of the devotion and worship which we render to Almighty God. If he can pervert our spiritual life, he knows that he can lessen our love for God, and perhaps ultimately lead us into doctrinal error, for an intimate bond links our faith and our prayer. Among the means which he has employed in the past and continues to employ, frequently with the connivance of well-meaning but misguided persons, we discover: spurious apparitions, revelations, and messages; works of art contrary to sacred artistic tradition; and bizarre and reprehensible prayers and devotions.

But the Church, like her divine Founder, knows the devil and his wiles; and the Church, like Our Lord Himself, has done everything possible to warn the faithful away from his snare. The Code of Canon Law contains permanent legislation governing the publication of "messages," prayers, and works of art, by which the devil so easily seduces the gullible. Furthermore, particular decrees of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office have frequently alerted the faithful to particular things of this sort endangering their faith and devotion and deserving of condemnation. Since, however, the conciliar Church seems to have abandoned these solicitous efforts, the following summary of canonical legislation in these matters, illustrated by examples, may be of profit to many.

Apparitions & Devotions

General principles and legislation. The devil has a special predilection for false "apparitions" and "revelations," for by them he occasionally succeeds in undermining the faith of immense crowds, leading them into disobedience to the Church's hierarchy, or even into schism, and distracting them from their duties of state. Archbishop Lefebvre has publicly denounced the widespread tendency of credulous Catholics of our day to run after this sort of phenomena of such doubtful supernatural origin. He has eloquently described this deviation, which draws down the ridicule of unbelievers upon the Church, as "traditionalist pentecostalism," for by it traditional Catholics, like their pentecostalist counterparts, push aside the visible Church which Our Blessed Lord instituted for the salvation of all, push aside the Mass and Sacraments which are the principal means of grace, push aside the genuine Christian life of daily duty and self-denial, only to run to the side of "visionaries" to "ooh" and "aah" along with them in a state of collective emotional excitement at supposedly divine colors and lights and voices.

Obviously the Church must, and does, regulate discipline in such a dangerous domain with great care. Canon 1399 §5 forbids priests and faithful to publish, read, possess, sell, translate, or distribute any books or other publications (e.g. papers, magazines, pamphlets) which treat of new (that is, unapproved) apparitions, revelations, visions, prophecies, or miracles, and which have not received the special approbation required. This Canon summarizes the previous legislation of the Council of Trent, of Urban VIII and Leo XIII. As to the alleged revelations themselves, normally the local Bishop institutes a careful inquiry, and eventually approves or rejects them. Thus, for example, between 1931 and 1933 the Bishop of Vitoria condemned the "apparitions" of Ezquioga in Spain; in 1946 and 1947 the Bishop of Montauban warned Catholics away from those claimed to be taking place at Espis in France. But in special cases, where such phenomena have attracted wider attention, the Holy See itself has had to intervene. 

Examples. On Dec. 21, 1915, the Holy Office, while permitting prayer to "Our Lady of La Salette," forbade any and all public discussion, especially in print, of the text and interpretation of the so-called "Secret of La Salette," under penalty of suspension a divinis for priests and privation of the Sacraments for the faithful. Five years later, it published a decree (May 12, 1920) refusing approbation to the revelations of Loublonde, France (to Claire Ferchaud), and after several French publications had distorted the sense of the first decree, issued a second one (June 1920) confirming the first and giving an official French translation of it. The apparitions of "Our Lady" at Ezquioga were condemned as "completely lacking any supernatural character" on June 18, 1934, along with several books on the subject published in violation of Canon 1399. On May 11, 1960, the Holy Office enjoined the Archbishop of Avignon and the Bishops of Rodez and Montpellier to take public action against a certain Miss Jacqueline Bouche, who claimed a "supernatural mission," and to punish her followers.  

Padre Pio di Pietralcina. On May 31, 1923, the Holy Office declared that its inquiry had not led to conclusive proof in favor of the supernatural origin of certain phenomena regarding Padre Pio. A second decree, after further study, confirmed the first on July 24, 1924, and commanded the faithful to abstain completely from relations with Padre Pio by visit or letter. On May 22, 1931, a third decree confirmed all of the above, and condemned a book on the priest in question published without the necessary approbation. Finally, exasperated by the disobedience of so many, the Holy Office condemned a list of eight more books on Padre Pio on July 30, 1952. On August 6, L'Osservatore Romano explained that the lack of ecclesiastical approval of the books in question had principally motivated the decree of July, but added that "Padre Pio di Pietralcina himself has said more than once that people are writing and affirming things, even miraculous things, about him, which do not correspond to the truth." And the article concludes: "This decree should recall everyone to a greater reserve and prudence in such delicate matters."  

Such measures, of course, must not be interpreted as if they were directed "against" Padre Pio, a devout friar whose ministry as a confessor and director of souls bore great fruit. Pope Pius XII later removed them. Instead, they prove the extreme prudence of the Holy Office, and the distress with which this Sacred Congregation, like Padre Pio himself, viewed the inordinate curiosity and impatient disobedience of too many of the faithful in his regard.  

On other occasions, too, the raucous enthusiasm of a small number has delayed the Church's official recognition of certain genuine apparitions, due to the impossibility of a calm and objective inquiry such as Church law demands. All of these facts recall us once again "to a greater reserve and prudence in such delicate matters." 

   Relgious Art

General principles and legislation. On April 8, 1952, Pope Pius XII summarized in a brief but eloquent allocution the great services which sacred art has rendered to the faith of the Christian people. Masterpieces such as the stained-glass windows of Chartres and mosaics of Rome have justly received the title of "the Bible of the people," for they translate into a simple and universal language the truths of the faith, and sometimes in a more impressive fashion than the most fervent sermons, the Pope explained. But if religious art can help, it can also harm the faith and piety of Catholics. Therefore, Canon 1385, 1, 3° requires previous ecclesiastical approbation for the printing of holy pictures by any process, with accompanying prayers or without; furthermore, Canon 1399, 12° prohibits any and all printed religious pictures "alien to the spirit and the decrees of the Church." Tradition is the best guide in this matter. The legislation of Trent, of Urban VIII, and of Benedict XIV already contained the following, and many other details on forbidden pictures. 

Examples. One may not represent the Holy Trinity in the bosom of Mary, nor as a three-headed man; nor the Holy Ghost in human form, either with or without the other two Divine Persons. Nor may one represent a Divine Person, Our Lady, or the saints in the habit of a particular religious order; nor by any other representation favor one order over another. Only canonized Saints may be depicted with a halo. On April 8,1916, the Holy Office also condemned pictures of Our Lady wearing priestly vestments. 

Further prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law restrict public veneration to the images of the Saints and Blessed only (C. 1277); and order Bishops to forbid anything unusual in this domain, especially in churches (C. 1279).

Prayers & Devotions

General principles and legislation. Because of the important role of personal prayer in the supernatural life of the faithful, and of the danger of superstitious practices and even doctrinal error from the use of unacceptable devotions, the Church also regulates this matter very carefully. Thus Canon 1385, 1, 2° demands previous ecclesiastical approbation for books or any other publications containing prayers and devotions. Moreover, Canon 1399, 5° strictly forbids the printing, reading, possession, sale, translation, or distribution of any publications dealing with new devotions, even under the pretext that they are only for private use. Commentators of the Code explain that the Church normally accepts new modes of devotion to Saints and to mysteries which have always been honored. In this way, she has not hindered the introduction of the Scapular of the Passion, or the practice of the perpetual Rosary, which are new forms of traditional devotions, But the Church does habitually reject prayers and devotions which have new and unprecedented objects, such as the parts of Our Lord's body, as the examples below will illustrate. 

Examples. The Church forbids among other things, new and unusual titles to be attributed to Our Lord and the Saints. The Holy Office has explicitly forbidden: the title of "friend of the Sacred Heart" given to St. Joseph; of "Our Lady of the Sacred Heart," implying a superiority of Mary over her divine Son; and the title of "Penitent Heart of Jesus" and "Penitent Jesus," since Our Lord had no need to do penance. The Church also reproves a special and direct devotion rendered to "parts" of Our Blessed Lord, and has explicitly condemned devotion to: the Holy Face; the shoulder wound of Our Lord (by decrees of 1678 and 1879—the Church has never recognized St. Bernard as the author of this peculiar devotion); His divine hands (Feb. 6, 1896); His soul (1901 and 1906); and His "Holy Head" (June 18, 1938). 

Among other things, the Holy Office has also: refused a feast in honor of the "Precious Blood of Mary"; condemned the practice "of 44 Masses," with the false promises attached, begun in a Polish monastery (March 17,1934); forbidden the publication of the promises allegedly attached to the "Fifteen Prayers of Saint Bridget," sometimes printed with titles like "The Secret of Happiness" or "Magnificent Promises," because of the extremely doubtful supernatural origin of these promises (Jan. 28, 1954); commanded the suppression of the devotion "to the Divine Mercy" as propagated after the visions of Sister Faustina Kowalska, who died in 1938 near Cracow (March 6, 1959); and condemned a prayer "for the reign of Jesus and Mary over all creatures," which suggests the subtle error that they do not already possess such a reign. 

On May 26, 1937, by express command of Pope Pius XI, the Holy Office issued a stern general decree against the multiplication and propagation "of new forms of devotion of this sort, sometimes ridiculous, and almost always vain imitations or deformations of other forms of devotion legitimately established." The document points out the bad impression made upon non-Catholics bu such things and severely admonishes the Bishops to exercise a strict vigilance in this matter, as demanded by Canon Law. 


General principles and legislation. The spread of devotions accompanied by incredible non-existent indulgences has also done much at certain periods to draw down upon the Church the scorn of unbelievers, Canon 1388, §1 requires previous ecclesiastical approbation for any books, booklets, pamphlets, cards, etc. mentioning the concession of indulgences. Furthermore, Canon 1399, 11° strictly forbids the printing, reading, possession, sale, translation, or distribution of all such materials, if the indulgences in question are apocryphal (that is, never really granted by any Pope) or have been proscribed or revoked by the Holy See. 

Examples. To the eternal shame of those who have invented such ludicrous things, here are just a few examples from a series of apocryphal indulgences condemned by the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences on May 26, 1898: 

1) for a prayer composed of the words of Mary as she received the body of her Son, the deliverance of fifteen souls from Purgatory. 

2) for the recitation of a certain prayer after the Elevation of the Host, an indulgence of 5676 years in honor of the number of Our Lord's wounds; 

3) for three Our Father's and three Hail Mary's in honor of the three ribs that pierced Our Lord's side as He climbed Mount Calvary . . . an indulgence of one hundred thousand years! 

One can easily understand why the bull "Officiorum" of Pope Leo XIII, from which the code condenses the Canons on this subject, contains the further prescription that false indulgences of this sort already spread about "must be withdrawn from the hands of the faithful." 

Another important decree of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences (Aug 10, 1899) lists ten rules for discerning true from false indulgences. Here are a few excerpts: those indulgences are authentic which are contained in the latest edition of the "Raccolta" (Rule 1); those attached to publications or pictures printed without the necessary approval are to be considered inauthentic (4); all those of more than 100 years are revoked (5); those are false or suspect which grant plenary indulgences for short prayers (6); come from doubtful "revelations" (7), or promise the liberation of souls from Purgatory (8). 

Finally, the faithful should note that any change or interpolation made in the prayers to be recited causes the attached indulgences to cease (Canon 934, 2). Therefore, those, for example, who add lists of invocations between the decades of the Rosary, lose all the precious indulgences normally accompanying this great prayer.

In this domain as in so many others, Holy Mother Church has amply demonstrated her solicitude for the eternal salvation of her children, warning them away from dangerous paths and patiently but sternly calling back the erring. If only all would listen to her voice, and remain faithful to sound traditions and traditional legislation in these delicate matters, how many deceptively appealing snares of the devil would be recognized for what they are and carefully avoided! Let us remember that Almighty God will judge us one day on our devotion, not on our devotions, and certainly none the more leniently if we have capriciously endangered our faith and our love of God, in disobedience to His Church, by a blameworthy enthusiasm for doubtful "apparitions" and rejected "devotions." Let us charitably remind our fellow Catholics of their duties in this regard as sons of the Church. And let us all strive by God's grace to become examples of genuine Christian devotion, faithful to the Mass and Confession and Communion, to our daily Rosary and prayers and our dairy duties, giving proof of our ardent supernatural love of God and of our neighbor.


EDITOR'S NOTE: The faithful should note that while the Church does not always officially recognize a particular devotion or authorize it to be promoted publicly, She frequently allows these devotions to be practiced privately. This is the case regarding the "Fifteen Promises of St. Bridget" and the "Mercy of God" devotion of Sister Faustina. In the case of Padre Pio, the Church later lifted all sanctions against him and his cause of beatification has been introduced.