In the devotional life of the Church, this weekend was the First Friday of the month and the First Saturday of the month. These observances can seem peculiar at first, as one convert responded, “Okay, this is the first Friday of the month. Next week is the second Friday of the month. What’s the big deal?”
It’s a great question. The two devotionals were once prominent in parish life, but over the past several decades, they’ve waned in popularity or even awareness.
The First Friday honors the Sacred Heart of the Lord Jesus, and the First Saturday honors the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady. The two hearts display the love God has for us and the love we are called to reciprocate to him and to those around us.
The First Friday is based on apparitions to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in the late 17th century. The First Saturday devotion is based on apparitions of Our Lady to Sister Lucia of Fatima in the early 20th century.
The diminishing of these and other popular devotions in the life of the Church have brought their consequences.
Oftentimes, seminary formation and theological schools neglect to give an introduction to popular devotions. The focus is on the systematic teaching of the truths of faith, the theological method, the development of doctrine, and other formal aspects of theology. All of these are needed, especially in a secular age when the very credibility of the faith is being undermined.
The problem, therefore, is not what is being taught or emphasized, but rather what’s not being introduced or addressed.
It is a funny experience for a newly ordained priest, or freshly minted theologian, to begin to teach the systematics of the faith to a group of everyday believers only to have them ask at the end, “If my Brown Scapular breaks, does it need to be blessed again?”
One possible response to such a question is for the priest or theologian to shake their fist to heavens and denounce the juvenile state of Christian formation in the Church today. Such a response could be understandable, and it’s been done by many. But here’s a possible second response, find out the answer to the question, explain what it means that something is blessed, develop how the scapular is a visible sign of our baptismal dignity and then explain that dignity, and so on.
In summary, meet the people where they are and see the devotional life of the Church as a resource, rather than an obstruction to the teaching and living out of the faith.
For example, the reason why the Lord Jesus appeared to his servant, the Visitation nun Margaret Mary, and revealed the love and mercy of his heart was because of the pervading Jansenism in the Church of the 17th century. Jansenism presented God as harsh and disinterested in humanity. For the Jansenists, God was more interested in our damnation than our salvation. In response, we have the Sacred Heart apparitions and a beautiful devotion to the love and mercy of God every month.
Such a devotion, along with several others, could be used again today to show the face of our loving Father. In a secular age, where people are told to fend for themselves, the message of the Sacred Heart has new relevance and application. A shepherd of the Church, or one of the Church’s theologians, could mock First Friday devotions and lose the hearing of God’s people, or they can realize the richness of the devotion and see it can be used to teach and apply the faith to our lives today.
The Church’s treasury is full of theological truth, liturgical beauty, moral teachings that lead to virtue and holiness, as well as a rich devotional life. Each aspect of the Church’s tradition is needed. All have been given to us for a reason.
For anyone to dispose of the devotional life, and the expression of faith that has been associated with it, is to miss the mark and lose the heart of God’s people.
In the end, the everyday believer has more awareness and comfort with the Brown Scapular than deep explanations of baptism, or the Sacred Heart than theological dissections of Jansenism, or the First Saturdays of Our Lady than intricate teachings on the relationship of Mary and Jesus in the work of redemption.
With the right reverence and skill, however, our popular devotions can become the means to present and teach the truths of our faith. This is why they’ve been given to us, and this is how they can continue to build up both the piety and faith of God’s people.