Chapter 2 Traditional Catholic Prayer
by Dennis J. Billy, CSsR
How important is traditional Catholic prayer in an individual’s prayer life? What role should traditional Catholic prayer have in a parish? How can traditional Catholic prayer be fostered and developed? These were questions on my mind as I read the second chapter of Prayer in the Catholic Tradition on “Traditional Catholic Prayer.” The first two questions are clearly answered, but I’m looking for comments on the third (see the bottom of the post).
The chapter begins by identifying what we mean when we talk about “Traditional Catholic Prayer.”
The word traditional suggests that these prayer forms are embedded in popular piety and devotion, structured according to set guidelines, and rooted in the living tradition of the Church. The word Catholic implies that they are closely associated with one of the many theological and liturgical rites within the Catholic Church… The world prayer indicates that they address a personal God, are fundamentally dialogical in nature, and focus on one or more key aspects of human existence: the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and the social (26).
… the phrase “traditional Catholic prayer” speaks of any approach to prayer that has become clearly identified with Catholic faith and recognized by the faithful as a legitimate devotion to be practiced on a regular basis as a means to growth in virtue and holiness (27).
[It] embraces a wide spectrum of set vocal, meditative, and contemplative practices. In its more specific sense, however, it refers to certain popular devotional practices that, at various points in the Church’s history, have seized the Catholic imagination and accompanied the faithful in their spiritual journey (27).
Traditional Catholic prayer is not limited to a particular culture; it includes both Eastern and Western forms of prayer.
If the Western forms emphasize the role of the passion and death of the crucified Lord in humanity’s redemption and the Easter forms highlight the process of theosis in humanity’s divinization, the two complement each other in profound ways and can be used by Catholics from both traditions to deepen their relationship with God and foster a spirituality that is truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (28).
Traditional Catholic prayer has common features. First and foremost it is connected to the liturgical life of the church. Devotion does not compete with the liturgy, but “both are rooted in and flow from the same redemptive, re-creative, and sanctifying mysteries of the Christ event” (29). There is a harmony and reinforcement between traditional Catholic prayer and the liturgy.
Traditional Catholic prayer generally has a rhythm to it. This pattern and/or repetition parallels the rhythm of the liturgy and encourages depth of prayer. This repetition has the danger of becoming mere exterior formalism, but at its best the prayer’s rhythm builds on the insight that “a regular regimen of prayer impacts a person’s attitude, thoughts, and actions for the better” (29) enabling deeper integration and experience.
Prayer shapes the imagination and forms Catholic identity. It can help to “accentuate key aspects of Catholicism that set it apart from other Christian churches and ecclesial communities.” Properly used, traditional Catholic prayer can orient the faithful to the liturgy and practice of the faith. This Catholic identity also helps “to preserve unity in the midst of cultural diversity” (30).
Traditional Catholic prayer assumes private and communal forms. The rosary, chaplets, etc… can be prayed by individuals or in groups having a different purpose and style depending on the purpose of the prayer. These devotions are not required. They evolve over time. The flexibility of traditional Catholic prayer allows them to “weave themselves into the daily rhythm and life of the faithful” (31).
Because they are rooted in a sound anthropology, traditional Catholic prayer “affirms the physical, mental, spiritual, and social dimensions of human existence” (31). This balance is important in allowing a person to pray with their whole self.
There are both Christological and ecclesial dimensions to traditional Catholic prayer. The raising their minds and hearts to God, the faithful “… pray through, with, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, who vivifies and sanctifies the Church through her life and sacraments” (31).
Traditional Catholic prayer is an important means of passing the faith from one generation to the next. Because it can exist independently of the hierarchical priesthood, it can provide spiritual sustenance when the sacraments are not readily available.
When seen in this light, such prayers are a major means by which the Church faith, in the absence of the ordinary means of salvation, can be passed on from one generation ot the next. In this respect, they complement the sacramental life of the Church and provide a cushion of spiritual practice upon which it can rely in times of persecution and hardship. … In the past, these traditional prayers have sustained the faithful in the most dire circumstances and helped them to survive (and even thrive) when access to the Eucharist was rare and, at times, even nonexistent (32).
Finally, traditional Catholic prayer is not secondary. While it is not perfect and can suffer from abuses, it is vital to the life of the faithful and an essential part of any Catholic’s spiritual life.
It is not an inferior form of prayer to look down upon or hope one day to outgrow, but a staple food of the spiritual life that nourishes every dimension of a person’s makeup. It does not conflict with the Church’s liturgy but is intrinsically oriented toward and thoroughly fed by it. It encompasses many shapes, adapts to a variety of contexts, and orients the faithful toward the transcendent through a set of religious practices. It supports a focused “spirituality of practice” that has captured the heart of the faithful, shores up their Catholic identity, enables believers to take ownership of their spiritual lives, and gives their faith a marked personal imprint (33).
This dense chapter does a great job of answering my first two questions:
- How important is traditional Catholic prayer in an individual’s prayer life?
Obviously traditional Catholic prayer is critical to anyone’s spirituality. These prayers and prayer forms deeply shape the way each of us relates to God. They have been tested and shaped over time. If traditional Catholic prayer is not a part of your spirituality, it is time to start exploring it.
2. What role should traditional Catholic prayer have in a parish?
Traditional Catholic prayer needs to be integrated into the life of the parish. The parishes I serve as a deacon do not have a strong, recent tradition with these prayers and prayer forms. When they are introduced, there is not a lot of participation. We are beginning new initiatives to foster traditional Catholic prayer in the parish and at home,but it is an uphill battle. That brings us to the third and final question…
3. How can traditional Catholic prayer be fostered and developed?
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. How can we foster traditional Catholic prayer in our homes and in our parishes?