What About Those Newspaper Prayers?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Perhaps you’ve noticed the devotional prayers that appear frequently in the Catholic press, in this newspaper and others, prayers addressed to Jesus, our Blessed Mother or one of the saints.

For example, this novena to St. Jude: “May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be adored, glorified, loved and preserved throughout the world, now and forever. Sacred Heart of Jesus, pray for us. St. Jude, help for the hopeless, pray for us. St. Jude, maker of miracles, pray for us. Say this prayer nine times a day, and by the eighth day your prayer will be answered. It has never been known to fail. Publication must be promised. E.C.”

Prayers like these raise some interesting questions: Are they legitimate expressions of Catholic devotion or simplistic superstitions that embarrass the Church? Or a combination of both? Some have questioned why our newspaper publishes these rather controversial prayers. “Are you that desperate for advertising revenue?” they’ve asked.

Well, to the last point, there is of course a small charge for these prayers that appear in the classified section of the paper. These prayers run about $20-$35 each, I’m told. While the modest revenue is helpful to the paper, the income certainly wouldn’t justify the publication of the prayers if they’re truly objectionable.

So, what do you think? Devotion or superstition?

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says that “Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God . . . To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.” (#2111)

Now, if we examine the prayer referenced above, I think we can say that it contains elements of legitimate devotion. Surely there’s nothing wrong and much admirable about the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Jude. And there’s certainly nothing wrong in seeking their intercession. Trust in Jesus and devotion to the saints are beautiful elements of our Catholic tradition.

On the other hand, both the promise that the prayer has never failed and the requirement that the prayer be published are pretty questionable. This smacks of the “external performance” mentioned by the Catechism.

One of the charming characteristics of the Catholic Faith is its “sacramental” quality, its earthiness, the fact that authentic faith is often manifested in tangible, little signs. The devotions of the Church complement its doctrinal and liturgical life and render the faith less sterile and more human and accessible. It’s important though that devotions remain grounded in faith and are consistent with it; that the external signs don’t take on a life on a life of their own. That’s when faith morphs into magic. And Catholics sometimes fall into that trap.

I remember a high school football coach in a Western Pennsylvania town who stopped in the church every Friday morning, the day of the game, to light a candle. He wasn’t known to darken the door of the church otherwise, even for Sunday Mass. And I don’t know if he offered his candle for a victory that evening or for the safety and well-being of his players. (And no, I don’t light candles for the success of the Steelers, in case you’re wondering.)

Devotion or superstition?

Traditional Catholics love these little rituals.

We bury statues of St. Joseph on our property to expedite a real estate exchange. We place a statue of the Blessed Mother in the window to ward off rain on a wedding day. We pin dollar bills on the statue of the Blessed Mother being carried in a procession to express our love and curry her favor. We install a medal of St. Christopher on the visor of our car to guarantee a safe journey, with the hope that his intercession might compensate for our dangerous driving habits.

Devotion or superstition?

In reflecting on this theme I thought of the words of St. Paul: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not please ourselves.” (Rom 15:1) It seems to me that this admonition applies not only to the moral life but to the devotional life as well.

In some Catholic circles today there’s a tendency towards a certain theological elitism, a snobbish, smarter-than-thou attitude that’s most unbecoming. In other words, we who deem ourselves educated and sophisticated in the faith tend to look down on others whose faith is simpler, less cluttered. We become the Pharisees in the front of the church boasting of our accomplishments while disdaining the unworthiness of the poor soul in the back. But it’s that simple, humble soul who goes home justified Jesus reminds us. (Cf. Lk 18: 9-14) Our theological wealth scorns the “widow’s mite” of devotion offered in utter sincerity. Again I hear Jesus correct us, saying, “But she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had.” (Mk 12:44)

In other words, the newspaper prayers published here and elsewhere might not be theologically perfect; they might make us nervous. But let’s be patient with those who offer them, no doubt in sincerity of heart. Who knows, maybe it’s all that they have. Maybe it’s their sole source of consolation in the midst of a terribly broken, troubled life.

This article was previously published in The Rhode Island Catholic, September 15, 2011.