Post-war piety: Evolution in a time of turbulence

alana harris

Vatican II made some great changes in the Church, but one of the casualties according to some observers was a neglect of ordinary forms of piety. This review in The Tablet looks at the arc of that aspect of Catholic devotion.

Faith in the Family: a lived religious history of English Catholicism, 1945-82 by Alana Harris

- Reviewed by James Sweeney

One of the things Pope Francis picks out in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is the importance of popular religiosity. It is now widely acknow­ledged that an unintended consequence of the transformation of Catholic consciousness at the time of the Second Vatican Council was a neglect of the ordinary forms of piety.

Liberation theology in Latin America made this mistake, and later scrambled to retrieve many popular practices when it was realised how much energy and power they hold.

A similar over-hasty demotion of devotions to Our Lady and the saints, the Stations of the Cross, Corpus Christi processions and so on happened here too – although my memory is that congregations at, say, benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, were already dwindling and many of these traditional devotions had lost, at least for a time, their popular appeal.

Today some of them, such as Eucharistic Adoration, have returned – suitably refurbished, it is to be hoped, and theologically renewed. This is the territory Alana Harris' study of Catholic devotional life in England examines.

Its title might mislead, because the 'family' referred to is not Mum and Dad and the kids, but the Catholic family of England and the changing patterns of faith therein.

It is based on oral histories collected from Catholics in the Diocese of Salford. Nineteen respondents were interviewed about their devotional practice and changes in their attitudes to the Eucharist and Mass, to Mary and the Holy Family, and to the cult of the saints (in particular, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St Bernadette and the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales).

A great wealth of documentary evidence is also assembled across the period from the end of the Second World War until the 1982 visit to Britain of Pope John Paul II. The result is an impressive and sometimes surprising account of the changing ways in which ­different aspects of faith and practice are reconstructed by the religious imagination.

Harris finds a story of continuity and change. Mary, for example, clearly retains her central place in Catholic life and popular imagination in this period, but with a marked shift in her image – from an icon of motherhood within the Holy Family, to the strong woman of faith. The roots of these changed perceptions are traceable to social change in family life and changing cultural aspirations.

Looming over the narrative here is the spectre of late-twentieth-century secularisation. But what is interesting, and this is the case that Harris is at pains to make, is that Marian and other forms of devotion have not 'declined,' as the sociological storyline often puts it. In fact, they have evolved and have proved surprisingly resilient...

Full review: Evolution of devotion (The Tablet)

Alana Harris biography (Lincoln College) 

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