Superstition and Popular Devotion: When do expressions of devotion to Ina become superstitious?

by Fr. Joey Gonzaga
Dean, Holy Rosary Major Seminary, Naga City

Superstition occurs “when one attributes an importance in some way in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions as they demand, is to fall into superstition.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2111)

Traslacion 2015 Photo by Fr. Nunilon Bancaso
A perfect attendance at the novena in honor of the Divino Rostro or Our Lady of Penafrancia believing that it will absolutely guarantee a certain outcome is a form of superstition. A novena cannot substitute for faithful commitment as well as right decisions and actions. Participation in the novena cannot replace the reception of the Sacrament of Penance and Holy Communion.

Attributing magical power to the flowers adorning the image of the Divino Rostro or the image of Our Lady of Penafrancia is a form of superstition. The flowers or any object touched to the image neither have magical nor divine powers. God is not a God of magic but a God that desires the purity of our soul and the humility of our heart. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2608-2613)

The power of the novena prayers to the Divino Rostro or to Ina does not come from mere attendance at the Church or its mere recitation of the prayers but coupled with firm and living faith are the right disposition and intention of the person, begging for divine graces. Saint Augustine teaches us that “God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to g iv e .”

Material signs like flowers, handkerchiefs or anything touched to the images of Ina or Divino Rostro including the manto of Ina do not have divine powers by themselves. In and by themselves, they do not cure or heal. Only God heals. Only God can cure us. The images of Ina and the Divino Rostro are only channels of God’s graces.

On the internet we find this message: “By the end of this month, God will increase your financial resources. Share to bless others. If you believe. Type Amen.” In this and other similar cases, one manipulates God to do his or her will instead of relying on and submitting to God’s will, which may involve delaying or not granting our petitions. Moreover, it is not enough that we rely only on God but also on ourselves and help of others. Saint Augustine reminds us that we must pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on us. Origen expresses the inseparable connection between prayer and action in this way: “He ‘prays without ceasing’ who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing.” (See CCC, 2745)

How do we know that God really listens to our prayers? God’s first response to our petition is the transformation of the heart. (See CCC, no. 2739) If there is no transformation of the heart, we are not yet praying.

When do forms of popular piety become true expressions of faith in God?

Shouting, waving handkerchief, lighting a candle, touching the image, immersing into the Bicol river, walking barefoot during Traslacion, and many others forms of devotion to Ina, should not be readily judged as irreligious or superstitious, for they can become true expressions of faith in and thirst for God. On the part of the priests, the shepherd of souls, particularly the bishop, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say: “Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions so that the faithful may advance in knowledge of the mystery of Christ. Their exercise is subject to the care and judgment of the bishops and to the general norms of the Church.” (CCC, no. 1676)

If prudently and wisely directed by the ministers of the Church, these expressions of popular devotion or piety “can arouse in men capacity for self-dedication and for the exercise of heroism when there is a question of professing the faith. It gives men a keen sense of sensitivity by virtue of which they can appreciate the ineffable attributes of God: his fatherly compassion, his providence, his benevolence and loving presence. It can develop in the inmost depths of man habits of virtue rarely to be found otherwise in the same degree, such as patience, acceptance of the cross in daily life, detachment, openness to other men and a spirit of ready service.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 48)

Viva la Virgen! Viva el Divino Rostro!