Whenever I go to eucharistic adoration, I have a little ritual that I follow, something I consider to be a good deed before settling into adoration. I sift through the free devotional literature set out for adorers to use in the adoration chapel while praying, looking for any problematic materials that need to be removed. If I find them, I stuff them in my purse for disposal later.
(Nota bene: I limit this practice to tracts, pamphlets, and other cheap leaflets that the distributors expect adorers to take home with them. Books that are the property of the chapel should not be removed but reported to the pastor if they are unsuitable for devotional reading—although I confess that I have also hidden problematic books behind rows of books on the shelves in hopes they will be less likely to be picked up and read.)
There is one particular type of leaflet I always keep an eye out for, which I always snatch up and trash later, and which I usually find by the stacks in adoration chapels (sometimes a dozen or more copies). I have also found these leaflets in the pews and literature racks in churches. They are copies of the infamous "never fail" novena to St. Jude. Those desperate for St. Jude's intercession are instructed:
The novena prayer, all four parts, must be said six times each day for nine consecutive days, leaving nine copies in church each day. Prayer will be answered on or before the ninth day and has never been known to fail. Make 81 copies and leave nine copies in church for nine consecutive days. You will receive your intention before the nine days are over, no matter how impossible it may seem.
I like to think that St. Jude, a favorite saint of mine, understands and approves of my mission to purge adoration chapels and churches of this superstitious invocation of his name.
Superstition by any other name . . .
Meanwhile, I take a different approach to other popular folk pieties. I generally appreciate Catholic folk customs that involve combining personal prayer with ritualistic actions. When asked, I will offer some perspective and caveats to inquirers because I think some practices can shade off into superstition, but I do not think there is anything inherently superstitious or impious about creating a ritual around praying for intercession for your intentions. In my opinion:
Catholic spirituality is incarnational, meaning that it encompasses both body and soul. Catholics don't just pray with their minds, they pray with their bodies, as can be seen at Mass with the various bodily postures we assume during the liturgy (e.g., standing, sitting, kneeling). Likewise our private devotions can be incarnational.
In fact, sometimes another form of superstition can enter into play here. Rather than there being a fear that a request for intercession will not be granted unless the directions for prayer and ritual that are given are followed precisely, there can be a fear that freely choosing to participate in personal rituals associated with prayer could prevent the request for intercession from being granted, or could be disrespectful to God or the saint whose intercession is being invoked. Either way, the focus appears to be on the performance of external acts and not on the interior dispositions of the supplicant who acts.
The Church and superstition
Before we go further, let's take a look at how the Church understands superstition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
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, e.g., when one attributes an importance 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 that they demand, is to fall into superstition (CCC 2111).
When Christians hear the word superstition, they usually think of secular rituals that people engage in, such as making a wish while pulling apart a bone or blowing out birthday candles. Generally speaking, Christians usually do not consider that Christian devotions can be undertaken superstitiously. But it is precisely Christian prayer done superstitiously that the Catechism is addressing here.
What the Catechism warns against is that we must not suppose that praying certain prayers in just the "right" away will oblige God to answer them according to our desires. Taking our example of St. Jude, praying for nine days for his intercession can be a good Christian act. But attributing a positive response to those prayers to having been prayed "[in] all four parts [of the prayer] . . . six times each day for nine consecutive days, [while] leaving nine copies [of the novena] in church each day" is superstitious. It is not unlike a magician saying a few words, tapping his wand to his hat, and the audience believing that the words and the taps are the reason he is able to pull out a rabbit.
Superstition in the Bible
When you think of superstition in the Bible, does your mind automatically turn to the story of Judah Maccabeus's men, who took charms with them into battle (cf. 2 Macc. 12:39–45)? That is indeed a strong warning against superstition in the Bible, but there is another story I think of when I am seeking to explain how worship of the one true God can take on elements of superstition.
An inquirer once posed this question:
What the heck did Moses and Aaron do wrong to be punished when getting the water from the rock at the end of Numbers 20? My seven-year-old has become quite a fan of Aaron and he was quite angry with God when Aaron suddenly had to be stripped of his garments and die on top of the mountain. I explained to my child that if we think God was wrong, then we're most definitely wrong because God is always all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-loving. But I could not explain what Moses and Aaron did [wrong]!
I looked up the story my inquirer was referring to. There we read:
[T]he glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord said to Moses, "Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle" . . . And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle (Num. 20:6-11, emphasis added).
As we can see from the emphasized passages, Moses and Aaron did not do as the Lord commanded them to do. The Lord asked them to speak to the rock and it would bring forth water. Instead, Moses and Aaron decided to strike the rock for water, which was something they had successfully done before (cf. Exod. 17:5-7). In other words, they decided to ignore the Lord's request and go with what had worked before, which demonstrated a lack of faith (Num. 20:12) and (from the standpoint of the Catechism's definition) superstition.
Choosing to do what "works" rather than to offer prayer in trust—and, in Moses' and Aaron's case, in disobedience to God's expressed will—is the very essence of superstition.
As a rule of thumb, any time someone promises you that a prayer is never known to fail, or that participating in a devotion will guarantee you salvation, that should be seen as a red flag warning you of superstition. Even when the devotion is otherwise encouraged by the Church, you can be certain that the Church will never sanction "guarantees of salvation."
For example, the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is sometimes promoted with the promise that wearing it will ensure that the person who wears is guaranteed heaven. This guarantee is based on a misunderstanding of Our Lady of Mount Carmel's promise to St. Simon Stock that "whosoever dies clothed in this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire." (In fact, that promise has been so misconstrued, even to this very day, that Carmelites now downplay that promise. My own scapular, made by Discalced Carmelite nuns, does not have the famous scapular "promise" embroidered on it, but instead says, "Behold the sign of salvation; put on the Lord Jesus Christ.")
Love makes the difference
Any prayer said sincerely, with love for God and devotion to his Mother and his saints, may be fruitful for the salvation of souls. What matters is the love and devotion offered by the person praying, not the words of the prayer or the formula of the devotion. Allow me to close where we began, with a story of the intercession of St. Jude.
Many years ago, a young Catholic man was struggling to make a living as an entertainer while raising a family. Nonetheless, he put his last bit of money in a collection basket during Mass one day. The next day he was offered a job that more than repaid his generosity. Over the years, whenever he was in dire straits, he would turn to his favorite saint, St. Jude, and ask for help. In return he promised St. Jude to one day build him a shrine. St. Jude always seemed to come through for this man and his family.
Eventually the entertainer was enormously successful, and he remembered his promise to build St. Jude a shrine. After thinking about the various forms of a shrine that might be built, he settled on the idea of building a hospital to treat sick children—children so ill that their needs could be considered "impossible causes." He wanted the hospital to be a research facility that would work on cures for catastrophic pediatric diseases; that would, in essence, offer hope for families when there seemed to be no hope.
You probably now know the story to which I am alluding. It is the story of Danny Thomas and the reasons why he built St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. To this day the hospital—now a world-renowned pediatric research hospital that provides treatment for all children regardless of ability to pay—bears St. Jude's name and has his image on display. It remains a lasting testament to Mr. Thomas's love for St. Jude and his commitment to honoring St. Jude's intercession for those with "impossible causes."
That is the type of devotion to a saint that we should all seek to emulate in our own prayer lives. And, while there is never a guarantee that our desires will be realized, this seems to me to be the kind of devotion, based upon the kind of faith, that makes miracles possible.