Paul Newman, in the movie Cool Hand Luke, lonesomely strums a banjo while singing these lyrics:
I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I got my Plastic Jesus,
Sitting on the dashboard of my car.
It comes in colors pink and pleasant,
glows in the dark ‘cause it’s iridescent,
Take it with you when you travel far.
As Raymond Crooke explains, the “Plastic Jesus” tune originally began as a radio advertisement marketing the sale of statuettes. Composers Ed Rush and George Cromarty turned it into a parody targeting sellers of religious kitsch. While superficially sacrilegious, the campy lyrics rightly point to a potential problem with religious devotion: the tendency to accept plastic or illusion over substance.
The actual Plastic Jesus, also known as Dashboard Jesus, was popularized through the efforts of Fr. Gregory Bezy, SCJ, who in 1955 established the Sacred Heart Auto League as a way to encourage careful driving. The League distributed to its members a small statue or image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which could be affixed to a car’s dashboard. In plain sight to drivers and passengers, the image sought to inspire prayer, thus transforming the ordinary and routine activity of travel into an expression of devotion.
The substance of that devotion owes its prominence to the life and work of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a nun in the monastery of the Visitation of Holy Mary at Paray-le-Monial (France). The Lord Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary in a series of visions. In those mystical encounters, the Lord revealed to her the depths of divine love for humanity. God called her to promote devotion to his Sacred Heart. He asked her to do this by promoting holy hours of adoration, the novena on First Fridays, and a universal feast day in the Church. Owing to the centenary of the canonization of this “Apostle of the Sacred Heart” next May, Visitation monasteries around the world are celebrating a jubilee year that begins on October 16, the feast of St. Margaret Mary.
Catholic devotions have long been associated with the Sacred Heart, the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints or sacred events. These prayers and practices remain popular because they reflect a homespun religiosity that speaks to the lived experience of the faithful throughout history. As Pope St. John Paul II explains it:
“Popular piety is an expression of faith which avails of certain cultural elements proper to a specific environment which is capable of interpreting and questioning in a lively and effective manner the sensibilities of those who live in that same environment.”(Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 4)
Devotions in Today’s Parishes
In today’s parish environment, Catholic devotions serve as both an effective introduction to, and a vibrant expression of, the Faith. One tool that indicates the significant role these religious practices play in parish life is the Disciple Maker Index (DMI). The DMI is a comprehensive research project with survey responses from more than 131,000 parishioners in six hundred parishes in thirty dioceses (to-date).
Eighty-one percent of all respondents state that they have participated in parish devotions at least once in the past year. Older generations participate with greater frequency. This might be due to their stronger familiarity with religious traditions and greater availability since they have fewer constraints on their time. But across all age brackets, forty-two percent of all parishioners frequented some sort of devotion monthly or more often.
Among those who did participate in at least one parish devotion in the past year, forty-two percent of them strongly agree that their parish helps them grow spiritually as a Catholic. And more than half of them (fifty-eight percent) strongly agree that they would recommend their parish to a friend.
More than a Plastic Jesus
Other factors exert greater influence on driving positive experiences of parish life. These factors then lead to a recommendation of the parish to others. Chief among these factors is parishioners’ appreciation of their pastor. Nevertheless, there remains a significantly high correlation between the positive experience of a parish, acknowledged spiritual growth as a Catholic, and matters of worship (including Mass, preaching, and devotions).
Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that various forms of popular piety still attract people to church. Today’s parish devotions, such as the Forty Hours of Eucharistic Adoration or the novena of Masses for the Sacred Heart, capitalize on local cultures and historic customs. These give the faithful an opportunity to put their faith into practice in familiar ways.
Tacky marketing aside, the substance of Catholic devotion provides a welcome aid to travelers along the road of life in today’s world.
Ascension Blog thanks the Catholic Leadership Institute for contributing this article.
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Fr. Tom Dailey, a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS), serves as a research fellow and spiritual advisor at the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He writes a monthly column and does occasional podcasts for CatholicPhilly.com. Check out his feature on CatholicSpeakers.com.
Featured image by Wolfgang Moroder on Wikimedia Commons