The Pious Guide and Early American Catholicism

by Matthew Gallegos, appearing in Volume 10

The devotional guides that America’s Catholics used prior to 1850 convey the laity’s and clergy’s contemporary understanding of official Catholic dogma and rituals as well as their understanding of the nature of Catholic churches. One of the first prayer books written and published in the United States for use by the Catholic laity was The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion.1 This book was written in English and published in Georgetown in 1792. Its publication came three years after the establishment of the Baltimore Diocese and a year after the issuance of the nation’s first ecclesiastical legislation by the first Catholic National Synod (1791).2 At least eight editions of The Pious Guide were issued between 1792 and 1851. One of the reasons Bishop Carroll convened a national synod in 1791 was to establish uniform rules and rituals regarding administration of the seven sacraments and guidelines regarding other religious devotions. The Pious Guide was the layperson’s guidebook for carrying out those rituals and devotions in the correct manner. As Catholic churches generally provided the physical context for these rituals and devotions, The Pious Guide functioned as the layman’s “script” for the activities that occurred within Catholic churches.

St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago, Illinois. Photo:

While the Mass was an important liturgical activity that transpired within Catholic churches, The Pious Guide makes clear that churches also served as the setting for a wide range of public and private devotions. A church’s design was required to accommodate both liturgical and devotional prayer. Up until 1963, the Tridentine form of the Mass, the Church’s most central liturgy, was observed.3 The priest, assisted by male acolytes, prayed the Mass at the church’s main altar, upon which rested the Blessed Sacrament tabernacle. The congregation “attended” the Mass from their position in the main body of the church, which was separated from the sanctuary by a low railing. The priest and acolytes recited all of the Mass prayers in Latin, with the exception of the Epistle, Gospel, and sermon, which the celebrant presented in the vernacular language. On Holy Days and other special occasions, portions of the Mass were sung. Since the sung portions were in Latin, a choir that was segregated from the general congregation provided the sung prayers. The choir generally was accommodated in a gallery which typically was at the rear of the church. The gathering and closing hymns for the Mass were often sung in the vernacular language by both the congregation and the choir. The congregation would stand, sit, or kneel during designated portions of the Mass. The Pious Guide contained thirty-two pages of prayers and explanations in English for the congregation to follow in silence during the various portions of the Mass.4

Some historians have referred to the Catholic churches that accommodated this Mass form as “Blessed Sacrament throne rooms” because of the lack of interaction between the congregation and the priest and because of the focus placed on reverencing the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.5 While that aspect of Catholic church design did exist, the remaining contents of The Pious Guide and the legislation issued by the United State’s Catholic clergy’s National Synod of 1791 regarding other devotional practices provide evidence that a Catholic church’s function went beyond that of providing a “stage” and an “auditorium” for the Mass.

The 1791 Synod specifically mentions the praying or singing of Vespers, Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament, and devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary.6 The 1792 edition of The Pious Guide contains at least seven types of devotional prayers that were unrelated to the Mass, such as the “Stations of the Sacred Passion,” and twenty-three pages of prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.7 Between 1775 and 1878, four successive popes encouraged a dramatic increase in the number of distinct devotions to Christ, Mary, and the saints.8 Catholics would have practiced many of these devotions in a Catholic Church during Mass, outside the context of Mass, in their homes, or while going about their daily tasks. Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, while devotions were voluntary and a priest’s participation in many of the devotions was not required. An increase in the number of devotional practices is evident in the successive editions of The Pious Guide. Whereas the 1792 edition had fewer than ten different devotions, the 1817 edition contained at least twentytwo different types of devotional prayers.9 The 1817 edition contains as many as forty-one pages of prayers and ritual actions that relate to a specific devotion. The various editions also contained hymns in Latin and English that the congregation would sing as a part of their devotional prayers. Some of the devotions could be made in silence in either a sitting or kneeling posture. Other devotions, such as the Stations of the Cross, were communal observances that required spoken prayers, processing to or facing toward each of the fourteen stations, standing, and genuflecting. The Church taught that devotional iconography was not necessary, but prayer could be enhanced by making a certain devotional prayer in the presence of a statue or other representation of the object of devotion, if the representation inspired piety. Although these images could be placed in private homes, Catholic churches generally served as the repositories of a community’s most highly regarded examples of devotional art.

While The Pious Guide contains the calendar of feast days and days of abstinence, prayers related to the Mass and other sacraments, and prayers for various devotions, it also contains clear instructions regarding how a Catholic should behave within a Catholic church. These instructions in turn convey information regarding Catholics’ perceptions regarding the nature of Catholic churches. The following directive appears in The Pious Guide’s “Instructions for Mass and Manner to Hear Mass”:

When you enter a church or chapel, humble yourself profoundly in the presence of God, whose house you come into; or if the Blessed Sacrament is kept there, adore your savior upon your bended knees. Take holy water, make the sign of the cross and kneel.10

Following the Creed, The Pious Guide contains the following affirmations:

I embrace the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and receive all and every one of the things which has been defined by the Holy Council of Trent. … [I believe] in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, [that the Eucharist] is truly, really and substantially the Body and Blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. … [I believe] in transubstantiation. … I embrace likewise that the saints reigning together with Christ are to be honored and advocated and that they offer prayers to God for us and that their relics are to be respected … and I most firmly assert that the images of Christ, of the Mother of God ever virgin and also of the saints ought to be had and retained, and that due honor and veneration is to be given them.

The posture and actions identified in these instructions and the description of the objects and entities one might encounter in a Catholic Church convey the idea that the church buildings themselves merit expressions of religious reverence. The justification for this can be found in Catholic doctrinal teachings. Catholic Church design requirements were an expression of those doctrinal teachings.

The sacramental principle, which is also identified as a sacramental view of reality, is the unifying doctrinal belief that ties together many Catholic beliefs and practices.11 These beliefs and practices include not only the recognition of seven sacramental acts, but also intercessory prayers Catholics make for each other and through which they ask aid from Mary and from all those the Church recognizes as being within the Communion of Saints.12 This sacramental view also underlies Catholics’ view also underlies Catholics’ use and honoring of religious art, their veneration of relics, their recognition of the Church’s magisterial authority, and their recognition of a system of apostolic succession within Catholicism’s clerical hierarchy. Catholics’ sacramental view of reality arises from their recognition that: “all reality is potentially and in fact the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of divine action on our behalf.”13

This recognition is dependent upon Catholics’ perception of God’s ability to relate to man through mediate means. Catholics believe “that God is available to us and acts upon us through secondary causes: persons, places, events, things, nature and history.”14 Augustine of Hippo wrote some of Catholicism’s earliest statements on this issue, referring to sacraments as “visible signs of the invisible.”15 Augustine’s writings conveyed the Christian community’s realization that God became manifest in the world through visible, experiential, and historical means in the person of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) promulgated this understanding as Catholic dogma, recognizing that Christ is “the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man.”16

Ecclesiastical historian Hans von Campenhausen describes Catholics’ understanding of the relationship between God’s Incarnation as man in Christ and the Church’s teaching on the sacramental view of reality by stating:

Through Christ and the miracle of the Incarnation, human nature has been transformed. The union of the divine and human nature is not to be confined to his [Christ’s] person, but extends to the whole of mankind redeemed by him.17

Theologian David Tracy and sociologist Andrew Greeley elucidate further Catholics’ sacramental view of reality by explaining that sacramental theology is dependent upon an analogical understanding of the Creator and creation.18 This analogical understanding of the sacred within the Catholic tradition became manifest during the thirteenth century in the life of St. Francis.

The seven sacraments are the preeminent but not sole aspect of Catholicism’s teachings regarding sacramentality. The Church maintains that objects, actions, and religious devotions also possess a sacramental quality if they incite piety.19 In this context, religious artifacts such as paintings, statuary, stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts are not aesthetic dalliances, superstitious fetishes, or merely the instructional media of an illiterate and technologically primitive culture. They are examples of Catholics’ engagement with the sacred through tangible reality. This realization was in part responsible for the great resurgence in the fine arts that began in the thirteenth century with Cimabue’s and Giotto’s paintings of Francis of Assisi’s life and spread throughout Europe, helping to transform the medieval era into what is known as the Renaissance.

Catholicism’s formal system of seven sacraments and recognition of the sacramental potential of objects and actions are but the more overt aspects of Catholicism’s sacramental system. While not the source of Catholics’ belief in transubstantiation, this belief is consistent with Catholics’ perception of the materiality of the relationship between God and humanity. Common sacramental actions include making the sign of the cross, kneeling, genuflecting, and praising God through song or music, processions, pilgrimages to holy sites, fasting, and denial of physical pleasures. The sacramental view of reality is consistent with religious devotions such as intercessory prayer to Mary and the saints, veneration of relics, and the honoring of religious statuary and art. Logic suggests that in order for a graphic representation to have a sacramental impact, its subject matter must be readily identifiable. This requires that the artistic technique employed be able to communicate identifiable figures or objects rather than subjective or abstract forms. Representational art that clearly depicts identifiable beings and objects is not only conducive but often integral to many Catholic liturgical rites and devotional practices.

Although Christians were creating and venerating religious art by the year 200 AD, it was the Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD) that identified the relationship of that art to Catholic dogma.20 The Council concluded that Christian dogma makes images imperative because in them “the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic.”21 Scholar Herbert Shrade identifies that the Early Christians justified the creation of images of Christ by identifying that: what is wholly real must become an image; only by becoming an image does it bear testimony to its reality.22

The Second Council of Nicaea extended this justification of religious imagery beyond pictorial representations of Christ, by stating:

with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaics as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God … both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all the saints and of all pious people.23

Nicaea II also justified the reverencing of sacred art by stating:

For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.

The theology defined at Nicaea II identifies that the person or entity depicted in religious art—be it in whichever of God’s theophanies or persons, or of Mary, or of a saint—and the graphic depiction of that person or entity are by their nature unequal and different. Despite these distinctions, the prototype’s meaning and content and those of its depiction are hypostatically equal and therefore merit honor.24. In order to avoid the perception that the Church was advocating idolatry, the Church identified distinctions between the concepts of worship, honor, veneration, sacraments and sacramentals.

The Church recognized that worship or adoration, latria, is reserved to God alone, while respect or honor paid to an image of God is relative latria and is given only in view of the image’s prototype.25 As such, the image is honored rather than worshipped. Catholics do not worship the Communion of Saints or Mary, but venerate them, dulia, and in so doing worship God.26 Catholics do this by meditating on the saints’ and Mary’s lives and by seeking to emulate the manner in which the power of God was manifest in their lives. As noted earlier, Catholics recognize that the saints, angels, and Mary, as well as the faithful on earth, are able to intercede with God through prayer and virtuous action for the living and for those in Purgatory.27 Images of saints and of Mary in Catholic churches or other places therefore serve not only a narrative but a practical purpose.

Catholicism recognizes that the seven sacraments are “sensible signs instituted by Christ to signify and produce grace.”28 Sacraments require an external rite, divine institution, and a significant and productive manifestation of grace. Liturgical prayer may be offered anywhere, but the seven sacraments, with the exception of the Anointing of the Sick, and most other liturgical prayers are generally performed within the confines of a church.29 By definition, liturgical prayer is a public devotional service. Catholic liturgical actions include the administration of the sacraments, recitation of the Divine Office, and public devotions such as Benediction and the Stations of the Cross.30 Private devotional prayer can be made anywhere, although a church is also a suitable place for actions since churches contain sacramental objects whose purpose is to elicit piety.31

Sacramental objects often have been ritually blessed to foster prayer and increase devotion.32 Sacramental objects that are generally contained within a church include but are not limited to images of the cross, crucifixes, the stations of the cross, religious vestments, altar linens, holy water, candles, church bells, ashes, incense, statues of saints or of Christ, and religious iconography. Sacramentals differ from sacraments in that sacramentals can only elicit devotion, while sacraments confer grace directly. While many sacramental objects generally are located and used within churches, some are also integral parts of private devotions whose practices may be observed anywhere. The most common of these are the rosary, medals, and scapulars. The administration of sacraments and the presence of sacramental objects within Catholic churches distinguish Catholic churches from secular places, but there are other factors that cause Catholic churches to be unique structures.

Contained within Catholicism’s sacramental theology is the identification of the coeval nature of three salvation events, i.e., the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, with their accompanying characteristics of what David Tracy identifies as “proclamation, action and manifestation.”33 Tracy describes these coeval events as:

the always-already, not-yet event/gift/grace of Jesus Christ. This focal meaning presupposes, by re-representing, the always—already event of grace—the event experienced … The event is an always-already actuality which is yet not-yet: always already, not yet in experience and knowledge through a disclosure that is also a concealment.

Catholics believe that they symbolically and actually engage the salvation events when they participate in earthly liturgy. When doing so, they participate:

by way of foretaste, in the heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem [the City of God] toward which we journey as pilgrims.34

Catholics’ recognition and belief in these aspects of liturgical prayer make Catholic churches structures in which the normal chronology of human existence is altered and aspects of the eschaton are manifest.34

For Catholics, consciously engaging the sacred, i.e., prayer, does not require a specific tangible context, but liturgical prayer generally is made within the confines of a church.36 So as to be fitting containers of liturgy, Catholic cathedrals and ideally all parish churches are, through ritual blessings and actions that a bishop performs, consecrated, i.e., identified as distinct from common use and dedicated to the worship of God.37

When The Pious Guide was written, one aspect of the consecration ritual was the bishop’s permanent placement within the altar of two saints’ relics, or his placement of an altar stone containing saints’ relics within an altar.38 The bishop also consecrated the altar by anointing it with the oils of catechumens and chrism. The bishop consecrated the walls of a church by tracing twelve crosses on the church’s inner walls with holy oil. While consecrating a church’s walls and altar distinguish a church from secular structures, the actual manifestation of God within a Catholic Church is the consecrated bread and wine, the Blessed Sacrament, in which Christ is truly present. In 1551, the Catholic Church responded to Protestant opposition to the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence by advocating the public and private veneration of the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic Churches and in public processions.39 By 1614, Church legislation identified the Roman type of Blessed Sacrament tabernacle and its location on a church’s main altar as the proper method for reserving Christ’s true presence in all Catholic churches.40

Because of the emphasis placed on the Real Presence, from that time until the second half of the twentieth century, a Catholic church’s sacramental nature was ultimately linked to the fact that the sacraments were administered there and that the Real Presence of Christ resided within the church’s tabernacle, but the sacramental objects contained in the church were also honored. A church’s plan configuration, architectural style, constructional character, and aesthetic refinements were always secondary in importance to these factors. Constructional and aesthetic concerns were required to provide a suitable accommodation for liturgy and for the sacramental objects used to elicit pious liturgical and devotional prayer. In its most essential nature, a simple but well-appointed rural church had equal status with the most elaborate Catholic Church in the world because it contained the Real Presence and the sacramental objects that elicited piously observed liturgies and devotional prayer. While sacramental objects were not essential, their efficacy affirmed Catholics’ recognition of the material world’s ability to be the bearer of God’s presence.

Catholics’ belief in the true presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, recognition of churches as structures that accommodate liturgical actions, and belief in the coeval aspects of the church’s liturgical actions mark Catholic churches as actual manifestations of God’s dwelling place, or domus Dei. It is for this reason that phrases such as “The Lord is in His Holy Temple” and “Indeed the Lord is in this place” were written on Baltimore Cathedral’s side walls and the lintels of its front doors during the nineteenth century.41 As domus Dei, churches served not only as gathering places for worship, but as tangible foretastes of the Heavenly City of God within the earthly City of God.

The contents of The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion reveal that America’s early Roman Catholics considered their churches to be the domus Dei and as such to be metaphysical and cosmological focal points. The Pious Guide documents early American Catholics’ engagement with the fullness of Catholic theology and liturgical and devotional practices. They understood Catholic churches to be places where what they saw, touched, and did were potentially effective vehicles for engaging not only Christ’s Real Presence, but the Communion of Saints, and for foreshadowing the eschaton.