Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics

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A hundred years ago Catholic believers young and old, rich and poor, would fill churches on holy days, drawn together in prayer and in the conviction that they, the laypeople, needed the clergy and patron saints to mediate between them and their God. Today a Catholic believer in America is as likely as not to find God for herself.

This book traces dramatic changes in the practice of faith among American Catholics through evolving ideas about prayer. Where so many have seen the movement of American Catholics away from traditional devotional practices as a symptom of encroaching secularism, author James P. McCartin shows how the changing practice of prayer itself was the primary catalyst behind Catholics' growing sense of spiritual independence.

Prayers of the Faithful reveals how, over the decades, Catholics' ways of praying underwent a significant shift alongside the larger transformations of American society and culture. The book documents the novel ways of praying that transcended the formal rites of earlier generations. Whether "praying in tongues" or working on behalf of social justice or participating in public protests as outpourings of prayer, lay Catholics consistently expanded their notions of praying. And in doing so, McCartin suggests, they reshaped and redefined American Catholicism. By examining the spiritual life of prayer over the twentieth century, this book thus opens up new ways of understanding Catholics, their church, and their place in American life.

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Editorial Reviews


Over the course of the past several decades, many Catholics have rejected the strict spiritual hierarchy that was, for centuries, the foundation of the organized church. This dramatic shift in the practice of the Catholic religion has resulted in the evolution of prayer itself into an independent-centered activity incorporated into daily routines rather than a publicly performed and formalized ritual.
— Margaret Flanagan

R. Scott Appleby
Prayers of the Faithful is the only book that successfully tracks and explains 'change over time' in American Catholic self-understanding as expressed through the lens of prayer. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand the American Catholic soul in the twenty-first century.
James M. O'Toole
McCartin offers an important new perspective on the history of prayer. For American Catholics, as for all religious people, prayers were not idle words sent off into an uncomprehending universe. For them, prayer was action, and it had real effects. They were shapers of their own spiritual destiny.
Leigh E. Schmidt
In James McCartin's hands, the habits of prayer become a profound way to examine the shifting ecclesial and political currents of American Catholicism since the Civil War. While well aware of the transnational dimensions of his story, McCartin nonetheless offers a particularly insightful meditation on the Americanness of the spiritual life, the insistent tension between hierarchic authority and individual expression.
Booklist - Margaret Flanagan
Over the course of the past several decades, many Catholics have rejected the strict spiritual hierarchy that was, for centuries, the foundation of the organized church. This dramatic shift in the practice of the Catholic religion has resulted in the evolution of prayer itself into an independent-centered activity incorporated into daily routines rather than a publicly performed and formalized ritual.
Publishers Weekly
McCartin, assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University, uses the theme of prayer to tie together the diverse ways in which American Catholics have changed over the last century. Tracing shifts in Catholics’ beliefs, concerns, and relationship with the church and its leaders, he begins by describing the “immigrant church” of the late 19th century as a community “bounded by shared beliefs and devotions,” but placing ordinary lay people at the bottom of the power pyramid. McCartin examines such subsequent movements as Father Patrick Peyton’s Family Rosary Crusade, the charismatic renewal and liberation theology, casting these phenomena as preludes to a day in which many lay Catholics link prayer with public action and exercise spiritual autonomy to the point of disagreeing with church teachings. This has occurred, he writes, even as other Catholics seek to restore the earlier order and respect for the hierarchy. Despite its brief treatment of a very big topic, McCartin’s book provides a good overview and will appeal to readers interested in contemporary church movements and history. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049130
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2010
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James P. McCartin is Assistant Professor of History, Seton Hall University.
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Table of Contents

1 Praying in the immigrant church 10

2 Praying in the American century 42

3 Prayer becomes a crusade 71

4 Prayer becomes secular 100

5 Prayer becomes personal and political 139

Epilogue 174

Notes 185

Acknowledgments 219

Index 221

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