Cult to Dona Lucilia? – Not Only Licit, But Also Recommended

The reputation of sanctity is a mysterious action of the Holy Spirit by which a believer receives the inner prompting to pray through the intercession of another baptized person. Having obtained the desired favour from Providence, he shares his joy by communicating to others the unsuspected intercessory power of this or that living or deceased person.

In a previous article, we saw how devotion to Dona Lucilia has spread with surprising speed in our days.

This kind of phenomenon is not new, nor is it something unknown to the Church. The popular devotions that erupt because of the reputation of sanctity of men and women who have not yet been canonized are part of a spontaneous process – clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit – which not infrequently ends with the ascension of yet another Servant of God to the honour of the altars.

Mysterious action of the Holy Spirit

Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB,1 recalls that, in the process of recognizing the holiness of life of a believer, the sensus fidei – that is, the faculty of every baptized person to discern whether a certain religious teaching or practice is in conformity with the Faith – gives rise to the reputation of sanctity, or the reputation of martyrdom in the case of a martyr, and to the reputation of signs.2

It is precisely this cult arising from the sensus fidei, which can also be called popular cult, which is the essential condition for the competent ecclesiastical authority to recognise the heroic virtues of a deceased person. The private veneration of the faithful necessarily precedes any authorization for public cult, since the Holy Church does not seek out anonymous people to canonize. In her centuries-old wisdom, she limits herself to studying the cases of men and women who already enjoy an undeniable reputation for virtue. Consequently, it is absurd to impugn the fruits of this popular cult as heterodox on the grounds that the deceased is not yet in the catalogue of Saints…

Popular devotion, which springs up because of a yet-uncanonized person’s reputation for holiness, is part of a process inspired by God

The reputation for sanctity is a mysterious action of the Holy Spirit that takes place among the faithful. Through it, a baptized person receives the inner prompting to pray through the intercession of another person and, having obtained the favour he or she desired, communicates that person’s power of intercession to others, whether living or deceased. In order to help each other, devotees also distribute images, holy cards, direct and indirect relics, as well as private prayers that circulate freely in the networks of the Christian people. When this reality, this cult, goes beyond the private sphere and becomes known by many – in other words, it is publicized without becoming a public cult – it is said that there is a reputation among a certain group of believers that this or that intercessor is powerful before God.

Now, the concepts of private cult and public cult often lend themselves to confusion. To clarify the issue, it is useful to explain some basic principles and illustrate them with examples. This is what we will do next.

The notion of cult

In the soul of any faithful Catholic naturally blossoms an admiration for superiors and the desire to honour them, which can be described as the manifestation of submission and recognition of the superiority or excellence of another. It is a common doctrine of the Holy Church that every baptized person has the freedom to express their respect or even veneration – and therefore their cult, as long as it is not public cult or exceeds the limits due to a creature – to any virtuous person, whether living or dead. This has always been the case throughout the centuries. What is admired in these living or deceased men and women are not qualities that are absolutely their own – “What have you that you did not receive?” St. Paul reminds us (1 Cor 4:7) – since in their virtue and holiness there shines a spark of the divine perfections and the excellence of the Creator.3

All the baptized are duty-bound to pay private cult to the Angels and Saints of Heaven, as well as to living persons who are their superiors

In other words, when a certain superiority is found in someone – the person being venerated – there is usually another – who can be called the venerator – who is happy to recognize this superiority and manifest it: veneration is given to this superior person precisely because of their superiority, which the venerator reveres with humility. This is a consequence of the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue, which commands us to honour all those who, for our good, have been given authority in society by God.4 And this authority must be understood in a broad sense, because every believer has their own share of authority: from the mother and the father of a family to the manual worker, the professor and even the beggar.

St. Benedict with his monks – Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Asciano (Italy)

This means, among other things, that the baptized have the obligation to render private cult both to the Angels and Saints in Heaven, and to all living persons who are superior to them in some way, particularly when it comes to supernatural superiority: a confessor endowed with a special charisma, a preacher with sacred eloquence or a nun of unblemished purity.

The different types of veneration

Veneration can be natural or supernatural. Natural veneration is that which all people are obliged to render to someone who is superior to them in some way. It can be individual, in a relationship between two individuals; familial, in relation to father and mother within the family; or social, within a society. Supernatural cult, on the other hand, is the recognition due to God, and can be rendered to Him as well as to the people of the Holy Church who are superior to us by vocation, mission or fidelity to the gifts received, whether they are living or deceased.

In the cult of those who are in the beatific vision, the following can be distinguished: latria, given to God; hyperdulia, to Mary Most Holy; protodulia, to St. Joseph; and dulia, to the Angels and Saints in Heaven, whether canonized or not. Finally, the cult paid to a person can be absolute – when the person himself is venerated – or relative – when it is paid to an object related to the person venerated.

In the latter case, we speak of a relic,5 which can be direct – something that had a vital association with the person, such as their bodyor indirect – an object touched or used by the person in life, or touched to a direct relic. Among relics, the Church distinguishes between two types: sacred ones, which refer to the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Our Lady, the Saints or the Blessed; and non-sacred ones, linked to other people, whether Servants of God with a reputation for sanctity, or simple baptized persons, living or deceased. The term representation is used to refer to the various types of image of someone, such as photos, statues, paintings and holy cards.

Private and public cult

Every act of supernatural cult can be practised publicly or privately. People often confuse public cult with external cult that is publicized, i.e. held before a numerous public. However, the expression has a precise technical meaning, since a true act of public cult does not depend on merely appearing to be one.

According to the Code of Canon Law,6 cult is public when it consists of a liturgical action, namely: it is performed by a minister delegated by the Church, with the intention of carrying out what the Church wishes to be realized, following a ritual established by the Church. It is private in all other cases of supernatural cult rendered by any man, even one not baptized, in relation to God, His Angels and Saints. Thus, cult will be public only if it consists of a liturgical act; otherwise, it will always be an act of private cult. The absence of one of the three elements listed above also renders the act of cult private.

Regarding canon 1187, on the lawfulness of public cult, a recent commentator explains that “private cult is possible whenever there are reasonable grounds.”7 In fact, there are several canons in which the Code of Canon Law encourages the faithful in particular and certain Catholic institutions to promote private veneration.

By way of example

Certain acts of cult in the Catholic Church can only be held in public, such as Holy Mass, even if celebrated alone by a priest. Others, such as the Holy Rosary, will always be acts of private cult, even when recited by crowds and with the participation of priests, bishops and even the Pope. A similar case occurs with non-liturgical prayers, works of penance and charity, which absolutely cannot be liturgical or of public cult, but are a means of sanctification available to all the faithful.

Cult will be considered public only when it consists of a liturgical action; otherwise, it will always be an act of private cult

The Liturgy of the Hours, on the other hand, will be an act of public cult when it is recited by people appointed to do so, such as clerics or consecrated persons who have it prescribed in their constitutions: a Carmelite nun, for example, will be able to perform an act of public cult in the solitude of the cloisters of her convent, given her professed status, while a layperson will perform an act of private cult by reciting the Divine Office in solitude. However, the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours together, by people who are not delegated, converts the action of a community of the faithful into an act of public cult.

The singing of Vespers in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, in Caieiras (Brazil)

A layperson who simulates celebrating Mass, even if he faithfully follows the established ritual with the intention of performing a Sacrament, will never be performing an act of public cult, because he is not a designated minister. It will not even be an act of private cult, because of the intention to feign rather than truly praise God. However, a member of the faithful who is unable to take part in the Eucharistic celebration and remains alone at home or on a sickbed, and who reads all the prayers of the Mass in a spirit of piety, is practising an act of private cult that is highly pleasing to God and in no way reprehensible, even though he is not renewing the Holy Sacrifice.

Illicit cult

It is, however, a transgression of the laws of the Church to perform an act of public cult, such as Holy Mass, in honour of a deceased but uncanonized person, or in honour of a living person. On the other hand, there is nothing illicit about a Mass of thanksgiving for the gifts granted by God to that person, in the same way as celebrating the anniversary of a person’s birth, ordination to the priesthood, marriage or religious profession.

With regard to relics and representations of people who have not been canonized or beatified, it will be considered an illicit act of public cult if the relic or representation is displayed in a church, on the altar, during the celebration of a liturgical act, such as Holy Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours. But if it is an “exposition” outside of the context of public veneration, merely as an act of private veneration, there is nothing reprehensible in this.

Msgr. João kisses a shawl that belonged to Dona Lucilia

What about “miracles”?

We conclude with a delicate question: how does the Church consider “miracles” obtained through the intercession of a deceased person who has not yet been canonized, but who is the object of private veneration by the faithful?

In a strict juridical sense, a fact can be designated with the word miracle only after an official declaration by the Holy See. Otherwise, the designation is merely a private opinion. Precisely because of this, the approval of a miracle by the Holy See requires an ad hoc canonical process. As a result, before this official declaration, it is possible to speak of a supposed miracle, regardless of how numerous or very important those who privately consider it to be so are: the favoured person themselves, doctors, family members, specialists in various fields, lawyers, judges, police officers, judges, ministers, and even monsignors, bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

Therefore, all acts of private cult to Dona Lucilia are both licit and recommended, whether they be of absolute or relative cult

The opening of the canonical process for the alleged miracle, which must be done in the diocese where the evidence is found and therefore where the events took place, necessarily presupposes the existence of a canonization process that has already begun in relation to the Servant of God to whom the effective intercession for obtaining the heavenly gift is attributed.

Therefore, when referring to an alleged miracle, the Holy Church considers it to be in the same category as the so-called favours or graces obtained through the intercession of the Servant of God: they can only serve as evidence to testify to the existence and authenticity of the aforementioned Servant of God’s reputation for sanctity, a prerequisite for the opening of the cause for canonization.

Therefore, every act of private cult to Dona Lucilia, as well as to any person whom the venerator considers superior to himself, is licit and recommended; be it absolute cult or relative cult, and this in the veneration of both a representation and a relic. ◊



1 Cf. AMATO, SDB, Angelo. Sensus fidei e beatificazioni. Il caso di Giovanni Paolo II. In: L’Osservatore Romano. Città del Vaticano. Year CLI. N.78 (April 4-5, 2011); p.7.

2 The reputation of signs – in Latin, fama signorum – is the conviction of obtaining heavenly graces and favours through the invocation and intercession of a Servant of God who died in the odour of sanctity.

3 Cf. CHOLLET, A. Culte en général. In: VACANT, A.; MANGENOT, E. (Dir.). Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique. 2.ed. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1911, t.III, col.2407.

4 Cf. CCC 2234.

5 In this regard, it should be made clear that any link between a person and what they use, touch or make use of, as well as the place where they have been, can be the basis for a relative cult as long as the association is real and decent (cf. CHOLLET, op. cit., col.2409).

6 Cf. CIC, cân. 834.

7 MANZANARES, Julio. Comentário ao cânon 1187. In: CODE OF CANON LAW. 4.ed. Madrid: BAC, 2005, p.623.



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