On the Importance of Ritual

The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter knows something about ritual.

The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter knows something about ritual.

Perhaps more than any other religion, Catholicism is belief system based on informed ritual.  This is particularly prevalent with younger Catholics, many of whom have a desire to rediscover the rituals that have been lost in the past 100 years.  While others deride these rituals as “antiquated” or “relics of a more ignorant age,” the Catholic Gentleman seeks to understand the importance of ritual and helps recapture its former beauty and grace.

Ritual is an action or actions, performed in a prescribed order, which give greater reverence to worship. Some rituals, such as kneeling at communion rails, reverencing a bishop’s ring, or wearing mantillas, have generally fallen into disuse in the United States while others, such as genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, and lighting candles to remember the dead are still strong in today’s Catholic culture.

Not all rituals are created equal.  Some rituals, like Lebron James’ chalk throw before every game are designed to excite a crowd, and others, like the rally-cap in baseball, are just plain silly.  The Catholic Church’s rituals, evolving over a period of two thousand years, are designed to augment and improve worship.  Some simply add to the atmosphere of reverence, while others are a form of worship in and of themselves.  The Catholic Gentleman should gravitate to those rituals which aid in creating a certain sense of gravity, reverence, and wonderment befitting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Sacrifice of the Mass, it might be said, is the ultimate ritual.  In the Mass, the words of Christ are recited as He gave them to the apostles in order to replicate the perfect prayer of the Last Supper.  A loving God instructs His people how to worship and please Him, and Christ instructed His Church not on the basis of abstract principles but on the concrete example of the first Mass.  We have been saved, in a manner of speaking, through a divine ritual.

Ritual often gives the laity an opportunity to participate in an authentic way in worship.  Ritual gives the Catholic Gentleman an opportunity to self-express reverence for the divine while uniting him with the larger Sacrifice.  For example, a simple genuflection is an authentic participation because it expresses reverence for the real presence of Christ in the tabernacle while uniting the Catholic to the sacrifice on the altar.

The laity can also seek out ritual as a common cultural thread through time and space.  There is something inherently unifying in the fact that a Mass said in South Carolina is conducted through the identical rituals of a Mass said in Tokyo.  Similarly, there is something unquestionably comforting in knowing that the rosary we pray today is nearly identical to the rosary prayed by our ancestors in faith nearly one thousand years ago.  Ritual forms a common culture which connects Catholics from all parts  of the world and gives identity to successive generations of Catholics throughout the history of the Church.  In a single instant the ritual allows us to draw a cultural connection to fellow believers separated by time or space.

Ritual is also part of what makes Catholicism unique.  Whereas others might decry ritual as nothing more than an attempt to muddle a clear understanding of the divine, the Catholic Gentleman knows that ritual informs Catholics of the divine; it is an acknowledgement that something spectacular and extraordinary is taking place.

Of course, ritual is dead and meaningless if it is not an expression of love for Christ.  Love is the essence of what drives and perfects rituals.  Love is the very thing that gives them reason for existing in the first place.  The root of all Catholic ritual should be the authentic love of Christ.  The Catholic Gentleman embraces the opportunity ritual provides to show Christ reverence and in doing so provides an example to others.

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