Project Canterbury

Catholic Ceremonies and Catholic Faith

By the Rev. Frederic Hastings Smyth, Ph.D.

From The Living Church, September 12, 1936, pp. 271-272.

THE SOLEMN RITUALS and splendid pageantries of the Catholic Church are one of the most generally accessible and widely known characteristics of her life in the world. It is also true, that in spite of their universal presence and in spite of the fact that many good expositions of Catholic ceremonies exist, they usually remain vaguely incomprehensible to Protestants and to other persons outside the Church.

The liberal Protestant attitude toward ritual has, of recent years, become relatively tolerant. But this does not indicate that a real understanding of it has become more general. Protestants, indeed, in their very liberalism often betray a patronizing attitude toward Catholic adherence to "forms land ceremonies." It is said that if such things help many people, then by all means they should be retained by them. The implication here is the not altogether pleasant one that the "many people" who have need of "such things" are on a slightly lower intellectual level than those other people who, in their pursuit of pure religion, can dispense with them. On the other hand, many a Catholic, if he be unexpectedly called upon to justify logically and rationally the Church's insistence on a meticulous observance of her traditional ceremonies in her public services, may find this a difficult problem. He can urge the esthetic argument for beautiful ceremonies land this has a certain weight. However, it is not very cogent to an outsider who is often contending that a complicated and still unfamiliar beauty is for him a distraction rather than a help in the more serious business of worship and prayer. Perhaps, also, the Catholic too often falls back upon urging a passive acceptance of what is customary or prescribed by the authoritative wisdom of the Church. He too often urges that ritual is not of primary importance, hoping thus to disarm opposition. Ritual therefore should be accepted without too much thought. But I think the outsider who urges in reply that as far as he can judge from universal observation, Catholic ceremonies appear to be held by the Church, if not of “primary importance,” at least of very great importance, is somewhat nearer the truth than is our hypothetical Catholic himself. The fact is that the traditional ceremonies of the Church are of an importance in her life which it would be difficult to exaggerate. Those who would lightly slur them over have missed a profound truth. Therefore it may not be superfluous briefly to repeat some of the reasons for this importance.

First of all, the outward glory of the Catholic liturgy sets forth the inward glory of the Catholic Faith. This outward manifestation is therefore as inevitable, once the inward glory has been grasped and experienced, as is the opening of a flower when once the root and stalk of a flowering plant have established themselves. If this be true, it is also salutary to point out that the inward glory of the Faith must first be realized before any ritual can emerge which may be described as vital. Roots and plants precede flowers. The great religious art of the Church of the Middle Ages, her cathedrals and stained glass, her paintings and sculptures, her music and her gorgeous vestments, all contributing parts of her rituals, leaped up from the inner heart of a burning faith. Therefore we should more often insist than we now do, that to rear gothic cathedrals to the skies and to surround church services with magnificent ceremonies, if the Faith from which these things first flowered be no longer present in its integrity, is, to say the least, a very doubtful activity. Roots produce flowers, but flowers once detached from roots seldom reproduce those roots again. Rather, they wither and die. We are woefully mistaken if we imagine that any beautiful outward apparatus of the Catholic life, if it be merely cunningly devised by modern architects and artists, or reconstructed through scholarly researches of Gregorian Societies, will somehow once more automatically fill itself with that inward reality which, centuries ago, first gave it birth. For an external beauty, which is not growing naturally and irrepressibly from an inward faith, reminds one of nothing so much as of cut roses dipped in wax. Ritual for ritual's sake, still worse for the sake of mere esthetics, is deplorable.

WE CAN still maintain, however, that the inward beauty of the Faith when it has once taken firm hold, must express itself in an outward and visible beauty which is necessary because it is inevitable. We may go further and say that in some sense Catholic ritual is indispensable to the fullness of the Faith. If it be analogous to a flower upon a deeply rooted plant, it may indeed be argued that the flower is not as essential as is the root. But just as roots precede flowers, so also do flowers appear before seeds. Flowers in their beauty are essential parts of an organic life cycle and if they be picked before the seeds mature, this life cycle may be interrupted. English Protestant-minded reformers of the 16th and 17th Centuries definitely rejected many truths which had borne fruit in beauties of Catholic ceremonial. Just as definitely, they also rejected these ceremonies, not at all because they considered them unimportant or matters of indifference, but because they considered them very important indeed. They believed—and this belief has been justified in the event—that systematic destruction of flowers often prevents the continued existence of any given species of plant. Destroy the flowering of Catholic ceremonies, they argued, and new roots will fail to form. Old roots of the Faith will more easily be made to diminish and to disappear. With similar reasoning, but with opposite intention, many Catholics within the Anglican communion today would be better advised if they frankly insisted that their revived ritual practices do indeed correspond to ancient and partly abandoned truths now once more realized afresh.

So much for the intimate and organic connection between a glorious external ritual and a glorious inward faith. But there are other weighty reasons for maintaining the use of traditional Catholic rituals. For instance, one of the chief characteristics of the Catholic life is its orderliness. It is a full and rich life. In some ways it is even a complex life. But it is ordered. Catholics move with sureness and poise through the disordered pathways of that natural world which is still unreclaimed by our Lord's redeeming activity. Catholics know whither they are bound. They have a definite plan, a definite goal. Out of the relative chaos, social and material, which swirls around them, they are actively ordering their own lives and their personalities according to a divinely ordered pattern. Furthermore, in the midst of social disorder, the Church sets forth in microcosm a human social order corresponding to and informed by the divine mind. Therefore, the sedately [271/272] ordered rituals of the Church show forth outwardly and symbolically that ideal inward personal and social order with which the Catholic religion informs all life.

AGAIN, the Catholic religion is before all else the religion of the Incarnation. It is the religion of the Eternal Word made flesh. It is therefore a religion intensely of the life of this world as well as of the life of the world to come. Hence a “spirituality,” so-called, which looks upon the physical world as irrelevant or, worse still, looks upon matter as an actual impediment to the fullest development of the spiritual life, must be denounced as false. We are not disembodied spirits. We are body, soul, and spirit, all inextricably woven into unified personalities. Catholic ritual bends the material world, as man must bend his body to the worship of Almighty God. Thus, glorifying the material world, the Church lifts it up to heaven. In this respect the Church follows the principle defined by the Athanasian Creed, which, in speaking of the Incarnation, says: “Who, although He be God and man: yet He is not two, but one Christ; One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God.” Thus, the Catholic ceremonies, concerned as they are with physical beauties, stand for this central truth: out of the contingent materials of this present universe of time and space are fashioned eternal values which can find their abiding place within the very Presence of God.

Another characteristic of Catholic worship may be noted in this connection. Such worship is not confined to words, to ideas, or to individual or corporate spiritual aspirations. It is above all and over all an act. It follows the great drama of our redemption. The life, death, and resurrection of our Blessed Lord are eternal facts. They are not merely events of a remote history to which we can now look back in imagination and from which we can draw inspiration for the present. On the contrary, every Catholic Mass is a reemergence into time and space and here and now, of the very events of our Lord's life which find their redeeming climax on the hill of Calvary. Thus every Altar becomes for us a Bethlehem, a Gethsemane, a Golgotha, a Garden of the Resurrection; and as such, the Altar appeals not only to our minds and spiritual imaginations, but to our senses, just as surely as these great events appealed to the senses of the Disciples and of the holy women 2,000 years ago. In giving us our central act of worship, the Mass, our Lord said: “Do this as a memorial of Me.” The word used, “memorial,” means vastly more than a mere inward calling to remembrance. It is a word appropriate to an outward objective act, a “showing forth of the Lord's death until He come.” Catholic worship is an act, a drama, and the ceremonial ritual of the Church preserves this indispensable truth.

Lastly, the Catholic religion is a corporate religion. With a jealous watchfulness, the Church preserves her corporate organic continuity both in the historical time process and at any given time throughout the world. The Church, in an actual and not merely figurative and symbolic sense, has ever been and is now the extension of the Incarnation. She is the extension of the Incarnation both in time and in space. The faithful, as individuals, are blood brothers in the Faith, fellow members one of another within the Body of Christ. The outward rituals of the Church are the visible emphasis of this inward organic unity.

Everywhere, under all conditions, under every sun, Catholic Christians of whatever race or color, unite in the same, or closely corresponding, beautiful outward acts in their worship of God. Amidst the most diverse activities in the world, in the most varied environments, here at least we are one; and we are one in the greatest and most central activity of life, realizing in a brotherhood of active worship our corporate relationships with God. And in addition, throughout 20 centuries of Christian experience, the greatest saints, the greatest minds, the most beautiful characters, whether at home in palaces, in cottages, or in city slums; whether worshiping in soaring cathedrals, in wayside chapels, or in open fields, our brothers in the Faith have united in these same acts of worship.

THIS, it should be said in passing, is the reason why Catholics are so careful to adhere to historic ceremonies only, to those which grow logically and with organic continuity out of the Church's storied past. No newly invented ceremonies, however “helpful” or edifying or esthetic they may be, correspond in this matter of continuity with the mind of the Universal Church. For the ceremonies of the Church are bonds of activity as well as of thought and of faith. The pageantry of the Catholic Church, begun 2,000 years ago in a Life in Palestine, sweeps down across the centuries and flowing on beyond the surge of time, storms the eternal heights of heaven, where angels, saints, and holy ones fall down before Him that sitteth on the throne, where the four and twenty elders cast their crowns before the crystal sea, where the incense of prayer rises as from golden bowls, where all creation rests not day nor night from its great Trisagion: Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, which was and which is and which is to come; and where we too, as fellow members of the Catholic Church Triumphant, continuing what we have begun here in earth, shall one day take our own part in this heavenly pageantry of the sons of God.

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