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Friday, April 22, 2016

Why so many rituals in the Catholic Church? Or "I want to join a church that's not so ritualistic!"

Question:  Why is the Catholic Church so ritualistic? There's just too many rituals!   I prefer a church that isn't so caught up in rituals and rules!

Response:  This objection prompts the response:  how many is the exact number of rituals that would be permissible?  3?  7?  21?

In fact, all churches have some form or ritual, so even if one leaves the "overly-ritualistic" Catholic Church and joins a different church, he's going to find some rituals there. The reading of Scripture, the sermon by the pastor, the greeting of the congregation, the praise and worship led by the music ministers, the closing song--all rituals. And the celebration of the Lord's Supper ("Do this in memory of me") is observed in some form by all Christian churches.

Scripture commands the observance of rituals.  God, especially in the Old Testament, actually designed and ordained His worship around rituals.  So it's impossible to be a member of a church and not participate in some sort of ritual.  

When we reject rituals, we reject our inheritance from those who have gone before us.

However, if we take a closer look at the question, I can see what prompts the dismissal of rituals.  There is, indeed, a valid objection to those who may observe Catholics doing rituals in a rote or meaningless manner.  

On the other hand, I think that the human person desires rituals--it is comforting to us to have some rituals in our lives--whether it is how we observe wedding ceremonies or how we celebrate birthdays or even how we brush our teeth every morning--rituals are comforting and familiar.  And, I think, necessary.  It is a basic human activity.

"Ritual often gives the laity an opportunity to participate in an authentic way in worship.  Ritual gives the 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."--source

Our Catholic rituals enrich our experience of worship and unite us in a profound way to all of our Catholic brothers and sisters, past and present, throughout the planet.  Catholics in, say, the 15th century were devoted to some of the very same rituals we engage in today.  And Catholics in Benin, Bali, Botswana, Belize, Bulgaria are all united in participation in so many of the very same rituals we embrace.  

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As the Dalai Lama is purported to have said regarding (Jewish) tradition:  "[Ritual] at the same time links people through a shared set of practices and a language ... to a powerful lineage of memory and tradition."

"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...embraces the opportunity ritual provides to show Christ reverence and in doing so provides an example to others."--ibid

Incidentally, I think most folks who claim to dislike the ritualistic Church would object vociferously were he to go to a Cardinals baseball game and it was a "free for all", with no order to the play, no repetition.  They like them their (sports) rituals.  And their family rituals. And their morning rituals.  But for some reason, liturgical rituals, not so much.

Finally, here is a wonderful quote from CS Lewis' Letters to Malcolm

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best--if you like, it "works" best--when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing, but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes or light or print or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping.

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question "What on earth is he up to now?" will intrude. It lays one's devotion waste.

Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. 

Already our liturgy is one of the very few remaining elements of unity in our hideously divided Church.

I love how insightful Lewis is:  when there is novelty in the service, our focus adverts to the activity, rather than to God.  "Wow!  What's he going to do next?", where "He" = the worship leader, rather than "He" being God.  

Rituals permit us to spotlight where our focus should be:  on God.  Not the activity.

So I think even the non-Catholic objector would agree:  there's nothing wrong with rituals.  We all have them.  It's just meaningless rituals, or rituals done thoughtlessly that we all should discard.


  1. I and my family were received into the Church at Easter and I want you to know I have appreciated your posts on your blog and CAF (where I found the blog). Thank you for your apologetics focus. It has been very helpful to this new Catholic.