US Churches Revive Respect for Rituals

‘Recapture the Spirit of Sacred Space’


In the last decades, a number of rituals surrounding Catholic worship have been downplayed or, in extreme cases, eliminated.

In his recent book Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual and Expression of the Sacred (Ignatius), Father Uwe Michael Lang says that the post-Vatican II tendency is primarily to focus on the revision of the texts with “insufficient regard for the complexity of the ritual.”

Author and professor James Hitchcock believes “that is exactly on target” and “the major theme” of his own book, The Recovery of the Sacred. “There was a tendency to use phrases like ‘meaningless ritual,’ which, to me, was the lack of understanding of the people involved,” he told the Register. “It was completely contrary to the history of Catholic and Orthodox liturgy.”

But, Father Lang said, the way we worship “includes gestures and postures, movements and processions, music, architecture, art, and so on.”

In fact, Father Lang, a theology teacher at Heythrop College, University of London, and visiting faculty at The Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., is convinced the non-linguistic expressions or symbolic expressions for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery “are more significant than language itself.”

Today’s world is dominated by images, yet for centuries that’s nothing new to the Church, says Father Lang. “The power of the image has long been known in the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has used sacred art and architecture as a medium of expression and communication.” Ritual is “about symbolic performance and communication.”

Yet, Father Lang points out that changes, especially abrupt ones, can signal that observing them “was not so important after all.” As evidence, he points to how many churches moved their tabernacles from a “central position at the high altar of the church to a peripheral place in the sanctuary or even to a side chapel” — or even out of sight. “The message was conveyed that it had become less important for the worship and life of the people.”

However, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, in “Knees to Love Christ, writes, “[W]hen we genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we say louder than any rhetoric what matters most in our lives.” As Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., recently told the Register, “If Our Lord is enthroned in the most prominent part of the church, it immediately becomes clear that only sacred music can be sung there, and only sacred artwork can be displayed there: It is a holy building set apart for worshipping the Lord in spirit and in truth.”

With much lost, there is much to regain. Formerly a teacher and director of a program on arts, architecture and liturgy in Rome, Father Lang examines and offers ways of seeing, understanding and restoring sacred ritual in many areas. And other priests agree.


Important to Faith

Ritual is essential for the liturgy “because of lex orandi, lex credendi [as we pray so we believe],” observes Benedictine Father Kurt Belsole, director of liturgical formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. “The faith is also passed down in non-verbal ways”; for example, “genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. If we do not celebrate the liturgy well according to what Pope Emeritus Benedict calls an ars celebrandi [the art of celebrating], we do damage to the faith.”

To correct these images, Father Belsole advises, “Let Christ stand at the center of the liturgy, and let our lives of faith be reflective of that.”

He also says ritual, to have effect, must be predictable and repetitive. “Repetition is at the heart of ritual. Otherwise, what is called ‘ritual’ would become just a succession of signs — which may need to be explained — and can change from day to day or week to week or month to month. The predictable and repetitive quality of ritual allows people to feel that the ritual belongs to them and that they feel comfortable and ‘at home.’”


Sacred Art and Music

“The masterpieces of sacred art have the power to lift our hearts to higher things and lead us beyond ourselves to an encounter with God, who is Beauty itself,” observes Father Lang.

Yet despite the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, teaching that the Church over centuries has inspired “a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care,” and “placing sacred images in churches so that they can be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained,” in recent decades, many churches have been stripped of sacred art. This lack of beauty deprives the faithful of “a visual catechism” that enhances sacred ritual.

Father C. Frank Phillips, pastor of St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, thinks what happened at the time of the Council was a response to devotional art that was sentimental and theologically inaccurate. “So when the Council called for ‘noble simplicity,’ it seems like everything was tossed out at once,” such as “getting rid of the plaster statues which were reproductions of great works of art.”

Unfortunately, often in the post-conciliar period, beautiful churches — magnificent edifices built with nickels and dimes of the poor and enhanced with beautiful colors — were “done over in white, and sometimes there was more design in a McDonald’s restaurant than in these after renovation,” Father Philipps said.

Father Lang concludes that “a renewal of sacred art in the contemporary world will depend on a renewal of the sacred liturgy.”


A Proof-Positive Parish

For its part, St. John Cantius Church ( has shown what can be done to revitalize and rebuild a parish by attending to the sacred in all aspects of ritual.

“The Church teaches us through or senses,” Father Phillips emphasizes, calling the Church the greatest teacher. “When we walk into a church, the first thing is sense of sight. What do you see if you see blank walls? You see nihilism. But something that has form, artistic beauty and color teaches you about the faith.”

Then the immediate sense of touch with the holy water and the sense of smell greets the faithful, “if the church has real beeswax candles and uses incense on a regular basis, so it smells like a church.

“We hear the choir chant, so sense of hearing [is also present] — and the sense of taste when the Sacred Host, the Bread of Life, is placed on your tongue.” (Father Phillips said most Massgoers at St. John Cantius kneel to receive Communion, unless they are unable to do so.)

In addition, the parish has revived the sacred ritual of regular processions, such as one honoring Our Lady of Fatima. Doing so is “an outward expression of interior disposition of believing Catholics. It also expresses our pilgrimage to heaven.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.

Image via St. John Cantius Flickr page