Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why do Catholics do that?

This was written as a catechesis to my parishes in rural western Wisconsin. I thought that it might be interesting for others, so hear it is. Enjoy!

As we prepare for the new English translation of the Mass, which we will begin using on the first Sunday of Advent-2011, it seems good that we first take a look at those things which are not going to change, but either were not implemented very well back in the 70's, or have fallen into disuse through inattention or what have you.
We have to remember that we are BOTH body and soul. This is an important consideration when we look at why the Mass is structured the way it is and why we do what we do. What we do with the body supports and reinforces that to which we give ascent with our minds. This includes all of our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
It is really quite wonderful and our knowing these things can help us in entering into our worship of God even more fully. So, here we go...
Why do Catholics stand, sit, kneel, up & down, back & forth? My Lutheran friends have called this "Catholic Calisthenics"! Yet, there is an important reason for why we do these things.
Standing is an attitude of attention, preparedness, and honor in our culture. When we are greeting or addressing someone of importance we stand. We also stand when we are being particularly attentive. And, we stand when we are acting in a particular way as "one body" - hence, the saying "stand with me".
All of these issues are active at one time or another during the Mass. When we begin the Mass, we "stand together" as one body in Christ. We are also standing as a sign of respect as we present ourselves to the living God. We likewise stand at the end of Mass when we are taking our leave of Him. At the same time, we are preparing to "go forth" as we are sent to be the united Body of Christ acting in our world.
During the Gospel we stand at attention so that we may be prepared to more fully receive the words of the Gospel. We recognize that the words of the Gospel are special, they have a different character than the other readings. Thus, we want to be especially attentive so that we may receive these even more fully.
We also stand, especially in prayer, because it is at these times that we are exercising our common priestly service to which we are all called at Baptism. Thus, the whole priestly congregation stands before the altar of God offering prayers of praise, thanksgiving, supplication, and petition in union with Christ, of whose body we are all members, and who is sacramentally present in the person of the ordained priest.
Sitting is a whole lot easier to understand. When we sit we are a little more relaxed. We are in an attitude of rest, at least for the moment. We are also in a position of receptivity for that which is going to take a little longer to receive - multiple readings and the homily!
Kneeling is one of those things that one only sees in Catholic or Orthodox Churches. Of course, that makes sense since it is in a Catholic or Orthodox Church that one comes into the presence of the "Word made flesh" - Jesus Christ, in his Body & Blood, Soul & Divinity. Yes, when we are kneeling we are in a position of ultimate respect, awe, and submission.
When one believes that they are truly in the presence of God, it is right and proper that we would be on our knees. We need only see the example of the disciple Thomas when he sees Jesus in the upper room after the resurrection, and of the "beloved disciple", St. John, who falls not only on his knees but on his face (that is, fully prostrate) when he sees Jesus at the beginning of the book of Revelations. This is also the position taken by Moses, Daniel, and others in the Old Testament when confronted by divinity.
We don’t just attest to the presence of God in our midst, of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, with our minds and hearts, but with our mouths and our whole body. Thus, it is appropriate that we should kneel in these situations.
Genuflecting is like kneeling, though of a shorter duration. It is, again, a sign of respect and submission to the divinity of God. I know that sometimes we have a problem with submission, however, it is good and healthy for us to remember that "if we can kneel before God - we can stand before anyone!"
It is also an act, during the Masses of Christmas, in which we demonstrate the mystery we are celebrating. At Christmas we celebrate the eternal Word has come to earth and taken on our human flesh. Our human flesh, according to the creation story in Genesis, comes from the dust of the earth. Thus, during the Creed, in genuflecting - touching our knees to the dust of the earth - we demonstrate the Word "coming down" and "taking on our flesh". Outside of the Masses of Christmas we bow rather than genuflect. However, we should do so with no less reverence. In this act we carry throughout the year the lesson of that which we celebrate at Christmas.
The "Confiteor" is the prayer in which we set the stage for our worship of and coming before God. We recognize that we need God precisely because, as sinners, we cannot accomplish anything truly good or lasting on our own. This is why we are instructed to "strike the breast" at the words "I have sinned through my own fault". Over the last 40 years this was reduced to one strike with the reduction in text. However, with the coming of the new English translation of the Mass we will return to the formerly familiar - "Through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grevious fault." With this will come a return to the three fold strike of the breast. But WHY strike the breast at all???
You will recall that the way of banishing evil from the community in the time of ancient Israel was by way of stoning the vessel, the person, in which the evil resides and thus enters the community. In balling up our hand into a fist we make of our hand a stone with which we beat out the evil that resides in our own heart. Thus we demonstrate in a physical way that which we are saying in the prayer.
Why is this so important? Well, you’ve heard me say many times that one of the first conditions for being a Christian is to be and recognize the fact that we are sinners, in need of God’s divine mercy. In making this physical gesture we remind ourselves of why we are here and why it is important that we be here.
"Smells & Bells"
During the 70's - 90's we stripped our worship of many things that were quite distinctively "Catholic" in American Christian worship. Sadly, along with leaving these things behind we left behind the sense of wonder and awe that ought to accompany the worship of God. Of course, maybe that is part of the reason that these things went away. As we will discuss later, with regards to music, we made a sad transition from worshiping God to celebrating ourselves, with a nod to God - and doing it as quickly as possible.
In the last few years you will have noticed that bells have not only returned to Catholic worship, but their use has increased even in those parishes where they never left. So, why are bells used? What do they signify?
It turns out that bells are very helpful. First of all, they recall and focus our attention at a time when something important is occurring. The first bell, which has returned after a long absence in most parishes, calls us to attention at the epiclesis. The epiclesis is the "laying on of hands", that ancient sign of calling down the Holy Spirit on some person or thing. Thus, at the epiclesis in the Mass, the Holy Spirit is called down upon the gifts of bread and wine as we implore God to take these gifts and turn them into the living Body & Blood of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. That is certainly something we would want to be attentive to, especially since we are called to unite our thoughts, prayers, and intention with that of the priest who offers these prayers on behalf of us all.
The bells are heard again at the consecration of the bread and then of the wine. These bells call us to adore Christ who has again come among us in living flesh and blood. It is because the host and cup are now the Body & Blood of Christ that there are three rings of the bell.
I recall reading about how St. Elizabeth of Hungary was so grateful for these bells because as a young bride she had a habit of getting lost in her thoughts regarding the love she had for her husband - Louis. It was the bells that brought her back to where she needed to be. I am also reminded of the blind man who related how distressing it was for him when his parish stopped using bells because it was the bells that let him know that the consecration was happening. So we see, even on a practical level bells are a very helpful part of Catholic worship. On a spiritual level they assist as they again engage our whole body in worship of God who desires to be among us so that we can be with Him.
The smells are often a very difficult matter, especially in these modern times of ours. The time was that folks habitually spent a lot of time in smoke filled rooms and so incense was not really much of an issue. In our modern times it becomes an issue because we just aren’t used to smoke. However, it is still an important part of worship since it again engages our senses and brings to life so many biblical images of the divine presence in heaven and of royalty here on earth.
The magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrh. As you will recall from the carol sung on the feast of epiphany, frankincense "bespeaks a deity nigh". It was the tradition of many peoples to burn incense to honor a God. Incense was burned in many ancient temples and was made from a number of things from sweet smelling woods (especially cedar) to dried flower petals, to the gum known as frankincense.
Incense is spoken of in the psalms as representing our prayers rising to God. It is spoken of in the book of Revelations as coming in clouds around the divinity of God. So we see that incense serves a double purpose of giving us a visual sense of our prayers rising, as well as a sense that the divinity is among us.
The sweet and pleasant scent is a further reminder of how our prayers are an offering which is "sweet" to God and a demonstration that God’s own presence among us is sweet, that is, wonderful.
Of course, as I noted above, many people do not consider incense to be particularly "wonderful" today. Thus, I have tried to be considerate by not using incense nearly as often as I would like. I have also made sure to only purchase the purest incense so that impurities will not create smoke which chokes. And finally, Incense is never used on Saturday night (with the exception of Holy Saturday, in which case incense is not used on Easter Sunday) and the fans are always going when incense is used so as to disburse it as quickly as possible. In this way, those who are truly bothered by incense may have a Mass at which they can truly worship without the difficulty of dealing with their aversion to incense.
I would note, out of further interest, that I use frankincense for celebrations of God and myrh for funerals. Again, you will recall from the carol and from biblical references that myrh is the traditional perfume for burial.
I hope that this explanation of "why Catholics do that" will help all to enter more mindfully into our shared worship of God. In worshipping God mindfully we worship Him more fully and also allow ourselves to enter more fully into His presence. Why did God give us bodies and souls? So that we could worship Him body and soul. This is made all the more obvious when we recall our expectation that our bodies will be resurrected from the grave and raised to heaven, even as Christ was resurrected on that first Easter. So, we see, we are intended to worship God body & soul, both in this world and in the next.


  1. Father, thank you so much for this very informative post!

    I remember that my mother used to strike her breast during the Lamb of God. What was the significance of that?

    Would you mind if I linked to this post on my blog? I'd like to ponder it some more and share it with others.

  2. Dear Anne, I can't get to you by e-mail so hopefully you'll see this. Of course you can link my articles. To answer your question regarding your mother's striking her breast at the Lamb of God, it is a classical act accompanying the words "have mercy..." in the context of any prayer.

  3. Father,

    Thank you so much for your dedication to the Faith and your blog. I found it via The Badger Catholic Blog. I live in Alaska, and have received a lot of flack for having a blog. Many of us faithful love reading what priests have to write, and will pray that you continue doing so.



Comments are most welcome! As always, be charitable and remember the 8th Commandment (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor).