Flowers: Ritual can still be meaningful
When I lived in France many years ago, I went to Mass regularly at Notre Dame Cathedral. My French was not so good at the time, so the ability to attend Mass in Latin was a blessing, because I was able to understand much of what was going on.
It occurred to me that while the Second Vatican Council did some good things for the church, it stripped the ceremonies and celebrations of a great deal of their beauty by eliminating Latin from the Mass.
It also unintentionally segregated Catholics from each other, because taking away the single, unitary language that French, Italian, German, Polish, Latin American, Indigenous and all the other faithful could understand fractured the communication, if not the message.
It’s changes like this, the so-called “modernization” of the church, that have reduced the church’s beauty, significance, power and in many ways, its meaning for someone like me.
Who am I? Well, for starters, there has never been a conscious moment when I did not know that I was a Catholic. I don’t remember baptism, but I fully participated in the rituals of my faith through confession, communion, and confirmation. I have not been married nor have I professed Holy Orders, but I have been present when my mother was given Last Rites, in Latin. The solemnity of that moment brought me to tears.
I am someone who sits in the pew and, while listening to the homily or the gospel reading, scans the stained glass windows imagining the back stories of depicted saints, and absorbs the frescoes on the ceiling. I sing when asked to, and sometimes even when I’m not supposed to, because music is intertwined with the message.
To those who say that these are all epidermal things of little value to my spirit and insubstantial in the context of the Mass, let me introduce you to one of my favorite authors, Professor Camille Paglia. Paglia once wrote this about the modernization and almost pasteurization of the modern church, particularly in America:
“My disaffection from American Catholicism, which began during my adolescence in the late Fifties, was due partly to its strident anti-sex rhetoric and partly to its increasing self-Protestantization and suppression of its ethnic roots. Within twenty years, Catholic churches looked like airline terminals – no statutes, no stained glass windows, no shadows or mystery or grandeur. No Latin, no litanies, no gorgeous jeweled garments, no candles, so that the ordinary American church now smells like baby powder. Nothing is left to appeal to the senses. The artistic education of the eye that I received as a child in church is denied to today’s young Catholics.”
She’s right. I was born in 1961, at a time when little girls were still taught to wear lace head coverings at Mass, and given sparkling rosaries to hold in our hands while sitting in the pew. There was theater and drama and poetry in the way that we prepared to hear the Word of the Lord. Unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters, who perhaps had a more focused approach to faith (get there, pay attention to Christ, don’t be distracted by the irrelevant bells and whistles) we Catholics dressed up. Rituals were important. They are much less so today.
I recently saw an interview with former Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who made the interesting observation that the increasing trend of Catholics to opt for cremation instead of burial takes the focus off of the life that passed. The rituals of mourning that are common when we conduct funerals convey a certain measure of gravitas that a collection of ashes in a box on the mantle do not.
Not everyone will agree, of course. But three of my immediate family members are gone, two are buried and one is cremated, and when I visit my two parents in that quiet place under the towering trees at St. Peter’s, I feel them. It is a destination, and a conscious decision to visit them. With my brother, I do not even know where his ashes are collected. I only have his memory which, precious as it is, has no place or substance or roots in my daily reality.
If you have made it all the way through to the end of this piece, you might still be wondering what my point might be. To be honest, it is as trivial and as important as this:
We are on this earth for a brief moment. Eternity comes afterwards. But while we are here, we should engage in as much ritual as possible to remind us from whence we came, of where we are headed, and how fortunate we are to have had these present moments of beauty. The temporal nature of this life doesn’t mean that it needs to be spartan or utilitarian. Quite the opposite.
Now excuse me while I head out to the cemetery, with a bouquet of flowers and a heart filled with gratitude.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at email@example.com.