Liturgical Ritual and Symbol


My dictionary gives the definition of ritual as “any act or procedure that is followed consistently”. Rituals are associated with many aspects of our lives – our morning routine, sporting events or family birthday gatherings for example.

Ritual activity is part of the human condition and is necessary for our survival as human beings. It celebrates and intensifies the most elemental situations of our humanity. Ritual is something that we purposely do over and over again. It is done best when the words and actions of the ritual are done from memory.

The word ‘ritual sometimes carries the negative connotation of meaningless repetition or of ‘going through the motions’. This is usually a reaction to ritual that has been badly done.

There are certain ritual gestures that express our identity as Catholic Christians, such as the sign of the cross. This ritual act is not a mindless action but the profound symbol of our common Christian identity and a sign of the purpose of our coming together.

American liturgist Gabe Huck says this about ritual:
Rituals are by definition what we do over and over. Those who do rituals have to know their liturgy as a child knows the bedtime routine of story, prayer, song, lights out, all done in a familiar room. We have to know it by heart.

In other words, we need to be as familiar with the words and gestures of the Mass as we are with the words and melodies of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ so that we can really feel at home in worship and make it our own.

Tension can sometimes arise in parish liturgy committees between those members who understand and value the repetitive nature of liturgy and those who believe that variety and change are essential for good worship.

This applies particularly to selecting music for Sunday Mass. Using a repertoire of music in the parish that is too large, introducing new music too often, and changing the musical setting of the ritual acclamations every week cause problems for a parish assembly. While musicians are always keen to try out a new piece of music, it is important to balance the need for fresh musical repertoire with the importance of using familiar music that enables the assembly to participate more easily in the singing.

The same principle applies to symbols used in liturgy. I often get requests from liturgy planners wanting suggestions for creative symbols to enhance the worship space for a particular liturgical season. The basic symbols of our tradition are frequently overlooked in the quest for something new and different. We need to honour symbols such as cross, altar, ambo, font, bread, wine, water, oil and lighted candles which are central to our faith. These symbols of our liturgical life can be used repeatedly because they are infinite in their meaning. It is impossible, for example, to ever fully define the true meaning of the bread and wine in the sharing of the Eucharist.

Rather than looking for new symbols to use in liturgy, we need to make better use of those that we already have by ensuring that they are large, worthy, real and not multiplied. Such symbols need no explanation and can carry the weight of what they signify season after season, year after year.


Elizabeth Harrington