Ritual and Liturgy - 21st September 2014

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.

My dictionary gives the definition of ritual as “any act or procedure that is followed consistently”. Ritual is something that we purposely do over and over again. It works best when the words and actions of the ritual are done from memory.

The word “ritual” sometimes carries the negative connotation of “going through the motions”. But liturgical ritual is not meaningless repetition or routine.

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.

There are certain ritual gestures that express our identity as Catholic Christians, such as the sign of the cross. This ritual act is a profound symbol of our common Christian identity and a sign of the purpose of our coming together.

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.

The use of familiar words and gestures enables the assembly to participate actively and fully in communal worship. It causes confusion when familiar prayers and cues for responses are altered.

This lack of confident participation is often the outcome if a parish uses an overly large repertoire of music for Sunday Mass, introduces new music too often, and regularly changes the musical setting of the responses and acclamations. 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. 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, of good quality, 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