It seemed to me to be an honest question, born of genuine curiosity, rather than one of mockery or derision. It is understandable that someone from a secular background in a historically Protestant country should find the traditions associated with particular feast days alien. Corpus Christi processions – when a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament is paraded under a canopy while hymns and anthems are sung – have not been widely seen in England since the sixteenth century. Even among practising Catholics, they might nowadays seem odd or exotic.
I was reminded of Ms Brammar’s puzzled reaction to Corpus Christi when I listened to a recent discussion between Bishop Robert Barron and the Evangelical founder of Capturing Christianity, Cameron Bertuzzi. Mr Bertuzzi asked Bishop Barron why he is a Catholic, and part of the bishop’s response was that the Catholic Church “never threw anything out”: it can draw on a virtually inexhaustible deposit of liturgy and prayer and theology. As he went on to say, using a striking metaphor, the Church is like a “grandma’s attic”, where all sorts of forgotten but precious treasures might be found, and perhaps returned to regular use. As Catholics, said Barron, we have an instinct to hold on to our history, rather than get rid of it as various Protestant movements have.
There is virtue in simplicity and straightforwardness. Equally, however, we cannot escape the fact that by the standards of the modern materialist world, our faith is very weird.
I’ve often thought that Catholics should learn to be more at ease with the more arcane and unusual parts of our tradition, of which processions are a particularly good example. In another of Cameron Bertuzzi’s videos he went to Mass with a Catholic friend, Matt Fradd, host of the popular Pints with Aquinas podcast. In their post-Mass discussion, Bertuzzi noted several times that he was deeply attracted and intrigued by the unfamiliar but powerful ritual of the liturgy and the depth of symbolism contained within it. Among the other things he mentioned were the attractiveness of the building itself, the exquisite singing, the way in which kneeling and standing means that the whole body is involved in worship, and the beautiful iconostasis [screen covered with icons] separating the sanctuary from the nave.
All of these are aspects of Catholic worship that might be regarded as off-putting by some people, because they seem to render what is happening mysterious or inaccessible.
They might appear to make the Church an exclusive club for a small number of adepts who understand and appreciate all the symbolism. According to this way of thinking, if you can’t immediately walk in and understand exactly what is going on, then something is wrong.
It is hard to find reliable data on why people who are not regular churchgoers come to churches. I suspect, however, that people who do end up walking through our doors are not seeking an experience or a reality that is entirely of a piece with their normal everyday life.
It seems much more likely that they are expecting to find strangeness and otherworldliness.
In the early days of the Church, prospective converts to the faith were not even permitted to attend all parts of the liturgy until they had been fully integrated into the Christian community.
None of this is to say that Catholicism should be deliberately obscure. There is virtue in simplicity and straightforwardness. Equally, however, we cannot escape the fact that by the standards of the modern materialist world, our faith is very weird. We make some extraordinary claims about the nature of the universe. We believe that God became a man in a particular place at a particular time and performed miracles, and returned to life after being killed. The creeds contain many paradoxes and things that are hard to understand, like the Trinity and the Incarnation. The action of God in the world is often unclear or even inexplicable to our human minds.
It is hardly surprising, then, if the way in which we live out and celebrate the faith is not immediately comprehensible to curious outsiders. The key task for us is not to make everything easy, but to be able to explain and defend what is hard.
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