On the last day of the summer term, it was prize-giving at my children’s school. The chapel was full of youngsters, scrubbed and polished and shining in their best uniforms. The Head Boy and the Head Girl wore their gowns of office. The Headmaster and the Chairman of the Governors were also dressed for the occasion and gave suitably impressive speeches. The winners of prizes trooped up to the front, grasped their certificates and trophies, shook hands and smiled for the cameras. On the grass outside sat the proud families – forbidden to enter the chapel under the Covid regulations – watching on a big screen. It was a splendid occasion.
It did, however, raise an interesting question in my mind: why do we bother? The ceremony takes a lot of time out of the day and everyone has to find, iron and wear their smart clothes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask people to drop in to the Head’s office and pick up their trophies and book tokens when it was convenient?
As humans we need rituals; we need to elevate certain parts of life by marking them out in some way.
Some people might point to the importance of recognition: if a pupil has achieved something, be it mastery of a subject or sustained effort over the course of a year or a term, then they deserve to have their moment in the sun. But even this explanation only gets us so far in trying to work out why we hold ceremonies; why not simply send round a letter or an email congratulating the winners?
What it comes down to is that there are particular forms of recognition and particular ways of giving people praise and honour that are especially fitting. It is right and just that we go to a special place, wearing appropriate clothes for the awarding of prizes. It is important that the speeches use elevated, carefully-chosen language to congratulate pupils. The event must stand out as being something remarkable.
Faith is embedded in the physical world, manifested in the gestures we make and our liturgies
As humans we need rituals; we need to elevate certain parts of life by marking them out in some way. This is a fundamentally Catholic impulse. One reason why our faith is resilient in difficult situations is that it does not simply exist in people’s heads, or as some vague guiding spirit that faintly animates ever-changing forms of Sunday service. Instead, faith is embedded in the physical world, manifested in the gestures we make and our liturgies. We pray with beads and candles; priests bless our homes and our offices. We kneel to pray, we beat our chests for the Confiteor, and we mark our heads, hearts and lips for the Gospel. On 3 February, the Feast of St Blaise, we can have our throats blessed by crossed candles (very apt for a time when a pandemic of respiratory disease stalks the globe).
All this hints at one of the strongest arguments for Catholicism: the One True Faith acknowledges, explains and lends dignity to some of our strongest human impulses: our need for liturgies and observances and special times. So long live Speech Day, and academic processions, weddings, Christenings and funerals.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to Unherd.
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