Despite what some adults say, young people love religious ritual

Despite what some adults say, children actually like ritual action and find it helpful. (AP)

How many of our young people are used to a variety of rituals? How many young Catholics have been exposed to religious ritual beyond the Mass? I have a running joke with one of my colleagues whenever he mentions a concern that “I’ll say another Mass”. This is intended in no way to denigrate the importance of the Mass, but rather to emphasise that much of the great wealth of ritual which the Catholic Church has accrued is left dormant. In fact there is a craving by the people and by our youngsters to have access to these rituals.

But how are Catholic rituals outside the Mass going to be understood unless we first understand the ritual of the Mass itself? Within the Mass do we have enough catechesis among our young people to understand the many rituals within it: the striking of the breast, genuflection, the Sign of the Cross, incense, the signs of the Cross at the Gospel, of candles and beeswax, bowing at the Incarnatus, the priest’s posture of begging during prayer, the gestures used at the altar which give meaning to its sacrificial nature?

All of these acts, even if scrupulously observed, are not fully understood even among adults. If we are to rekindle these symbolically rich actions, our Catholic schools need to work together to rehabilitate these customs and form a clear understanding of them. Too often priests and faithful see ritual as outmoded, the sort of thing best left to those more likely to attend the Extraordinary Form. This is to lose sight of the fact that there is one Roman Rite of which there are several forms and those forms have a common root.

One liturgy where customs seem to fall over themselves is the Mass for the Epiphany. There is a superabundance of ritual to take advantage of: the proclamation of the date of Easter, the opportunity to offer incense, the blessing of chalk so the faithful may mark their houses each year, and the blessing of Magi water so the faithful may bless their homes. These sacramentals speak to every Catholic and, where practised, people respond very positively. They are gifts from the Church which cost nothing in terms of money but are rich with the message of a Church which wants to permeate the life and homes of every Catholic person so that their home life may not be discrete from their life at Church.

What I want to see in this country is a Catholic Church where people’s homes are alive with the same faith they espouse at church. This has to be taught in our schools first and foremost and the key is to immerse our young people in ritual, the understanding of which has not always been taught to their parents and grandparents. In 1970, the anthropologist Mary Douglas lamented in her book Natural Symbols what she perceived to be a loss of ritualism in contemporary culture. She cited as a case in point the English and Welsh bishops’ decision to do away with abstinence on Fridays (something which was reinstated in 2011). In the eyes of many of the faithful this was an instance of the hierarchy (priests and bishops) taking away from the people their right to belong. In contrast to the people, the priests saw ritual actions as separating Catholics from the rest of the population and wanted instead to integrate Catholics more fully into mainstream society; the result was to alienate a people from the religion they loved.

If anything, as a society we have less religious awareness now than we did in the 1970s, and much biblical and ritual knowledge once taken for granted not only in Catholic circles but in the general populace, can no longer be guaranteed. The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales exposed not only an innate hunger for ritual actions but the extent to which they had been emptied of theological meaning. Religious Education is often taught by non-specialist teachers and by those who may not have an understanding of the rich ritual traditions attached to religion. Catholic schools are well placed not only to teach religion but also to unlock the ritual traditions by living out these ceremonials and enabling young people to inherit and own them.

One of Mary Douglas’s complaints was that the demise of ritual always leads to an individualisation of religion. The mistake is to see this as progressive and contrast it with ritualism which is seen to be primitive. For Douglas that is a false distinction. The contrast is not between primitive and progressive, but rather between weak society and strong society. A strong society preserves those ritual actions which build community and impart identity. We may reflect again on the Princess Diana phenomenon and those religious symbols emptied of meaning.

The society in which we live today is weaker not least because of the demise of Christianity and many of its concomitant rituals. When communities join to celebrate ritual there is a sense of togetherness: this itself imparts a social conscience and avoids the worst sort of individualism, which separates one from another, making some see others as distant and unimportant. This makes young people more vulnerable to radicalisation – a danger to which all schools are now alert through the Government’s Contest strategy (indeed, rather than learn the language of real weapons, the Catholic school is able to teach about battle in terms of symbolism and ritual).

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday recently celebrated in Catholic churches and schools presents in the opening prayer the imagery of going into battle with the weapons of fasting, praying and almsgiving. Coupled with this, the marking of foreheads with the Sign of the Cross in ashes gives the banner with which these armies of young people can be drawn together, giving the message that this is not a lone battle fought on our own: this is the people of God united under the sign of the Cross.

Last year on choir tour in New York with The Oratory School I was moved by the army of young men and women streaming down from St Patrick’s Cathedral wearing this badge. They were not boasting, lest the Gospel passage for Ash Wednesday be quoted back. They did not stand out unnecessarily. They were simply part of a community of people held together openly by this ritual sign. Catholic schools have the perfect opportunity to expose pupils to ritual in an environment where it can be clearly explained. The Extraordinary Year of Mercy is a good opportunity for us to explain ritual elements to our pupils. Many Catholic schools will already have trips, retreats, days of recollection and reflective days planned, and the opportunity to incorporate the Year of Mercy is surely part of our mission as Catholic educators.

As well as Mass, Confession and saying the Apostles’ Creed the action of walking through a door is a helpful one for young people to understand ritual. Each of us probably walks through a doorway 200 to 300 times daily but we don’t notice as it is commonplace. Ritually it is an important idea as it takes us from one reality to another. On one side of the door we are in one place; on the other we are in somewhere completely different; and in between we are in a fuzzy transitional stage.

Arnold van Gennep, the ethnologist and authority on rites of passage, denoted these as pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal stages in rituals. Using this image we are able to understand many of our own Catholic rituals and sacraments. We encourage people in Lent to leave their old life behind, to enter into a period of change over 40 days, and finally to emerge at Easter as a changed person. Although we each individually enter this process, we do it ritually together on Ash Wednesday.

Communities such as Catholic schools have a privileged position in being able to have their pupils take part. To walk through a door is normally an unremarkable event; the opportunity to teach about the ritual force of this action helps pupils to unlock the rich imagery and help them also to understand the way in which they can change their lives.

The obstacle we have to overcome is not the one often mentioned, that children do not care about ritual, but rather that the adult Catholic population has too often not received the ritual keys and are as a consequence uncomfortable with it themselves. Children actually like ritual action and find it helpful in learning ideas and the meaning behind certain beliefs. If Catholic schools can work together more to teach this generation, the ritual actions will themselves instil a sense of belonging to the Church lost to the generations before.

Fr David Elliott is head of the theology department at The Oratory School in Woodcote, Oxfordshire

This article first appeared in the February 19, 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald