Blessing of throats, wearing of medals, chalking of doors. A beautifully produced encyclopedia describes them all
If anyone is searching for a delightful and informative book to give to a Confirmation candidate or convert as a gift, I recommend Catholic Traditions and Treasures: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Dr Helen Hoffner (Sophia Institute Press). It is beautifully produced, with many Old Master illustrations alongside pencil drawings by Deirdre M Folley, and contains a great number of facts and explanations in a very readable format.
Most of us would admit to not knowing all the lovely and often ancient traditions of the Faith that are an intrinsic part of a Catholic culture. Why are throats blessed on 3rd February? Why do people pray to St Anthony if they have lost something? Why do some Catholics wear miraculous medals or scapulars? What are the initials sometimes chalked on the lintels of doors for the Feast of the Epiphany? Some, probably self-designated Vatican II Catholics, resist the manifestations of popular piety, but that is a great pity for they are the signs of personal devotion that should not be mocked.
I am never quite sure if Evelyn Waugh was mocking or charmed by the straightforward faith of Cordelia, the youngest of the Flyte children, in Brideshead Revisited but she reminds me of many of my elderly Irish Catholic relatives or indeed, the old nun at my convent boarding school who used to pray for the safety of the chickens on the convent farm during thunderstorms. It is all very well mastering the theological ideas of Karl Rahner, but in times of crisis we instinctively revert to the simple prayers, devotions, sacramentals and symbols that are habitual to Catholics.
There are chapters on the hierarchy, religious orders, the Sacraments, the Liturgical Year, devotions – public and private – Our Lady and much else. The chapter on Catholicism in the Home is a reminder to ask oneself the question: if non-Catholics visit us, what is the visible evidence, if any, of our Faith? (This can occasionally lead to slight confusion: one of my sons once gave me a tile from the shrine at Fatima which I stuck on the wall by our front door; it has led to some interesting conversations with Muslim taxi drivers who assumed I was honouring Muhammad’s daughter.)
Reading about the world’s smallest country, the Vatican, with its own flag, coins, postage stamps and license plates for its roughly 800 residents I was reminded of the joke made by the late Pope John XXIII: asked how many people work at the Vatican, he replied, “About half.” And easily my favourite Novena is Mother Teresa’s “Flying Novena”: reciting the Memorare prayer to Our Lady nine times in a row rather than once every day for nine days. Apparently Mother Teresa always added a tenth Memorare in thanksgiving, being certain of a fast response from Heaven.
A final question: do you know the Spanish custom for First Communions? It refers to the practice of wealthy Spanish families buying less extravagant outfits for their daughters and using the money saved to buy a similar outfit for a poorer child. This is both practical charity and a reminder that First Communions are not meant to be a fashion parade.