Do Catholics Overvalue Pomp and Ceremonials?

Here we see the Camerlengo, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, sealing the papal apartments, because we currently have no pope.

I saw someone on twitter comment that the sealing — with the wax, as is traditional — was all part and parcel of our church’s “medieval” mindset, and it annoyed me, because it is a kneejerk (and false) bit of approved grousing, put on for show; or because the commenter is too lazy to actually think but wants to play to an audience (the curse of social media, to which we all fall into at times!)

So, really, what is wrong with tradition, particularly when it is illustrative, evocative and meaningful, as the sealing of the papal apartments surely is? The sealing says: this place is Peter’s for the world’s sake, not for the casualness of our everyday. It connects us to our past; it reminds us that Offices transcend any man.

There is a brand of sourpussery that appears to be in ascendance, and some of it is rooted in the utilitarian mindset that values everything (and everybody) on usefulness: if this thing/person seems to be pointless to the day or doesn’t suit our idea of what matters, it is extraneous; it is wasteful; it should be stopped, or killed.

These same people, I am quite sure, do not think twice about secular excesses of pomp and ceremony. They’re fine with Olympic ceremonies with lavish, overdone opening and closing ceremonies — the bestowing of medals, and the playing of anthems. They’re fine with Super Bowl traditions and World Series drama. They’re glued to their televisions during Red Carpet Walks and the bestowing of statuettes, and they travel to Washington DC to be part of the crowd during presidential inauguration that sometimes extend over a period of days and culminate in dozens of balls.

And they’re fine with Mardi Gras, too.

The secular ceremonials of man are just fine by them, but let those Catholics honor their traditions…why, it’s perfectly medieval, misplaced, excessive, moribund.

The devil loves this game. All of those secular ceremonies and rites and spectacles keep us very distracted from anything but ourselves, and the rivalries, sports, movies and political theatrics that have captured our attention. They’re permissible and encouraged and approved of, because none of it trips our spiritual wires and turns our focus to heaven.

And that’s why he hates all of that showy Catholic stuff. If Catholics really loved God they’d go live in caves somewhere, like fifth century penitents.

But if they did, googlemaps would be there, scoping it out, and pilgrims would come, and traditions would begin, with rites and ceremonials. Because people like rites with meaning, and symbolic rituals, and humanity has always, always used both to help them refocus and reconnect with God.

As Mark Shea points out, the secular sneering is true for most religions. But of course…not all. And the fact that the sneering is selective gives you a hint as to how falsely those wrinkled noses are wrought.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Margarita

    I was thinking along the same lines. It makes perfect sense to seal the door with wax. In fact the thing I love the most about the church are these small but telling moments. I was at Mass at St. Patrick’s yesterday. Although the noise from the construction (they were tearing out the back pews) was horrendous there were a fair number of people. There was also a photograph of the Pope placed on the left side. Today in the paper I saw a picture of a man taking the photograph off the altar. Of course! He was now Pope Emeritus.

  • Cynara

    On this point, Catholics are not alone. I have heard harsh criticisms of the observances of Orthodox Jews on high holy days and the ritual observances of Muslims. There is actually a devaluation of faith and a misdirecting superficiality at work. The meaning of these observances escapes people. Benedict put this in a much nicer way than I can. The secularism aggressively denies faith and so cannot see the meaning inside the observances. Like most of the reporting on Benedict’s resignation and particularly on the “hierarchy” of the Church, there is an absence of any comprehension that faith is the basis of all we “religionists” do. There is also a tremendous resentment of the “riches” of the Church and all our “pomp” is taken as a sign of that.
    Benedict talked about the emptying of meaning in words and actions. We are compromised in our ability to communicate with each other when meaning is lost or misidentified. These accusations simply fail to appreciate that these ceremonies are infused with meaning when one understands that they are performed on the rock of faith and in that spirit.
    There is an aggressive attempt to deny the value of all religion, particularly the soul of religion, faith, and defy it at this time. We Catholics are not alone, we’re just soft targets.
    Jews, Catholics and other Christian denominations really need to stick together. We’re all in the cross hairs. This is no time for infighting. Hard times are ahead.

  • Pingback: Taking Down Benedict; Taking Down Woodward

  • Liesa Gonzalez

    What about the pomp and circumstance of American rituals and traditions. Look at all that occurs when we change presidents or when we rise or take down our flags? There are many things we do that are ceremonial as well. The liberals are just looking for anything to criticize.

  • Bob Conroy

    “sourpussery” is a good word for how worldly folk and the secular press treat the Church and her doings, I think. I am not completely certain that I like it but at first blush, I believe I do! Well done on today’s writing, too. There will be more refocusing, and much of it will be done within the Church as well as skewed observations from outside the flock. It goes on. Our (ALL of mankind’s) need for redemption, forgiveness and salvation is as dire and it is constant.

  • Reader

    I am what I call an “incomplete” Catholic – after about age 12 or so, my family stopped going to mass, but we were steeped in centuries of Catholic tradition and ceremony. The mass that I knew as a child, and did not understand, was the high Latin mass, which made me feel, even at that young age, like I had entered the audience hall of the Lord and his saints. I am finding my way back again, and these beautiful ceremonies are my link with millions who are now, have gone before, and will follow.

  • Fr. Savio

    Thank you for your post, Mrs. Scalia, though I must say, as a purebred Louisianian Catholic priest, I am aghast – AGHAST! – at you considering Mardi Gras a secular holiday! Please let me assure you that the excesses you hear about from New Orleans neither represent New Orleanians – they’re mostly done by “guests” – or Mardi Gras in general. Mardi Gras means nothing without Ash Wednesday, and even the non-Catholics among us get that.

    But again, thank you for your post!

  • frisco eddie

    The helicopter landing at Castel Gandolfo showed too many limos and too many manicured trees. Made WH grounds look like an inner city park.
    A 100 years of Church simplicity would be a start,

  • vox borealis

    The WH is, arguably, an innercity park.

  • vox borealis

    I call BS to calls for “simplicity.” What the Church is starting to find out, sadly too late after the iconoclasm that dominated much of the twentieth century, is that the post-modernists are on to something. Form and meaning are inextricably linked. If we want to glorify God, we should do so in glorious form.

  • Jennifer

    I hadn’t realized that the photos would be taken down until I read your article. I actually love through all this alleged pomp and circumstance there is definite meaning behind each gesture. Even someone who has been a cradle Catholic can learn new things about their religion during this time. I think when things are explained by those who know it is an opportunity to reach not only Catholics but others with more information about our religion. I find many times those that sneer, really wish they understood. May those who sneer have a little light shine in their hearts.

  • Sean

    I’m with Frisco. Tradition can be good; pomp is another story. Its been my pet grouse for awhile: the kissing of the papal ring, the ‘thrones’, the ‘apostolic palace’, the limos etc. I try to imagine if Christ was alive today and was Pope. Would he be driven away in a limo? (he chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey). Would he live in an apostolic palace? (“Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” And the fact that He chose to be born in a humble manger). I think somewhere along the way we have strayed very far from what Christ’s papacy would have looked like. God has always stressed humility and littleness – nothing about St Peter’s Square and all the papal trappings look particularly humble. I say this, by the way, from the perspective of being a devoted and devout Catholic who constantly wants to see our Church improve. I don’t think we should compare ourselves with the pomp of the world (the Red Carpet; Olympics), one expects that of the world. Our standard is Christ and I know it is a turn off to many people/non-believers to see all the extravagant pomp (not tradition; for example I have no problem with sealing the papal apartments – it doesn’t come across as wealthy and extravagant) and ceremony.

  • natraven

    Thank you Elizabeth for a new word to add to our lexicon: sourpussery. It completely encompasses the overwhelming tendency of the so-called academics and glitterati who look down their noses at us backwards Catholics. They have to mock our ceremonies because nothing they believe in lasts long enough to have a tradition associated with it!

  • Amy

    Traditions carried over the centuries are a form of art for so many reasons, circumstances. I treasure all of our Catholic traditions and I respect those I encounter of other faiths, or ethnic cultures. Perhaps we should all be wearing sack cloth….

  • RJ

    Thanks for bringing this up. Would have missed it otherwise. This (sealing the papal apartments) is cool.
    The saying goes that “the devil is in the details” but all too often, God gets there first. What else should we expect from the One who talks to us in a whisper on the wind and who has accounted for all the hairs on our head (and who in his wisdom is taking them off my head and putting them in my ears.)
    For me, it is the small things that make it a kick to be Catholic, adding to the richness and texture of our faith, and this story just adds to it. So for those who don’t appreciate it, that’s fine, but you’re missing out on half the fun.

  • david

    If you want pomp and circumstance leading to reverence and appreciation for God and all of his gifts look no further than the EXTRAordinary form of the Holy Mass.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    According to some historians one strength of the Church is its both/and ability.
    About going into caves–the Church has defended and promoted hermits and strict religious orders for people whose call from the Holy Spirit is to that form of life.
    On the other hand the Church approves and defends inspiring pomp and ceremonials to make serious points and engage people in the worship life of the Church and celebrate our Faith.
    It is usually heretics who regularly say “No!” to what many times are actions and inspirations of the Holy Spirit. And we have successors to the apostles–especially the apostle Peter– who make sure–with the Holy Spirit’s help–that the Church only endorses practices and charisms that truly strengthen orthodox Catholic teachings.

  • Adam

    Father Savio beat me to it. I just moved from Northwest Louisiana and spent 4 years at a great parish there. Our head priest loved his Mardi Gras (and Super Bowl, too)…but loved Jesus even more. Good Catholics really “get” Mardi Gras, and my neck of LA was full of them.

    Otherwise a good article–I’ll remember to refer back to it when next someone challenges our Catholic ceremonies.

  • Cathy R.

    Well said.

  • C.S. Lewis

    The Catholic Pomp and Circumstance, “can easily be debunked, but watch the faces, mark the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach – men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire equality, they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”
    -C.S. Lewis

  • John Dynan Candon

    Traditions? Love them!

    Lex Organdi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi

  • Manny

    Count me with those who want even more pomp and ceremony. The Catholic Church is beautiful because of its ceremony, as is the Eastern Orthodox by the way. Human nature thrives on ceremony as you delineate in this very good piece. Ceremony connects us together and as the above CS Lewis quote saysa connects us to God. When two or three are gathered in His name, what they do is perform a ceremony.

  • Faustina

    The beauty of its churches, the sacredness of the Mass, the ancient traditions, these are what drew me to the Catholic Church after 53 years of no religion at all! And Bl. John Paul II was the face of Jesus to me and to millions.