Homo Ritualis: In Defense of Liturgical Diversity

The importance of ritual for man is part of what he is. Man is not only homo sapiens or homo politicus, but he is also homo ritualis. Rites are a part of every man’s life because being ritualistic is an intrinsic characteristic of man. Birthday parties, marriages, parades, singing a country anthem, and honoring a country’s flag are all examples of how secular man attempts to maintain the practice of ritual. In Aristotle’s Politics, we are given a list of six things without which a state cannot exist. Among the list, we find food, fine art and craft, an army, money, justice, and of “prime importance” there is the “care for divine matters” or worship. This is because religion has a practical, not only pious, purpose. The word itself comes from the Latin, religare, “to bind.” Through religious practices and norms, man is bound by religion to a certain moral standard and to God. Throughout the Old Testament, the rituals of the Jewish people and tradition are articulated and attributed to God. To keep the rites was to keep close to God, to honor the covenant. God gives man particular practices to separate him from the other nations, i.e., to make him holy as the Hebrew word for holy, qodesh—stemming from qadash meaning “set apart”—implies. When God becomes man, this practice of providing mankind with rituals continues. The Old Law is not abolished but fulfilled (Matthew 5:17). Christ establishes for His Church new sacraments. Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist are the fundamental practices of binding oneself to God and are called the Sacraments of Initiation or Christian Illumination. Through ritual, the invisible things of God are known and understood (Romans 1:20) and by their practice what pertains to the spirit and the body both rejoice in the living God (Psalm 83:3). 

From the establishment of these sacraments to their spread across all nations (Matthew 28:19), several different practices grew out from and began to surround the core ritual established by Christ. Within the first few decades of Pentecost, diversity in the practices of the Church had become well-established. Each Patriarchal See had developed a unique vernacular, some variations of artistic preference, and varying liturgical outlines and emphasis. 

To determine the ideal rites of Catholicism is in many ways determining what is best for man no matter the god to which he is being bound. As G.K. Chesterton notes in his essay The Superstition of Divorce

It is often said by the critics of Christian origins that certain ritual feasts, processions or dances are really of pagan origin. They might as well say that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet. What can really be maintained, so as to carry not a little conviction, is this: that where such a Church has existed it has preserved not only the processions but the dances; not only the cathedral but the carnival. One of the chief claims of Christian civilisation is to have preserved things of pagan origin.

In every cult, there is dance, procession, scriptures, altars, and pilgrimage. There is incense, painting, song, and sculpture. In every cult, as Chesterton points out, the cult is for man and, wherever you find him, man is the same by nature. It belongs to the nature of man which is composed of body and soul that the appeal and pedagogy of any religious practice attend to the fullness of his essence. As mentioned earlier, man is by nature rational and political. The political aspect of man’s nature is something that indicates what is needed for his liturgical practice. The word liturgy, after all, comes from the Greek leitourgia which is a combination of the words laos (meaning people) and ergon (meaning work). Quite literally, the liturgy is the “work of the people.” Liturgy is not merely the work of the individual priest or the pious in the pews, but together as a community. As Thomas Aquinas shows in his Summa Contra Gentiles, the sacraments align themselves with what is natural to man, for grace builds on nature. Baptism matches birth, growth matches chrismation, nourishment matches the Eucharist, and “the political regime by which the peaceful life of man is conserved… [finds its correlative in] the sacrament of orders.” Any liturgical rite for man must meet man where he is, be in accord with his nature, and strive to bring man closer in communion with God. But unlike the sacraments which Christ established, the liturgical rites that surround and administer these are the practices and creations of men. 

A possible indication that Christ’s Catholic Church was never meant to strive for some idealized homogenous liturgy is the episode in Acts that immediately follows the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost. The Evangelist Luke tells us in Acts 2:4, that the Apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance… And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” The whole story of the Incarnation is Christ meeting man where man is and raising mankind up to Himself. It is no surprise that the Apostles would emulate this from the start of their preaching, speaking to the Cretans and Arabians as Cretans and Arabians. And, since man is the same as he was two-thousand years ago, it stands to reason that the most effective liturgy would speak to him in his own language and culture. As Robert Taft notes in his book, Eastern-Rite Catholicism, each Catholic Rite must essentially proclaim the same truth and perform the same sacraments, “the differences are a matter of emphasis.” Furthermore, these emphases are to match the people and meet them where they are. This approach is exemplified in a letter from St. Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury: 

Augustine’s third question: Since there is but one faith, why are the uses of Churches so different, one use of Mass being observed in the Roman Church, and another in the Churches of Gaul?

Answer of the blessed pope Gregory: Your Fraternity knows the use of the Roman Church, in which you have been nurtured. But I approve of your selecting carefully anything you have found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman Church or that of Gaul, or in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what you have been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.

If we are to take the words of St. Gregory seriously, we must discover who our audience is and seek to collect “such things as are pious, religious, and right… [and] plant them in the minds of” 21st-century man. The question then becomes, who is a 21st-century man and what are his needs? 

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