David Carlin writes that post-Vatican II, we’ve lost a sense of the sacredness of things: We need again altar rails, nuns wearing habits, rosary beads, holy water, Latin, etc.
The best definition of religion I have ever come across is that given by the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.”
“Sacred things” (or “holy things”) is the key here. In the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, there were lots and lots of sacred things. There was a great pyramid of sacred things. Way up at the top of the pyramid, of course, was God, the most holy of all holy things and the source of the sacredness that trickled down to all lesser sacred things. Of these lesser sacred things, the most holy was the Virgin Mary, the mother of God. Below her were angels and saints, some of them more sacred than others. There were nine orders of angels. Dante has many ranks of saints in his Paradiso.
On Earth there were sacred persons, they too in descending ranks of sacredness. The pope was very holy indeed; thus he was spoken of as “His Holiness.” Cardinals were somewhat less sacred; ordinary bishops less sacred still; parish priests were at the bottom rank of clerical holiness, but they too should be treated with a reverence due to sacred persons. Religious sisters were sacred, both the kind and gentle nuns and the mean nuns who hit your hand with a ruler. The habits nuns wore were also sacred.
Buildings were sacred. St. Peter’s in Rome was the most sacred of all, even though to some Catholics (me among them) it resembled a magnificent train station more than a great church. Medieval Gothic cathedrals were also sacred, especially those of Paris and Chartres. Ordinary parish churches were also sacred, even the hideous churches built in the 1950s in a “modern” style.
Inside, the church overflowed with sacred things: statues and pictures of saints, Stations of the Cross, candles, baptismal fonts, holy water. The altar was holy, made even more holy by the altar rail that set it apart from the rest of the church. The Eucharist was the holiest of all things on Earth, so holy that it mustn’t be touched by the hands of laypersons.
There were sacred ceremonies, the Mass above all. But also lesser ceremonies: Confession, burial of the dead, fasting in Lent, meatless Fridays, fasting from midnightbefore receiving Communion, reciting the rosary (whether with a group or alone), genuflecting when entering a church pew, making the sign of the cross prior to batting in a baseball game.
David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.
EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is titled Mass by José Gallegos Y Arnosa, c. 1900 [private collection].