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The Power of Ritual (8/31/17)

In a culture of non-stop activity, constant accessibility and information overload, religious ritual is a gift.

Dr. Kathie Amidei
Pastoral Associate
St. Anthony on the Lake Parish


In a culture of non-stop activity, constant accessibility and information overload, religious ritual is a gift. Rituals of prayer and rites of worship can ground and center us in a fast-paced world.

Ritual is a repeated pattern of words, actions or behaviors. Catholicism has a rich tradition of ritual in sacrament, worship and prayer. Catholic ritual is rooted in our heritage of Judaism and deeply connected to the life of Christ.

Appreciating ritual is vital to our tradition. Yet, practices that we do repeatedly can be perceived as boring unless we connect meaning to the words and actions. Rituals, like Baptism, liturgical gestures, like bowing, and symbols, such as chrism oil, move us beyond the rational and literal and invite us into spiritual realities deeper than their apparent reality.

Eucharist, the ultimate ritual of our faith, nourishes us in profound ways week after week through the paradox of, ancient yet ever new, repetitive ritual. Many words in Mass don’t change. Every week the priest invokes God with the words, “The Lord be with you.” Together we seek forgiveness in the penitential rite, “Lord have mercy.” We are faithful to remember the words of sacrificial love, “this is my body which will be given up for you.”

We repeat actions: hushing the tone of voice entering church, standing for the opening procession, proclaiming the words of Scripture repeated every three years, offering bread, wine and prayers of the faithful, listening to the words of consecration, opening our hands as a personal altar, that says, “I believe this is in the presence of Christ,” being blessed and dismissed back into our personal joys and challenges.

We observe these rituals together, drawing strength from our shared identity. We are reminded to whom we belong and how we are loved. We walk in alone, become one in worship and walk out alone to face our individual lives, but now rooted in hope. We leave reminded of the promise of resurrection and sent to share that good news.

The liturgist, Mark Searle, wrote movingly about the depth of power of ritual in our human experience, especially in meeting fears and dealing with change.

“The existence of community rituals which express common beliefs in common symbols and common disciplines serves to assure the person in crisis that what he or she is going through is not only meaningful but also good, and not only good, but necessary for the well-being of both themselves and the community. It can be an encounter with God and with his saving power. And this is what the rites and symbols of belief are for: to name the experience and to offer the assurance of meaning to an experience.”

Recently my little grandson “hid” under a table. To his delight I engaged in a litany, “Is Dylan in the hall? behind the bookcase? etc.” After about 20 such inquiries, I would “find” him. We repeated this several times, and each time before I could sit down, from under the table, came his sweet voice, “Say the words again!” I laughed realizing this could go on for a long time because I knew how important “hearing the words again” can be.

And I wondered is the need for ritual wired in us? As humans, we are symbol makers. As Christians, we use symbolic elements to connect our human experience to God’s love. We need to hear ourselves and others “say the words again.” The Catholic faith has woven into its tradition the value of knowing ritual transcends time, language and culture and can carry us into the conversion that brings healing and wholeness, allowing us to encounter the “life-giving powers of the sacred.”


Dr. Kathie Amidei is Pastoral Associate at St. Anthony on the Lake Parish and leads the Faith Formation ministry. She also writes regularly for the Milwaukee Catholic Herald. She was formerly the Associate Director for Catechesis and Child Ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She has served in a number of parishes as a Catholic schoolteacher and a director of religious education.

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