Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Liturgical Amnesia: Missing the Point

Those close to me know that I love researching, reading and understanding various Catholic traditions; whether they be local, regional and/or universal. The Church is rich with so many beautiful customs and devotions which reinforce the theology which She teaches. Over the past three weeks, as is my custom in October, I have been reading the various articles and blogs concerning Halloween. I have been sorely disappointed by many of the Catholic blogs that are looking to invent reasons, or discredit objections, on why it is good to participate in the secular, or commercialized, version of Halloween. I would suggest that ninety-nine percent of them are missing the point.

I am all for a good celebration or party! Hey, we are Catholic and we encourage parties for everything. We baptize our children and throw a party. Our child receives their First Communion, we have a party. We party for getting engaged and then dance the night away with another party when we get married. And, of course, our families throw a party after they bury us (hopefully, not because they just buried us). Celebrations are part of who we are as Catholics. Frankly, it is our Lord’s fault. He is the one that said,

I have come to give life and give to the full. (John 10:10b)

We are just obeying His command.

My problem with Halloween is not because I believe it is an exaltation of the Satanic (although gaze at the movies that open this weekend). I do not have a problem with skulls and skeletons hanging around – hey, the Church encourages it. In my own life, my wife won’t let me keep a skull, or representation of one on my desk…she says it is morbid and gross. Oh, contraire! Our Mater et Magistra, as the Church is often called, even encourages us to frequently meditate and have material reminders that reinforce the truth of our mortality and death (as if being forty and looking in the mirror did not do that already). Remember what we say on Ash Wednesday? We pray, “Remember man, from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

Do I believe in ghosts? No, and nor does our Church. She, in fact, has bound us to reject such assertions as Catholics with a prohibition against encouraging the belief of, or the false glorification that this lie implies in the Directory On Popular Piety And The Liturgy Principles And Guidelines (Yes, Catholic bloggers, there is actually an official Church document that addresses this subject.). It says:

258. In matters relating to doctrine, the following are to be avoided:

  • the invocation of the dead in practices involving divination;
  • the interpretation or attribution of imaginary effects to dreams relating to the dead, which often arises from fear;
  • any suggestion of a belief in reincarnation;
  • the danger of denying the immortality of the soul or of detaching death from the resurrection, so as to make the Christian religion seem like a religion of the dead;
  • the application of spacio-temporal categories to the dead.

For those who do not understand Church-ese, the bolded line means we don’t believe, or encourage, belief in ghosts.

I do believe in demons and devils and that they may influence not only us, but nature itself. The Church even requires our assent to this belief through dogmatic decree. Although I find that that the costumes are all wrong…Scripture says that Satan was an angel of light, beautiful beyond compare. I understand that we are trying to physically illustrate that they are twisted to the core, but that also would be a lie. It is also dogma that all of creation- including the angels, even the fallen angels who are eternally depraved, are substantially good. Why? Simply because they were created by the Father. It may difficult to conceive and yet it is nonetheless true.

So you might ask, “Q, What’s your problem?!?” I have three, actually. The first and foremost is that the way America celebrates Halloween is very bad liturgy. You read it correctly, Halloween is a Catholic liturgy. I know that when we look back in American history we do not see that it was celebrated in the form we typically understand as liturgical. What we do see in America are fun harvest parties and lots of misplaced religious symbols. And, there is a very good reason for this. Any historian worth his or her salt would tell you that Catholicism and her liturgies were suppressed if not illegal for most of our countries history. There is a reason why we have Maryland (although she has become our disgrace – that is a topic for another day). We live in a Protestant country whose traditions are uniquely, not Catholic. And yes, there is a lot of Old World superstition that entered into the evening, but let’s stick to the topic at hand.

Just as a reminder, replacing Catholic celebrations and feasts with secular celebrations has been the modus operandi for Europe. By way of example, in England, the Feast of the Incarnation (Otherwise known as Christmas) was replaced with the Winter Festival and St. Nicholas with Father Christmas. Here in the states it has been no different. Maybe I should write a blog just on this topic.

All Hallow’s Eve, is our liturgical celebration of the evening of All Saints. Solemnities begin at sunset or, in the case of America, 4:00 pm as understood by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. Please, help me understand how dressing up as Yoda (Answer, you must!) celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints? “But Q, you say it is a liturgy – I disagree.” May I remind you of the Greek understanding or definition of leitourgia? It is a public celebration and or remembrance in which a repeated ritual takes place at an agreed time or during an agreed upon season. Let’s see:

  • Public – everywhere in the United States…check!
  • Celebration – happiness and joy to receive candy or play tricks…check!
  • Remembrance – celebration of the dead…check!
  • Repeated ritual – doing the same thing every year…check!
  • Agreed time or season…evening of October 31…check!

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it is a duck! Say what you must, but the truth will set you free.

Most Catholics take offense when one of her liturgies is shown any type of disrespect – whether purposeful or not. So why, instead of being offended about a celebration that is supposed to honor the saints and respectfully remember those who have passed into eternity before us, are we not only honoring Big Bird or the Green Power Ranger, we full-heartedly encourage it. In sacramental theology, we call this sacrilege.

Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin…(CCC 2120)[emphasis mine]

My second issue deals with the virtue of veracity[1] and the 20th/21st century (broken) psyche. As kids (regardless of age), we tend to choose our costume to be like the hero or heroine that we want to be. Other times, we pick our costumes because they are just fun. In rare cases, we pick out costumes because we are just messed up and need to be in counseling. For one night we like to hide who we are and pretend to be someone else. So what… right?

St. Thomas, in the Summa, addresses veracity and pretending. He posits that truth (the correspondence between what we think, say and reality) and veracity (the correspondence between what we do, think and reality) are so integral to who we are and the very nature of what it means to be human, that we should only deviate from it for two reasons. The first is to teach a moral lesson in order that those who are watching, or observing, can learn and either obtain the virtue or avoid a vice. What he had in mind at the time was actors and the production of plays. St. Thomas (as well as St. Augustine) went on further to say that to act or pretend for no moral reason was a violation of what it means to be human.

Sidebar

As a slight sidebar, Pope John Paul II speaks to this in his Letter to Artists. As an accomplished writer, actor and director himself, he always was looking at the impact of the play upon the hearts and minds of the audience to either encourage a moral virtue or reveal a depravity that needed to be corrected.

Back to St. Thomas

The second reason St. Thomas gave was to emulate a person or being who is greater than us in order to practice their virtue in an effort to acquire it. Practical application… would you rather obtain the virtues of Hannibal Lecter or St. Menas? Better yet, which person would you like your child to emulate? Some might say I am being too Puritanical and a killjoy. I’m okay with that, though. The reason is that I daily deal with broken individuals who have no idea who they are and are grasping at anything and everything to mask and create a new “me”. Everybody wants to be (fill in the blank) or I hear the women say, “I wish I had her figure!”. Um, God does not make mistakes. He made you perfect just the way you are.

We live during an age where we have lost the sense of identity and prefer the lie over the truth. Our actions, which are meant to be guided by virtue and the laws of our Church, have been relegated to Sundays…for maybe an hour if we try really hard.

Some parents complain and say, “But the other kids are doing it and mine will feel left out.” I understand the pressure, but virtue and emulating a real hero or heroine (truth is always stranger than fiction) seems far more constructive as a life lesson. The next question that follows is about alternatives. Well, you could always dress up as a Saint. Include the torturous wounds and weird instruments in which the saint had to endure their sufferings. As Catholics, we believe that the wounds of our martyrdom will be glorified in the Resurrection. In our family, we used to go to All Saint’s parties at the local churches where the kids brought home ten times the amount of candy they would have collected working the streets (Yes, I chose that specific phrase for a reason). A few years ago the kids objected and said they would rather buy their own candy and play games with us . They seem quite mentally and emotionally adjusted to me. We have made this our tradition and it is something they look forward to every year…what can be more fun than eating pizza picnic style in our den, pigging out on candy (my wife takes them to the store and lets them each pick out their favorite kind) and playing all kinds of games together as a family? And, we honor the all those who have gone before us by praying the Litany of the Saints.

The second suggestion is my favorite. Throw a Masquerade. “Q, didn’t you just tell us not to hide ourselves.” No, I said emulate what virtues you want to obtain. A masquerade is different. The purpose of a masquerade is actually to reveal oneself through questions and hints while temporary hiding your face – the mask is supposed to come off. The masquerade mask is also supposed to express the key virtue or characteristic that describes you. It teaches us an important lesson about the human person. The first is that we are mysteries that need to be revealed. The second is that we are completely ourselves and, frankly, it is fun to dress up in a formal gown or tuxedo while having to figure out how we will reveal ourselves without making it too easy. This requires self knowledge and reflection which is good for the soul. Besides, there is a great deal of formality and etiquette that we seem to always enjoy in the end. Lastly, and most importantly, tie it to a liturgy for the remembrance of the dead. The priest would love it to see everyone dressed in formal attire.

My third issue is connected with C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. At one point, Screwtape is explaining to Wormwood that it is important for the patient not to understand or see the actions and influences of their work. He suggests two different tactics. The first is to encourage the rationalization of the intellect in order to remove the possibility for the spiritual to exist. This would then give Wormwood free reign to do anything and everything because the patient would not even consider outside influences other than the material world. The second tactic is to blame everything on the devil so as to make it sound so ridiculous that it becomes unbelievable. It is the Flip Wilson method, “The devil made me do it.” Wormwood goes on to say that the first option is better because the second risks their presence being revealed.

We live in a society, and dare I say, an ecclesial environment that rejects wholesale the influence of the devil and his minions. I was thoroughly amused last year when major Catholic bloggers thought it ridiculous that the Holy Father’s exorcist and chief liturgists said that Christians should not participate in Halloween. They said that no one needed to listen because the L’Obesseratore Romano (Halloween’s Dangerous Messages – sorry, can’t find the original in English) is not a magisterial document and is not binding. They are quite correct. But, whatever happened to listening to your elders and considering the wisdom that they speak?

The fact is that Fr. Canals, a liturgical expert in Rome (remember my first objection) said, “Halloween has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian.” No matter what you say and how you package it, from a Catholic perspective due to liturgy and virtue, he is right. Remember, occultism is not always about demonic possession. Witchcraft and the occult is about rebellion against the practices and laws of God. That includes liturgical rubrics. The article also stated that the conference of Italian Bishops said that Halloween is a “dangerous celebration of horror and the macabre” which could encourage “pitiless [Satanic] sects without scruples.” Why do we find this hard to believe here in America? The FBI believes it. They have a unit dedicated to this and the last time I heard them speak during a seminar, they said that this is their least favorite time of year. Fairfax County police believe it. They too have a unit dedicated to Occult crimes and have seen far more than they care to remember.

Bishop of Siguenza-Guadalajara, Jose Sanchez, said there was a risk that Halloween could “replace Christian customs like devotion to saints and praying for the dead.”

Any objection to that statement? When was the last time you went to a cemetery to pray for the dead? You know that is the proper devotion related to this Solemnity. But, most people are so thanaphobic (By the way, all the research shows that there is a direct correlation between the fear of death and promiscuity. Have you seen the costume catalogs this year? You get the best of both worlds) , they avoid them at every turn. The Directory in paragraph 257 explains,

Modern society refuses to accept the “visibility of death”, and hence tries to conceal its presence. In some places, recourse is even made to conserving the bodies of the dead by chemical means in an effort to prolong the appearance of life.

The Christian, who must be conscious of and familiar with the idea of death, cannot interiorly accept the phenomenon of the “intolerance of the dead”, which deprives the dead of all acceptance in the city of the living. Neither can he refuse to acknowledge the signs of death, especially when intolerance and rejection encourage a flight from reality, or a materialist cosmology, devoid of hope and alien to belief in the death and resurrection of Christ.

How much money a year do we spend on slowing aging? Hmmmm?

It is our family custom to either make a sign of the cross or pray every time we pass a cemetery:

Eternal rest grant unto thee, O Lord, and let your perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

By the way, we pass one every day driving to our house from the main artery we live off of.  The Directory in paragraph 260 further explains correct devotion:

260. In accordance with time, place and tradition, popular devotions to the dead take on a multitude of forms:

  • the novena for the dead in preparation for November 2, and the octave prolonging it, should be celebrated in accordance with liturgical norms;
  • visits to the cemetery; in some places this is done in a community manner on November 2, at the end of the parochial mission, when the parish priest takes possession of the parish; visiting the cemetery can also be done privately, when the faithful go to the graves of their own families to maintain them or decorate them with flowers and lamps. Such visits should be seen as deriving from the bonds existing between the living and the dead and not from any form of obligation, non-fulfilment of which involves a superstitious fear;
  • membership of a confraternity or other pious association whose objects include “burial of the dead” in a the light of the Christian vision of death, praying for the dead, and providing support for the relatives of the dead;
  • suffrage for the dead through alms deeds, works of mercy, fasting, applying indulgences, and especially prayers, such as the De profundis, and the formula Requiem aeternam, which often accompanies the recitation of the Angelus, the rosary, and at prayers before and after meals.

Where does this leave us? Well, again, Fr. Canals said,

Parents should “be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death,”

He is right. But I would add that we should also be discouraging flippancy about this solemn feast day. It is to be celebrated, but in accordance with our liturgical traditions and rites. All these bloggers who argue against these basic truths and for the base harvest parties (How many of them are farmers?) seem to be avoiding all the rites that are meant to make them more human. Have an Octoberfest (invite me too, please.)! Just not on Halloween.

It saddens me that tomorrow parties will be thrown by Catholics of all ages who willingly choose to set aside a Solemnity and/or implicitly (or explicitly) reject the liturgical teachings of the Church to celebrate more like a pagan even pagan than a Catholic. Shoots, even many of the Protestant Churches throw biblical saint parties or at least festivals that offer thanks to the Father. I am all about the fun and, as Catholics, we have more fun and are able to grow in virtue at the same time. I am heartened by those churches, whether Catholic or not, that see the importance of celebrating the saints that have gone before us.

A final thought…why do we celebrate the saints at this time of year? Because liturgically, starting this Sunday, all the liturgies for the next four weeks will be celebrating the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. This celebration and the Feast of Christ the King (Last Sunday of the liturgical year) is supposed to keep them in perspective. Sadly, my first grade girls in the religion class I teach are dressing up as witches tomorrow night. We, as Catholics, seem to be missing the point.


[1] Veracity is the correspondence of the outward expression given to thought with the thought itself. It must not be confused with verbal truth (veritas locutionis), which is the correspondence of the outward or verbal expression with the thing that it is intended to express. The latter supposes on the part of the speaker not only the intention of speaking truly, but also the power so to do, i.e. it supposes (1) true knowledge and (2) a right use of words. Moral truth, on the other hand, exists whenever the speaker expresses what is in his mind even if de facto he be mistaken, provided only that he says what he thinks to be true. This latter condition however, is necessary. Hence a better definition of moral truth would be “the correspondence of the outward expression of thought with the thing as conceived by the speaker”. Moral truth, therefore, does not imply true knowledge. But, though a deviation from moral truth would be only materially a lie, and hence not blameworthy, unless the use of words or signs were intentionally incorrect, moral truth does imply a correct use of words or other signs. A lie therefore, is an intentional deviation from moral truth, and is defined as a locutio contra mentem; i.e. it is the outward expression of a thought which is intentionally diverse from the thing as conceived by the speaker. It is important to observe, however, that the expression of the thought, whether by word or by sign, must in all cases be taken in its context; for both in regard to words and to signs, custom and circumstances make a considerable difference with respect to their interpretation. Veracity, or the habit of speaking the truth, is a virtue; and the obligation of practising it arises from a twofold source. First, “since man is a social animal, naturally one man owes to another that without which human society could not go on. But men could not live together if they did not believe one another to be speaking the truth. Hence the virtue of veracity comes to some extent under the head of justice [rationem debiti]” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiæ II-II.109.3). The second source of the obligation to veracity arises from the fact that speech is clearly of its very nature intended for the communication of knowledge by one to another. It should be used, therefore, for the purpose for which it is naturally intended, and lies should be avoided. For lies are not merely a misuse, but an abuse, of the gift of speech, since, by destroying man’s instinctive belief in the veracity of his neighbour, they tend to destroy the efficacy of that gift.

(Source: Walker, L. (1912). Truth. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 29, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15073a.htm)

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