Let the Symbols Speak

Coming away from Holy Week, I am reminded of the powerful symbolic actions of our liturgy: washing feet, processing, venerating the cross, lighting fires, sprinkling with water, and a myriad of other intentional actions.  These powerful elements of Holy Week’s liturgies called me back from my recent preoccupation with language, and the anticipation of the new translation of the missal.  I realized that in my anxiety perhaps I, and maybe others, had forgotten that liturgy is first and foremost an action of the Church, the ‘work’ of the Church on behalf of the world.

The quality of liturgy cannot be based solely on the texts of our prayers.  Indeed, liturgy must be an exuberant physical expression of our baptismal vocation as disciples of Christ.  I find this a relief in light of the fact that there is nothing we can do about the coming changes to the texts of our missal.  What we do have control over is the degree to which we celebrate the mysteries of our faith in the symbolic actions of the liturgy.  We can, and must, make very sure that when we participate in these symbolic actions, we celebrate them with fullness and lavishness.  No drop of water on the forehead will do; it will be a full immersion into the baptismal font that awakens us to the awe and splendor of God’s work in our lives.

Working in a parish setting, I have become keenly aware of a congregation’s participation when we break from the normal ways of doing things.  When we are sprinkled with water, eyes lighten up and smiles appear.  When we pass a flame from our candle to our neighbor, and light spreads throughout the church, there is a perceptible change in mood.  When we process as a community, there is a profound sense of moving together as one body.  I can think of no better way to elicit full, conscious, and active participation than to move the assembly, to awaken people to the presence of our God through prostrations, water, light, and song.

Some people may grumble, because celebrating these symbolic actions brings them outside their comfort zone.  The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday is sure to provoke a reaction from people.  I always smile inside when a priest suggests that those to have their feet washed will be chosen at random from the seated congregation.  In that instant, are we not all like Peter: “You will never wash my feet!”  We are instantly aware of our shortcomings before God.  We are challenged and moved by the call to participate and believe.

So it is in the spirit of Jesus’ own action upon the cross, an action that moved and continues to move billions of people world-wide, that we orchestrate our symbolic actions in the midst of the liturgical assembly.  It is our duty as ministers, as congregants, and as people of God to ensure that our liturgical action be celebrated most joyfully, or sorrowfully, depending on the occasion.  And perhaps it is this action which will carry us out the doors of the church and into the street to perform all sorts of righteous actions in the name of Jesus.  May the coming changes in our liturgy spark us to a renewed sense of vitality and energy about our symbolic actions, and a new appreciation of the liturgy as a place to embody our participation in the life of Christ.

Clarey McInerny

Clarey McInerny holds an MTS in Liturgy from Notre Dame and currently serves as a Coordinator of Faith Formation in Avon, MN, near Saint John’s University.


  1. Clarey. It is amazing how changes in the status quo can create such a different mood. This is true not only in a church setting, but in life as well. People should be active participants and share in each other’s faith… very insightful on your part.

  2. I wonder if it’s usually a good idea to come into a parish situation with an ideal in mind and a heavy-handed approach to applying it. Shaking people out of their comfort zones can be interpreted as having disregard for their feelings. People might have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to take their shoes off in public, for example. Could be as simple as bunions or as embarrassing as an infection.

    On a deeper level, an overemphasis on symbols can lead to a lack of trust in the efficacy of the form and matter of sacraments in their quieter forms. Baptism is baptism, whether a drop or immersion.

    Anyways, I tend to recommend caution, a certain reserve, and especially listening, in parish situations.

  3. “Could be as simple as bunions or as embarrassing as an infection.”

    Or wearing panty hose (some still do, I believe.)
    Stripping those off would be pretty disruptive.

    “I always smile inside when a priest suggests that those to have their feet washed will be chosen at random from the seated congregation.”

    Is that really that common, selecting at random?
    I’ve seen all kinds of weirdness for the mandatum, but never that.

  4. While an overemphasis on symbols is a risk, I have often found that opposite is more likely the truth in a parish. Also in response to what Clarey noted about a liturgical text making a good liturgy, I heartily agree, but a poor one can certainly detract from it. As I have delved more deeply into the new translations, I am amazed at power of texts and words can have on liturgies. Sometimes I suppose ignorance is bliss, for I can’t abide the current translation any longer and long for a clear and more expressive one.

  5. I do think that liturgists should always be pastoral and changing things just for the sake of change or pushing people out of their “comfort zones” can be callous. The Benedictine Rembert Weakland said around 1998 some things that are valid today. “In seeking to make the liturgical symbols more true and clear, has the renewal made the symbol more important than what is symbolized?” He notes the use of “real bread” where “ministers” become sloppy about the crumbs and thus diminish belief in the real presence. He asks, “Has the kiss of peace ceased to be a symbolic gesture of reconciliation with one’s neighbor and become a moment for greeting everyone in the church—to the detriment of the symbol and breaking the liturgical moment of preparation for Holy Communion? In the desire to emphasize the nature of the community, has one introduced rites of dubious origin, e.g., holding hands?” Christ is present in both minimal and maximum signs, a splash of water or dunking. Both are equally valid.

  6. Anyone wanting to reflect on the use of existing symbol in liturgy need go no further than the This is the Night video from LTP. There, the church’s symbols are used in a lavish way, and yet do not add anything which is not already present in the rite itself.

    I think Clarey is absolutely right about the new missal texts: when implemented, we will need to work harder in order for the rite to have its full effect; and this to my mind means a greater exploitation of the symbolic power of the rite.

    I wonder, also, if this is the place to have a discussion about the way that liturgy evolves and develops. I’m thinking of new symbols and new symbolic gestures and actions.


  7. (Ctd) Allan described holding hands as a rite of dubious origin, but I wonder if he has ever been present at a celebration where the entire assembly held hands throughout the Eucharistic Prayer — a liturgy presided over by one of America’s distinguished liturgists, no less. It meant no texts in people’s hands, and call-response music; but it also meant that people needed to listen, and were drawn into the rite in a way that might otherwise not have happened, as well as being conscious of the whole body of people as being one celebrating assembly.

    Another symbolic development, if I dare to mention it, is the Unity Candle at weddings. Rightly originally decried by liturgists as something invented by the candle manufacturers in order to increase revenue, those same liturgists now need to come to terms with the fact that the origins of this rite have already been lost to sight and that it has in fact entered into and nourished the spirituality of a large number of people (ctd)

  8. (ctd) in the same way as the cords, the veil, and other ethnic symbolic customs which are an integral part of what many of our assemblies do when celebrating the sacrament of marriage.

    The Unity Candle has in fact become a powerful symbol of two becoming one, and two families also becoming one (provided that the two “starter candles” are not extinguished when the third one is lit — it’s often necessary to remind couples that extinguishing the starter candles is a visual symbol of killing off the existing families!). It is no longer a commercially-driven symbol but one which has taken on its own life. This is in fact the way that liturgy grows and develops and changes over time, and we ought to be able not only to observe it but also to feel privileged that our own age is actively contributing to the building-up of the rite in a historical perspective. In other words, we need to be pastoral liturgists as well as academic liturgists.

    1. Paul, just to clarify, it was Archbishop Weakland who was calling into question hand holding (which I agree with him on, but don’t complain when people do it). In terms of the unity candle, I’ve forbidden it in my last two parishes. It’s a gimmick. Fire in the Catholic Church, as the Easter Vigil so beautifully makes clear, represents Christ. He is the Church’s Light and to each person who baptized. I don’t think that fire or candles in the Church refer to anyone but Christ to whom we are all configured. Fire representing families coming together seems a bit much. Let them do the unity candle at the reception and with no explanation and let them eat cake there too. 🙂

      1. Regarding your policy on unity candles, most of your wedding couples have probably come away with the message “Father wouldn’t let us.” In the past, I had refused to play the Bridal Chorus or M’s Wedding March, carefully explaining why those choices are not appropriate for Catholic liturgy. I could see their eyes glaze over, followed by a comment such as “well, my sister had it at her wedding over at St. Mary’s” or “so you’re saying that you refuse to play it.” They are not in a state of mind to understand the theological and philosophical reasons for this detail. If someone is so unchurched that they don’t know whether the readings come before or after the “communion thing” then fine points of ritual etiquette will be lost on them. I believe in meeting people where they are and helping them to the next level, not setting the bar high and daring them to leap over it. So now, I try gently to steer couples away from Here Comes the Bride but I choose my battles. Now a Barry Manilow tune for Communion, that’s one to fight.

      2. In my current parish we haven’t done it in six years (unity candle) and it is clearly explained in our wedding guideline booklet available on our website–no one asks for it, once they read the explanation, they get it. Have guidelines for music too, no problems there either. Cathechesis, is the key!

      3. It seems the only effective way to curtail certain wedding and funeral practices such as the aforementioned is to have a diocessan policy that is universally enforced. If the parishes around you allow the unity candle and you do not, people will know that your policy is based on your personal preferences and not on some universal axiom. Explaining that you are right and your fellow pastors are wrong could be a tough sell. While a few people may go the length to understand and accept your reasoning, I imagine that many draw the conclusion that “Fr. McDonald is a jerk, he won’t let us have a unity candle.” I don’t believe this is the message you mean to convey or that you are a jerk, but people may get that impression.

      4. Scott, I’ve been called worse than a jerk, but apart from that, our wedding and funeral guidelines are published on our website and given to people at the appropriate time and everyone is quite clear that our guidelines are precisely that, ours and may not agree with other parish’s policies (our policy approved by our pastoral council which should help in these things). For weddings:

        For funerals

      5. Father, your wedding and funeral guidelines are very well done, some of the best I have seen. I especially like the part about offering a no-fee wedding at Sunday Mass. May God continue to bless your ministry in abundance.

  9. Just to clarify – I am not advocating for adding ‘additional’ symbols to the liturgy. My concern is that we do what is already part of the liturgy and do it very well. Just as we are concerned about the quality of our liturgical texts, we should be concerned for the quality of our ritual. And yes, baptism using a miminum of water is certainly valid, but does it do justice to the connotations of dying, rebirth, washing, etc? It is strange to me why some would find a lavish celebration of our established rituals to be antagonistic (assuming there are no serious pastoral concerns, such as bunions).

    1. I’ve seen lavish baptisms done very well and unantagonistically, but my point has to do with practicality in many places, like changing rooms, slipping on marble floors, calling an ambulance during the Easter Vigil, etc.(more concerned about me slipping and going to the emergency room unconscious!) I don’t want to get soaked in the process either. Baptist ministers use wading boots under their robes and have very practical means to get the baptized and them dried off and back to the congregation–most old Catholic Churches don’t have the proper facilities, including mine, so we have do go the minimalist route, but I do smear chrism all over them when they get confirmed and one couple (husband now a former Episcopal priest) told me when they went to bed that night they still marveled at the smell of the chrism on both of their foreheads. I hope it helped them in their marriage bed, really cool or should I say hot? I hope they considered that lavish in their sacramental marriage experience! 🙂

  10. Allan, one person’s gimmick is another person’s spiritual nourishment. I don’t think we can rush to judgement so easily. Do you also ban all the practices of different ethnic groups? If not, I ask you to consider something that has become not only a practice of the Anglo ethnic group but a part of their spirituality.

    In answer to your comment about light being a symbol of Christ, sure, but the two starter candles need to be lit first of all from the Paschal Candle, thus demonstrating the new life and light of Christ within the two families who have come together to celebrate.

    1. I don’t think you can compare the unity candle which was a product of a merchandising gimmick dragged into the Nuptial Liturgy in the 1970’s with ethnic customs, such as Hispanic ones. The liturgical symbol of unity of the Nuptial Liturgy is not some lighting of the unity candle, but the giving and receiving of the Consent, which left on its own is marvelous and needs no further symbolizing or comment except the Church’s nuptial blessing and then the couple’s subsequent consummation, hopefully out of sight of the congregation.

      1. I’m very sorry that you’re stuck in the 1970s over this. I said above that the Unity Candle is no longer a commercially-driven phenomenon but has become a valid symbol and part of the spirituality of a great many people. (And, regarding ethnic customs, I was actually thinking more of the Filipino wedding customs than the Hispanic ones.) But in all cases these are illustrative rituals, just like the blessing and exchange of rings is an illustrative ritual and powerfully symbolic. Do you have none of these in your celebration of the rite? Just the exchange of consent and nothing else?

      2. By Hispanic, I meant those customs derived from Spain which include the Filipino ones that are almost identical to the Spanish ones from Mexico. We have many Filipinos in our parish and when they get married these are allowed, the cord (sometimes in the form of a large rosary, and the veil, etc) None of these confuse the symbol of fire that rightly belongs to Christ the Light of the World and the Light of each baptized person. Extinguishing two candles that now you say represents two families which in the past was suppose to symbolize two single individuals who then become one in Christ confuses me. What’s being extinguished, two separate families who more than likely won’t be one in Christ, two distinct personalities who more than likely will continue to be seen as individuals by God on earth and in heaven. Just what does it mean and what does fire mean in the Church? The unity candle isn’t worthy of the Nuptial Liturgy.

  11. A parish has a culture, and I think it should ordinarily be respected. If the parish is used to big drama, then go for it. Do the jacuzzi. But if not, then the people in the parish might have more subtle liturgical tastes.

    I think symbolism should always be done well, but discernment of what is “doing it well” for a particular situation requires a lot of listening.

  12. I return to my belief that the starter candles should be lit from the Paschal Candle. At the same time I recall a wedding a couple of years ago where, joy of joys, the two starter candles, lit from the Paschal Candle, were actually the baptismal candles that both bride and groom had preserved from their infancy. Now there was a powerful symbol of the light of Christ working through their lives!

    1. You keep nuancing what is done with this gimmick! Okay, what is lighted after the vows, I presume there is an unlighted candle somewhere in the unity set, now if you are using the Easter Candle outside of the Easter Season, shouldn’t it then be prominently placed next to wherever the unity candle is? And then do the individuals extinguish theirs and then light a center candle that is supposedly them becoming one in Christ? The center candle then becomes redundant since you’ve already used the Easter Candle to begin with, but I have seen some places keep all the candles lighted confusing the symbolism even further. Why in the world add all of this devotional kitsch to the nuptial liturgy when it can no where be found in any liturgical books? It’s like children changing their dirty lamb on a burlap banner to a clean lamb after they have made their first confession–isn’t the act of going to confession the primary symbol that doesn’t need some “cute” addition that preoccupies the child?

  13. I think we’re talking about illustrative rituals, which are anthropologically important. I have to confess that I’ve never seen nor heard of dirty lambs on burlap banners, but I accept that you may have. I have, though, seen veils being lifted off statues, vestments being changed, candles being lighted, postures being altered, doors being opened, signs of peace being exchanged, songs of thanksgiving being sung, and many other illustrative actions and gestures symbolizing a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, a transition from one to the other, or a new beginning.

    For many people, the kind of vestments and décor often used in EF celebrations would qualify as devotional kitsch, if we’re going to use that kind of terminology. However, I have to say that I don’t think name-calling is particularly helpful, and decrying illustrative rituals in general as being merely childish does not further an adult discussion.

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