Catholic CornucopiadCheney


Catholic Customs and Symbols

Planned for popular use, this little book A owes its origin to two suggestions coming disparately from lay sources. First, the editors of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Editorial Sheet requested a series of papers, brief but informative, on Catholic Customs and Symbols. This title was furnished by the editors, and the scope was made fairly plain by an illustration. “For instance,” said one of them, “many of the laity might wonder why candles are used so generously in the sanctuary and on the altar, now that electricity gives so much better illumination.”

From this concrete illustration the general truth emerges that although many people accept without question the things to which they have long been accustomed, others nevertheless are of an inquiring turn of mind and wish an answer to many a “Why.”

It should be needless to say here that it would be impracticable to attempt, within the limits of a small volume, even brief answers to all the possible, or mayhap the probable, questions that naturally arise under the broad and comprehensive title of this book. A selection must be made of the topics to be treated, and not all readers can be expected to concur with the writer either in the desirability of the choices made or in the appropriate character of the information given.

However this be, the series, so far as it has run, seems to have been considered readable and helpful; for the second suggestion, namely that the papers be gathered together, others be added, and the whole be issued in volume form, came from the present publishers.

With a discerning wisdom founded on long experience, they also suggested the appropriate size of the volume. It was to be small. There is no lack of large books in English dealing with various phases of the wide field covered by the title. These books would indeed make up a spacious collection, and one obvious danger to interest lies there. But another difficulty may easily be found in the learned manner of treatment, the scholarly references given, the literary apparatus supplied with generous and enlightened intent.

Although the present book gives some general references to sources, they are confined to works in English from which quotations have been made. It is hoped that these will not interfere with an easily current reading. It should be noted here (since no reference is given in the text) that the chapters dealing with Church ceremonial, its vindication and its teaching power, as also the chapter on sermon-critics, are adaptations of the “Introduction” contributed by the present writer to Rev. A. J. Schulte’s admirable work entitled Benedicenda (New York, 1907) and of an article (“Listening to Sermons”) contributed to The Newman Quarterly (June, 1920).

A few words should be added concerning the method of treatment. It strives to be varied and interesting and, consequently—in spite of the exigent limitations of space—to be informal and at times even discursive. If objection be found to treatments that may appear somewhat light for the serious topics discussed, the reader will doubtless be appeased by recalling Haydn’s answer to critics of the “gaiety” of his Church music: “When I think of God, my heart is so filled with joy that the notes fly off as from a spindle.”

Indeed, the great Catholic custom is joyousness. Matthew Arnold concedes this in his Literature and Dogma: “Catholicism, we have said, laid hold on the ‘secret’ of Jesus, and strenuously . . . employed it; this is the grandeur and the glory of Catholicism . . . the chief word with Catholicism is the word of the secret: peace, joy.” The italics are Arnold’s. But this lesson of joy in the Lord was inculcated again and again by the Apostle of the Gentiles. And it was a happy inspiration that led the editor of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Editorial Sheet to exemplify the scope of the proposed series on Catholic Customs and Symbols by “candles”; for candles are multiplied in our sanctuaries not so much to give light as rather to symbolize the joy, the “good news,” or Gospel, of Him Who said: “I am the Light of the world” (John, 8:12).

Hugh T. Heney.

Catholic University of America.