Fr. John H. Stapleton
As far back as the light of history extends, it shows man, of every race and of every clime, occupied in giving expression, in one way or another, to his religious impressions, sentiments, and convictions. He knew God; he was influenced by this knowledge unto devotion; and he sought to externalize this devotion for the double purpose of proving its truth and sincerity, and of still further nourishing, strengthening, safeguarding it by means of an external worship and sensible things. Accordingly, he built temples, erected altars, offered sacrifices, burnt incense; he sang and wept, feasted and fasted; he knelt, stood and prostrated himself - all things in harmony with his hopes and fears. This is worship or cult. We call it religion, distinct from interior worship or devotion, but supposing the latter essentially. It is commanded by the first precept of God.
He who contents himself with a simple acknowledgment of the Divinity in the heart, and confines his piety to the realm of the soul, does not fulfill the first commandment. The obligation to worship God was imposed, not upon angels - pure spirits - but upon men - creatures composed of a body as well as a soul. The homage that He had a right to expect was therefore not a purely spiritual one, but one in which the body had a part as well as the soul. A man is not a man without a body. Neither can God be satisfied with man's homage unless his physical being cooperate with his spiritual, unless his piety be translated into acts and become religion, in the sense in which we use the word.
There is no limit to the different forms religion may take on as manifestations of intense fervor and strong belief. Sounds, attitudes, practices, etc., are so many vehicles of expression, and may be multiplied indefinitely. They become letters and words and figures of a language which, while being conventional in a way, is also natural and imitative, and speaks more clearly and eloquently and poetically than any other human language. This is what makes the Catholic religion so beautiful as to compel the admiration of believers and unbelievers alike.
Of course, there is nothing to prevent an individual from making religion a mask of hypocrisy. If in using these practices, he does not mean what they imply, he lies as plainly as if he used words without regard for their signification. These practices, too, may become absurd, ridiculous and even abominable. When this occurs, it is easily explained by the fact that the mind and heart of man are never proof against imbecility and depravity. There are as many fools and cranks in the world as there are villains and degenerates.
The Church of God regulates divine worship for us with the wisdom and experience of centuries. Her sacrifice is the first great act of worship. Then there are her ceremonies, rites, and observances; the use of holy water, blessed candles, ashes, incense, vestments; her chants, and fasts and feasts, the symbolism of her sacraments. This is the language in which, as a Church, and in union with her children, she speaks to God her adoration, praise and thanksgiving. This is her religion, and we practice it by availing ourselves of these things and by respecting them as pertaining to God.
We are sometimes branded as idolaters, that is, as people who adore another or others than God. We offer our homage of adoration to God who is in heaven, and to that same God whom we believe to be on our altars. Looking through Protestant spectacles, we certainly are idolaters, for we adore what they consider as simple bread. In this light we plead guilty; but is it simple bread? That is the question. The homage we offer to everything and everybody else is relative, that is, it refers to God, and therefore is not idolatry.
As to whether or not we are superstitious in our practices, that depends on what is the proper homage to offer God and in what does excess consist. It is not a little astonishing to see the no-creed, dogma-hating, private-judgment sycophants sitting in judgment against us and telling us what is and what is not correct in our religious practices. We thought that sort of a thing - dogmatism - was excluded from Protestant ethics; that every one should be allowed to choose his own mode of worship, that the right and proper way is the way one thinks right and proper. If the private interpreter claims this freedom for himself, why not allow it to us? We thought they objected to this kind of interference in us some few hundred years ago. Is it too much if we object most strenuously to it in them in these days? It is strange how easily some people forget first principles, and what a rare article on the market is consistency.