Last month when I was watching the papal conclave begin I couldn’t help but notice the pomp and circumstance surrounding the proceedings. The cardinals, all dressed in red, filed into the Sistine Chapel two by two, took their assigned places and then, one by one, put their hand on the Book of the Gospels to make the oath of secrecy in Latin. It all seemed a bit pompous to me. But ritual like this is not meant to be pompous. And it’s not just a part of Catholicism. Ritual is part of everyone’s lives.
Saint Ignatius says that before we pray we ought to ritually make an act of reverence:
A step or two before the place where I have to contemplate or meditate, I will put myself standing for the space of an Our Father, my intellect raised on high, considering how God our Lord is looking at me, etc.; and will make an act of reverence or humility. (Spiritual Exercises 75)
This is ritual. Ignatius suggests that even before bed retreatants take a moment to contemplate the prayer they will make in the morning. Small rituals like this may not be necessary, but they give meaning to what we’re about to do.
If the cardinals all voted for the next pope electronically from their smartphones in their respective dioceses, it would suck a lot the significance out of the election of a pope. Similarly, if we approach prayer—or anything—without a certain kind of reverence or ritual, it can lose its significance. This is why we light candles before Mass. It’s why we begin our mornings with coffee. It’s why we have a less-formal ritual of engagement before the more formal marriage.
Preluding an important moment with a reverent ritual orients us toward what is about to take place and deepens its significance. Thank God for the conclave rituals. And thank God for my morning coffee!