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 sought
to exteriorize 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
fulfil 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
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.
The persons, places and things that pertain to the exterior worship of
God we are bound to respect, not for themselves, but by reason of the
usage for which they are chosen and set aside, thereby becoming
consecrated, religious. We should respect them in a spiritual way as we
respect in a human way all that belongs to those whom we hold dear.
Irreverence or disrespect is a profanation, a sacrilege.