Las lagrimas de San Pedro by El Greco

Catholicism features elaborate rituals with a wide variety of public and private rites, including mass, rosary recitations, processions and novenas. Blood, suffering and violence is sometimes implied. Churches often have images of Christ with blood dripping from the crown of thrown on his head, the lashes from the Roman soldiers and from the nail wounds in his hands and feet.

Catholics have traditionally not prayed to God directly but prayed through intermediaries, namely saints and the Virgin Mary. Catholics cross themselves to show their faith and ask for forgiveness. Catholic cross themselves from left to right. Orthodox cross themselves from right or left.

Canonical hours are fixed forms of prayer that Catholic priests are required to recite everyday and consist of vigils (late night) matins and lauds (before sunrise), prime (at sunrise), tierce (morning), sext (noon time), none (afternoon), vespers (evening), and compline (night). These prayers are delivered as chants such as Gregorian chats.

Reciting the catechism used to be an important part of beig a Catholic but most Catholics can no longer recite the catechism. A catechism is a summary of the principles of the Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Christians. The beliefs and moral tenants of the Catholic Church are contained the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, a huge document that was released in an English translation in 1994 after more than 400 years of revision and updating.

Relics are important in Catholicism (see an article on Relics under Christianity). The church teaches that relics should be venerated not worshiped. There also a lot symbols and signs in Catholicism. Purple, for example, is a sign of penitence. Salt is a symbol of purity. Leonardo de Vinci placed an overturned salt shaker in front of the ill-fated Judas.

Websites and Resources Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ;


Mass is the act of going to church to receive the Eucharist (communion) and is regarded as re-enactment of the Last Supper and is regarded as essential for renewal of faith and bonding among a congregation. The word “Mass” is derived from the Latin “missa” , which means to send away. This is a reference to the Last Supper. And the taking of communion.


Mass begins with the laying of the evangelistary — a beautifully-bound book containing selections from the Gospels, read during worship services — on the altar. It is then carried in a procession to the ambo, the Place of the Word. In most churches today the ambo is near the altar. Ambo serves as a lectern in a church sanctuary and is the official term for a Catholic pulpit.

Mass plays the same roll as making offerings in other religions. Eucharist is the central act of Catholic mass, where it is accompanied by a spoken liturgy, songs, prayers and several reading from the Bible. During the Eucharist liturgy the bread and wine are “transformed on the altar into the body and blood of Christ. “

At the end of the Eucharist prayer the faithful renew their Covenant with God with a solemn “Amen.” The Lord’s Prayer is recited. This is the prayer that the faithful recite to the the Father thanking him for the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, and his service as an intermediary between humankind and God. Then the congregation communes with sacrifice at the Eucharistic table, which participants approach and take bread and wine in a carefully prescribed step-by-step manner.

Catholics are obligated to attend Mass, which is usually held on Sunday morning, the day on which Jesus Christ was resurrected, but in some places is also held Saturday afternoon or evening. The service consists of liturgies, which have traditionally been conducted in Latin. Priest are strongly advised ti celebrate mass everyday. Monks and nuns generally incorporate mass into the daily routines.


Saint John Chrysostom, who lived in the early A.D. 4th century, is the father of the liturgy that is still used in both the Catholic and the Orthodox church. The Liturgy of the Hours is a set of daily prayers also widely used in mass. It consists primarily of psalms supplemented by hymns and scripture readings. The liturgy of the Word, the first part of Mass, consists mostly of readings from the Bible, with the most important passages coming from the Gospels.

Liturgy of the Word during Easter Vigil

The primary sources of liturgy are: 1) liturgical tags, catch-phrases, and affirmations found in the New Testament and to a lesser degree in the Old Testament; 2) baptisms and Eucharist introductions and declarations; and 3) easy-to-remember religious creeds that serve as a way of making doctrines and dogma palatable to ordinary people. Gregorian chants and liturgies from papal masses have been adapted to hip-hop beats.

Dom Robert L Gall, Abbot of Kergonan, wrote in Symbols of Catholicism that the Catholic liturgy is like a “a symphony: each instrument is an essential element of the overall work, playing its own part and displaying it to the full...Even though Christianity cannot be said to be choreographed, it nevertheless implies precise organization of the movement of its various participants. It's ceremonial side is a necessity, so that the liturgical rites can take place in absolute peace and communicate a sensation of sacredness to the faithful."

Roman Catholic liturgy is extremely Biblical, perhaps even more than the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, where large numbers of long prayers are still inspired by Scriptures. Orthodox Christians regard the liturgy as the essence of Orthodoxy and the focal point of this is the Eucharist. The living and the dead are regarded as a single congregation. Liturgical action and prayers sanctify both their soul and their bodies.

Catholics observe their liturgy in three cycles: 1) Hours (made up of prayers, psalms and readings, which sanctify various movements of the day and include Vespers at the end of the afternoon); 2) the Weekly Cycle, which starts with Sunday mass, with Friday, the day that Christ, died, being a day of penance; and 3) the yearly cycle which includes several liturgical moments such the festivals of the saints and cycles of Christmas and Easter.

Vatican Rituals and Ceremonies

Masses are performed at the Vatican beneath the west wall. The hundreds of candles routinely lit here have coated the painting with a thick layer of greasy soot, over which in some cases varnishes have been applied.

Pope Benedict XVI delivering the Vatican's Christmas message

Easter and Holy Week are most important events on the Catholic calendar. The Basilica of St. John the Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, is the of one of Catholicism’s holiest rites.. Founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, it contains reliquaries holding the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound. The Lateran icon of Christ has been regularly used in church rituals since around A.D. 600. Encased in silver since the 13th century and repainted and repaired many times, it has two small doors over the feet which are opened on Easter Sunday by the Pope who kisses the feet of the icon and calls out three times, "The Lord is risen from the grave." The icon was reputedly made by St. Luke.

Midnight Mass to usher in Christmas is one of the biggest events at St. Peter’s Basilica. At noon on Christmas the Pope delivers his traditional “Christmas Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter's. In the afternoon he goes to the Basilica of St. John the Lateran to preside over a service.

Vatican gives out "knighthoods largely to seal political alliances." Things like the Supreme Order of State and the Order of the Golden Spur were routinely given to "Christian heads of states." The Order of St. Gregory the Great and the Order of St. Sylvester are still giver to people of "personal character and reputation." Among those ho have honored as papal knights have been Bob Hope and Rupert Murdock.

Catholic Gestures and Postures

There are four main postures recognized by the Catholic church: standing, sitting, kneeling, and more rarely, prostration. Standing is regarded as the most noble. It symbolizes mankind and imparts respect. It is regarded as the best position for readings scriptures and praying. The sitting position represents peaceful openness, best suited for listening to readings or sermons. Kneeling is a demonstration of supplication and humility before God and more intimate and personal prayers. Protestation consists of lying outstretched on the ground. It is reserved for solemn moments such as when a person is about to pronounce his religious vows or when the death of Jesus is read during the Good Friday reading of the Passion.

Specific hand and arm gestures are used in liturgical rites, blessings, anointments and particularly in consecrations. As a symbol of purity, for example, a priest washes his fingers after the offertory and after communion. Hands are kept clasped together when a priest is officiating or when he has nothing to do.

The liturgy requires Catholics to make several hand gestures: 1) crossing themselves (See Below); 2) tracing a small sign of the cross with the thumb over the forehead, mouth and heart at the moment the of the announcement of the Gospels; and 3) shaking hands — done in lieu of the kiss of peace which is usually given before communion — as a sign of chaste affection.

Crossing oneself — making the sign of the cross on one's body — joins the Holy Trinity with the redemption of Christ as one recites the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. As a believer says “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen” he touches his forehead when saying “Father," stomach when saying “Son” and crosses his shoulders when saying “Holy Ghost." Catholics cross their shoulders left to right and Orthodox Christians cross theirs right or left.

Other gestures and actions include: 1) washing the feet during Maundy Thursday, reenacting the gesture performed by Christ during the Last Supper. 2) bowing the head before symbols of divine presence: the altar, the cross and the Bible; 3) A genuflexion (bending at least one knee towards the ground) is required in all churches when passing in front of the Holy Sacrament. 4) Monks bow down low a the end of each psalm when they chant the “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” during the celebration of their offices and during certain ceremonies.

Candles and Crosses

Inquisition cross

Candles are featured in many Catholic rites but probably less so than in the Orthodox Christian church. They are symbols of the light of Christ and God. In the Gospels Jesus said “I am the light of the world." Originally used as a means of illumination, candles are now used in most liturgical ceremonies and are placed on an altar after it has been consecrated through anointment. A blessing of candles, followed by a procession lies at the heart of the Candlemass celebration in early February. During the Easter Vigil, candles are a symbol of the risen Christ and the lighting of these candles is the climax of the entre liturgical year.

The cross is the symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus. It represents Christ's love for humanity in dying for its sins. It is worn on many Christians around their necks and defines the floor plan of many churches. There are number of different kinds of crosses. An empty cross shows that Christ has risen from the dead. The crucifix of the Catholic church often has an image of crucified Jesus hanging from it. The Protestant one is more clean and simple. The whiteness symbolizes purity; the brightness, the Light; and 90 degree angles perfection and the direction of God.

Pectoral crosses are large crossed worn around the necks of Catholic prelates in the front of the chest (hence pectoral, for chest). They are large and meant to be seen from a distance. They are worn over vestments during religious ceremonies but are too large and cumbersome to be worn on the streets. The cross originally did not signify a crucifixion, some scholars say. It stood for "St. Andrews mark," in which people vowed to be honest to his sacred name. Andrew was one the Apostles. He is said to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross in Patras Greece.


Incense — an aromatic gum, traditionally frankincense or myrrh , that gives off perfumed smoke when lit — is used by Christians in rituals as a purifying agent and to create a spiritual atmosphere. It is also used in rituals in other religions, particularly Buddhism, Hinduism and Chinese religions. The incense used by Catholic is supplemented with benzoin, That used by Orthodox Christians is often lit in front of icons and normally is highly perfumed, often with roses.

flying incense burner at Santiago de Compostela in Spain

In the Old Testament incense is mentioned in the psalms and when God told Moses to offer it once or twice day. In the New Testament, Zechariah was lighting incense when he told the angel Gabriel about the birth of John the Baptist: “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood in front of the throne; and so from the angel's hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints." The Three Wise men presented frankincense and myrrh at the birth of baby Jesus.

Incense is often burned in a censor, an ornamented fragrance burner with holes for the smoke to pour out of. It is held aloft with three chains. Using a spoon a believer take some incense from an incense-boat and places it on the burning coals housed in the cassolette of the censor. The smoke is spread by swinging the censer. The person in charge of lighting and swinging the censer is called a thurifet.

Holy Water and Holy Oils

Holy water is a key element of many Christian rituals, blessings and ceremonies. During the Catholic baptism of a child it is poured on the head of the child (ablution). During a Catholic funeral, it is gently poured on the body of the deceased as a sign of purification and sprinkled in the coffin and the tomb. Holy water is also used in the blessings and asperges at the beginning of Sunday and the washing of hands in the offertory.

Blessings involving water and holy water have been church traditions for some time. A basin of holy water at the entrance to a church is an invitation to believers to cross themselves after wetting the tips of their fingers in it. Holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest. It can be requested and taken home. Holy salts can be added for flavor and as a symbol of preservation.

Holy oils have traditionally symbolized the consecration of a person by God to be a monarch, priest of prophet . “Messiah? and “Christ” both mean the “anointed one” (in Hebrew and Greek respectively). Anointment is still a key part of the coronation of the kings and queens on England and other monarchs. Objects and buildings can also be consecrated.

Oil is a symbol of joy and beauty. One of the psalms goes: “You love uprightness and detest evil. This is why god, your god, has anointed you with oil of gladness, as none of your rivals." It has also been used since Biblical times as a balm to relieve pain and loosen tight muscles.

The Catholic Church emphasizes three kinds of holy oils: 1) the oil of catechumens , which gives the strength of the Holy Spirit to those who fight evil; 2) oil of anointing , used in sacrament of anointing the sick (unction, See Unction); and 3) the holy chrism , a fragrant oil used for ointments in consecration. After baptism holy oil marks the top of the head. During confirmation it crosses the head. After an episcopal ordination it is rubbed into the top of a new bishop's head, or on the hands of a priest. During a dedication it is spread across the table of an altar .

During the “chrism” mass in the morning of Maundy Thursday (three days before Easter) a bishop solemnly blesses oil of the catechumens and the oil of anointing before finally consecrating the holy chrism. The oils are then stored in silver of gold ampulla (flasks) or altar cruets.

Rosary Beads

Rosary and Bible Christian rosary beads typically have 50 beads separated in groups of ten by five large individual beads for a total of 55 beads. They are used by clergy and laity as aids in the reciting of certain kinds of repetitive prayers. Catholics generally count their rosary beads while they say prayers. Each rosary has a kind of tail with three consecutive beads, with two individual beads, at each end, finishing with a cross.

ancient Rosari

The rosary is widely used by Catholic to say prayers to the Virgin Mary with a believer saying 50 Hail Marys, five “Our Fathers” and five “Glory be to the Father” by ticking off a bead for each “Hail Mary” and saying “Our Father” each time the larger individual beads are hit. The cross on the tail is the starting point for each prayer sequence. On the cross the believer recites “I believe in God”; on the first individual bead he says “our Father," then three “Hail Marys” and finally “Glory be to the father." In this way the rosary honors the Trinity, the Cross and the Virgin all at the same time. The “Hail Mary” marks the greeting given to Mary by the angel Gabriel during the Annunciation (Announcement of the Birth of Christ).

The name rosary comes from rosarium , the Latin name for “rose garden." Rosaries originally consisted 165 dried carefully rolled up rose pedals, sometimes darkened with lampblack. The rose was a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The use of beads reportedly date back to the early Christian era when ascetics in the desert used beads or pebbles to tick off their prayers with the understanding that the more prayers an individual said the better chance he had of getting into heaven.

Buddhists and Muslims also use rosary-type beads to counts prayers. Buddhist prayer beads are used to count of prayers in dominations of special numbers. Each time the beads are touched, a prayer is said and merit is earned. Praying 108 times is regarded as particularly meritorious because it “disturbs passions” of “mankind's delusions” cited in Buddhist scripture. Muslims carry misbaha beads (sometimes called "worry beads"), which are used to count the number or prayers that have been recited. They also give away the mood of the their owners. They way the beads are carried and moved around can convey nervousness, boredom and anger.


chief exorcist Archbishop Ron Feyl

Up until recently exorcism was largely ignored. In most seminaries it was no longer studied and the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s did not bother to update the 400-year-old Latin ritual. The Catholic church teachers that the Devil is real and evil spirits exist. In recent years, theologians have down played Satan's influence and chosen psychological and psychiatric explanations for abnormal behavior.

In the 1990s, Notre Dame cathedral and Catholic churches in France employed about 95 exorcists, more than a few years earlier, to counteract the rise in the number of sects and cults and the influence of the Charismatic Christian movement which often blames vices such as drugs and homosexuality on demons.. [Source: Marlise Simons, New York Times, June 15, 1998]

The resident exorcist at Notre Dame at that time was the Rev. Claude Nicolas. A portly bespectacled gentleman with white hair and a gentle disposition, he worked out of a small office near the great rosette window of the South Porch, identified by a sign that read "reception dialogue."

Nicolas saw about a dozen people a day. He told the New York Times, "there are all sorts of sects and black cults. People believe there is a spell on them. Some openly talk of the Devil...Of course the evil spirit often disguises a serious mental problem. He said, "People come here with all sorts of fears, of themselves and of others. Often they've been to a witch doctor or clairvoyant who has tricked them out of a lot of money.


Indulgences are the omission of penalties for sin or remission of temporal punishment—suffering in either this life or the next in order to purify a soul of sins that have already been forgiven in confession. Catholics could gain indulgence by making pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land or certain churches in their home countries or doing good deeds such as visiting the ill, the imprisoned or donating to charities.

Certificate for having gone to confession from 1521

Along with idea of purgatory developed the notion that “indulgences” could be bought with money to the Pope and this could earn one time off in purgatory. In the Renaissance, indulgences were mass produced on some of the first printing presses under the orders of popes who used the money to finance their ambitious projects. In Germany in Luther's time indulges were sold at auctions to the highest bidder.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the use of indulgences, which had been out of favor since Martin Luther condemned them in the 16th century. Commenting on indulgences in the modern world, one Vatican archbishop commented, "It's not easy for some to give up smoking for a day. It might be easier to visit a prison inmate."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except grossing gesture, Catholic Covert. org, and St Raymond Oil, Madame Pamita

Text Sources:Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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