"It's a family tradition!" How often have you heard that? Families
cling to traditions for no reason other than "It's tradition!" Why
are traditions so . . . traditional?
Rituals and traditions are significant because they repeat
and signify deeper meaning. The following are rituals from my
family and circle of friends:
• Family touch football on Thanksgiving Day
• Eating pizza on the floor while watching a family video
• Who sits where at the family table
• Special prayer on New Year's Day.
We immediately smell, see, hear, and feel memories with
certain songs, foods, and even articles of clothing. That's the
power of ritual. We know that the concrete stands for what is
harder to describe and more difficult to quantify.
Long ago, when I first attended a funeral, it felt as if people
I didn't know were taking away the one I loved. We stood by helplessly
and watched. I could direct my anger at the strangers who
put the casket in the ground. We dropped roses, but they dumped
dirt. They seemed unfeeling.
Then I attended a graveside service with an invitation for
each person to take a shovel and pour some dirt into the grave.
No longer the passive observer, I was the one dumping dirt! They
weren't unfeeling, and neither was I. This act of closure returned
the body to the earth, said goodbye, sealed our prayer with a final
gesture. We sensed the finality of earthly life, and the everlasting
nature of heavenly life.
Now, when I attend a service without shoveling, I walk
away feeling that the service is unfinished. I long to repeat that
ritual action—because of what it does inside me. But naturally,
everyone has different ideas for what traditions are proper,
expected, comforting, and . . . traditional.
Especially with youth, we need to continue rituals we
started, start some where there are none, and break open the
meaning of the ones we have—new and old.
Continue the rituals we started. Be faithful to actions our
tradition has to offer. Light Advent wreath candles at December
events. Have ashes during Lent. Bless with water. Make the Sign of
the Cross. Don't miss an opportunity to bring the seasonal focus
from the liturgy to other programs. I remember a church that
always had breadmaking going in the hall on "Bread of Life"
Sunday. The aroma was overwhelming. Attendance at programs
that Sunday was always high. Why? It was a tradition! As soon as a
tradition is skipped, it becomes optional and loses power. Poor rituals
need to be eliminated because they don't transmit appropriate
meaning. Parish festivals, with
beer tents creating an army of
drunk drivers, are a good example
of a tradition that should
Start new rituals where
you can. This can be tricky. "We're starting a new tradition
this year" often brings
groans and rolled eyes. Don't
announce it; just do it. When
something is done well, it is
welcomed in the future. Once
it happens twice, it's a tradition.
Slowly change unhealthy or inconsistent rituals to make
them authentic and comfortable. Find rituals for your parish feast
day or patron saint. Look for ways to weave service and prayer into
parish events. Bridge the images and stories of each Sunday's
readings to the rest of parish life.
Break open the meaning of rituals. Educators encourage us
to talk about the ritual first, so when it's experienced, the meaning
is clear. Liturgists encourage us to talk about the ritual second,
so the experience speaks for itself. Wisdom lies in both camps.
No one explains to a child how to blow out the candles on
the birthday cake. Families don't practice the "Happy Birthday"
song. They just do it, and it becomes part of their bones. It's easier
to learn rituals that occur often. Making the Sign of the Cross is a
Yet, we need to explain to the family ahead of time that the
white cloth put on the casket at a funeral Mass recalls the baptismal
garment. They might miss it, even though it's happening right
before their eyes. They might be crying at the time, and might not
even look up. Those doing it might be on auto pilot, following
instructions and not considering why. They might not hear the
words of the prayer. Knowing what is coming keeps people alert,
and helps the rituals bring comfort. Once the ritual is understood
and experienced, the meaning returns at every funeral.
Youth are experiential. They enjoy doing what represents
deeper meaning—like school traditions and sports rituals.
Engage them in the tasks of teaching younger students. Middle-school
youth admire high school youth, and grade school students
look up to middle-school students. Teaching something is
always the best way to learn it, so make that a youth tradition!