#27 — Sacred Words

Catholicism is filled with sacred words to accompany the sacred gestures, time, space, and objects.

The most sacred words, of course, are the words of Scripture, and within that, the Gospel accounts. One of the first things visitors notice is the treating of those words as sacred. When the priest or deacon begins the reading, saying, “A reading from the Gospel of…”, parishioners make three small crosses with their right thumb: one on the forehead (belief), one on the lips (desire to proselytize), and one on the breast above the heart (desire to keep the words in one’s heart). Thus, the sacred words are a catalyst for sacred gestures.

Prayer is another moment when sacred words bring forth an accompanying gesture. When a Catholic begins a prayer, she intones, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and makes the sign of the cross simultaneously. The one without the other is incomplete, and while it might become a mere habit with some Catholics, I’ve seen some obviously sincere moments was parishioners cross themselves, and that sincerity itself is moving.

Not all sacred words are for all Catholics, though. Some obviously are reserved for priests. Blessings and absolution come to mind, but they’re not the most important sacred words a priest can utter; the Eucharistic Prayer is. The highlight of the mass is the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. They revere it accordingly. Of course this is not always the case: unconsecrated hosts are simply that — hosts. So there comes a moment when, according to the Church, the Holy Spirit transforms the hosts. A skeptic might say, “Hocus pocus — nothing more than cheap parlor magic,” and I myself said the same thing for years. Yet whether or not it’s effective is not my point here: the fact that the tradition of sacred words continues is somehow admirable. I suppose it’s the faith that impresses me.


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