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Smells and bells, saints and stuff

By Pamela Smith

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Catholics have historically been deemed idolaters because of all the sensory things we use in worship. As one who has traveled through South Carolina and other states in the Union and has also seen basilicas in Rome, I have to attest that there are chapels and mission churches that look more Methodist or Moravian in their spare decor as well as churches that are dizzyingly ornate. This prompts some reflection on the “smells and bells” aspects of Catholic liturgy and the origins of some of the practices adopted by Catholic evangelists.

We Catholics are sacramental people. Not only do we celebrate sacraments as means by which God communicates grace, but we also believe that earthly things are revelatory of God and His attributes. So we baptize with water, consecrate bread and wine for Eucharist, anoint with oil in baptism and confirmation, lay on hands and use oils in the ordination of priests and bishops and in the anointing of the sick, and pronounce words of forgiveness and of life commitment in penance and matrimony. We do not worship these things, but we consider them essential to sacramental celebration. They are signs of life and transformation.

Catholicism is quite an earthy religion. It is part of our religious heritage. In the Book of Exodus, chapters 25 through 30 reveal how the Israelites used precious gems, fibers and textiles, wood and metals, oil and incense, and symbolic renderings of almond blossoms and cherubim as they constructed their tabernacle, furnished it and styled priestly vestments. The best of earthly goods were gifts and honor to God but also God’s communication of beauty and goodness to the chosen people. Catholics have followed this route. All of creation, celebrated in Psalm 104, is understood as a sending forth of God’s spirit, and all of creation, according to Psalm 148, is called to praise God.

Perhaps this helps to explain why all this sensory material appears in Catholic churches and devotions. Created things bless us with “traces of the Trinity,” St. Thomas Aquinas claimed, a sentiment he held in common with John Calvin. We also believe that created things are intrinsic elements of the sacraments, which are life-giving and grace-giving. Spiritual goods are accompanied by tactile, visual, olfactory, auditory, gustatory sensations and kinetic adornment (movement, bows and genuflections).

Throughout the centuries various saints and evangelists have adopted signs, symbols and customs of particular cultures as peoples were Christianized. Legend associates the Irish shamrock with Patrick’s fifth-century teaching about the Trinity. The German setting out of Christmas trees is sometimes traced back to Boniface, who in the latter seventh and early eighth centuries chopped down their sacred oak and left it to tribal peoples to see evergreens as a symbol of eternal life. Cyril and Methodius evangelized Slavic peoples in the ninth century, and to this day one can find Slavs who scoot off to church to light candles amid thunderstorms — possibly a Christianization of the ancient worship of Zun and Perun, gods of lightning and thunder. Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary, donned the dress of the Confucian scholar and both studied and taught the gospel in Chinese mode. In the 17th century, the missionary Peter Claver insisted on living in African slaves’ quarters in Colombia, South America, as he learned their life. Recently retired Cardinal Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, has remarked on the fitting incorporation of drums and dance into liturgical celebration. He noted that it is important to “treasure [that] which the spirit of the Lord has put into our peoples’ mind ever before the Christian faith came.”

All of this honors the Hebrew origins of the Christian faith and the “seeds of the gospel” that missiology says can be found in all cultures. It points to the fact that the things of this world can assuredly also lift our minds and hearts to the divine.

Sister Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., serves as director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and is the author of 14 books, with two additional forthcoming in 2020. If you have a question you might like to see addressed in a future column, please let us know — email Prioleau Alexander at

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The Carolina Compass is designed to appeal to the faithful as well as the seeker, giving historical windows into church life and showing the hands and feet of the faithful doing good works in their communities. We shall also shine a light on worldwide persecution of Christians and how we can support the faithful. A wide variety of perspectives on faith, mission work and healing will be inside the paper. Christian correspondents come from all over the globe and up and down our coast.
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