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‘The smells and the bells’ during Holy Week

Palm branches. Oil. Bread. Wine. Wood. Fire. Water.

The preceding list has nothing of extravagance, nothing that would break the bank to purchase it. Those items are ordinary, average, normal. It’s a perfectly fine list if we are listing natural, regular things.

Yet, to those of us who believe in Jesus Christ and are practicing Catholics, we recognize that list for its potential to be extraordinary, supernatural, indeed life-giving and graceful. Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum represent a great opportunity to notice, appreciate and pray with “the smells and the bells.”

Our youngest son, Peter, is an active and inquisitive toddler; while at home or at school, his natural tendency to move and explore is a good thing, but at church, we are still working on the expected movement and behaviors. One thing I’ve noticed lately, though, is that he is beginning to insist to dip his index finger into the small holy water font when we enter Mass each Sunday and attempt to cross himself.

Parents are the primary catechists of their children — this has been a repeated phrase in the Church. More accurately, parents are the first teachers of the faith to their children. It is my responsibility as a parent to help my children get to heaven, and explaining the symbols associated with our faith is one aspect of that passing on of the great deposit of faith.

We know, though, that repeated actions can sometimes wear off the deeper meaning behind those actions. I’ve been known to turn a few heads when I stage whisper to my children, “Remind yourself of your baptism,” when we enter church by crossing ourselves with holy water.

In liturgy, it’s not just what we do that matters, it’s how we do it. Beautiful liturgies move us, impact us, stay with us. Moving liturgies propel us to go out and evangelize. Liturgies can be memorable and significant, an earthly reminder that God is present and working in our lives.

In ministry, it’s not just what we do that matters, it’s how we do it. Ministry empowers, encourages, and equips a particular people to be reminded of the goodness and love of God. Whether it’s bereavement ministry or outreach to the elderly, youth ministry or Catholic schools, CYO sports or religious education, ministry is about winning souls for Jesus Christ. Ministry evangelizes those who participate and those who observe it from afar.

In our public practicing of the faith, it’s not just what we do that matters, it’s how we do it. Pope Paul VI in “Evangelii Nuntiandi” reminds us “evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.” (14) Does the stranger in the grocery recognize me as a Christian by my words and actions?

We know that we cannot accomplish the work of evangelization, of having God’s life within it so that we can share it, alone. We have ordinary items that are used in extraordinary ways that make God present and His grace manifest in our life. The sacraments and sacramental help us to recognize the Lord being in our midst.

“Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (CCC 1670) The sacramentals we use in the church prepare us to receive God’s life in us and help us be open to that grace working in our lives.

In addition to the sacramentals, many of us have forms of piety and devotions, such as veneration of relics, pilgrimages or processions. One expression of these is the stations of the cross. “These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it.” (CCC 1675) Our prayer outside of liturgy does not replace it, but helps us to maintain that spirit of reverence and awe.

Young people pay particular attention to all those ordinary means in which the Lord makes himself known and present among us. Hold that palm in your hand and picture yourself crying “Hosanna” in the streets of first century Judea. Smell the chrism oil that will be used at your confirmation and pray that the Holy Spirit fill you with those gifts to encounter the ups and downs of daily life. Watch the water being poured over the feet during the reenactment of the Last Supper. Feel the warmth of the Easter Vigil fire as it lights the darkened Church.

Parents, not only are you called to pay attention to all of those moments as well, but to help guide your children when those happen, to talk about our faith and to discuss with them the saving and awesome power of the God we know, love and serve. Those sacramentals often linger with our young people, even those that stop practicing the faith in a very active age; according to CARA studies, 36 percent of millennials give up something for Lent and 41 percent receive ashes at Ash Wednesday, even though many of them do not routinely go to Mass or participate in parish life.

Let us pray that we reflect and experience God in a new way through items like palm branches, oil and water, “the smells and the bells.” May Jesus Christ, nailed to the wood of the cross, be present in our sufferings and joy.

— Adam Ganucheau is the Director of the Office of Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of Mobile. He may be emailed at aganucheau@mobarch.org

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