Between Amens — Holy objects point us to God

Dr. Karen Shadle

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, I hope that you will join us at the Cathedral of the Assumption at 6 p.m. to celebrate the Pallium Mass. In his Aug. 25 column, Archbishop Fabre explained the purpose of this rite and the beautiful symbolism of the pallium. He described the intricate process of making this y-shaped stole and the journey that it takes — through the hands of the pope — to arrive in our archdiocese later this month.

The pallium is a fine example of the “special stuff” of Catholicism. Our faith is rich with unique things, objects and accoutrements. People are holy, made in the image and likeness of God and continually graced through the sacraments. Inanimate objects can also be holy — that is, set apart from ordinary things and often blessed or commissioned for a particular, extraordinary use.

For example, an altar is dedicated through a lengthy and beautiful rite to be the center of our worship. It is no mere table. Once dedicated, it can no longer be used for stacking books or knickknacks. The chalice and paten at Mass resemble cups and plates like those we have at home, but only in basic form. They are set apart by their uncommon beauty and the precious metal from which they are made to be vessels for the very Body and Blood of Christ.

A rosary resembles a necklace in design, but it is not ornamental. It is set apart for devotion to Our Lady. The church is more than four walls and roof. It is set apart for the worship and honor of God. It is a place to be treated in a special way.

There is a certain irrationality to all of this. After all, isn’t oil just oil? Water just water? A cup just a cup? A chair just a chair?

In his most recent document on the liturgy, “Desiderio desideravi,” Pope Francis acknowledges that the Catholic understanding of the sacred is at odds with modern rationalism and its insistence on scientific inquiry. Being Catholic requires what we might call a “sacramental imagination”: the ability to grasp the depth of meaning in holy things.

Where the world sees two perpendicular beams of wood, we see the salvation of mankind. Where the world sees charcoal and smoke, we see prayers rising to heaven. Where the world sees a wafer of bread, we see Jesus himself.

To be clear, we do not worship objects. Instead, the holy object points us to a reality that lies beyond itself. Ultimately, sacred things point us to God and reveal something about God more clearly than words can express.

The pallium is more than a mere strip of cloth — it is holy, set apart. It carries the special meaning for the man who wears it — the shepherd conformed to Christ and entrusted with his flock. And it carries special meaning for us who see it and are reminded of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

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