Catholic liturgy is rich with movement and expressive physical gestures; it is drenched in symbolism, so that even the smallest details, the smallest movements, carry deep meaning, pointing us towards the supernatural and the invisible.

As Professor Clare Johnson of the ACU Centre for Liturgy points out, Catholicism is a ‘holistic’ system of beliefs and rituals, and nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the liturgy. ‘We have rites that speak to our bodies, our minds and our spirits, and we don’t separate them out,’ she says.

Throughout history, people have been tempted to see the human person as simply a soul imprisoned within a body, or a body without a soul. Within Catholic worship, however, we see a profound respect for the unity and reality of both.

‘If we’re going to speak to people’s minds and their spirits, we also have to understand that those are only available to us because they’re in bodies,’ she explains. ‘Our bodies are our primary means of interacting with the world, for interacting with each other, and for interacting with God.’

In this way, the human body is a ‘sacramental’ thing. Our bodies reveal and communicate something invisible—our own inner worlds, our attitudes, desires and dispositions. How we move in the liturgy, what we do and say, is meant to express the inner meaning of what’s going on.

Catholicism’s respect for the body also stems from the incarnation, Professor Johnson says. By taking on human nature in all of its physicality, Jesus both affirmed its goodness and redeemed it.

The movements of the liturgy

This is why the liturgy is such an intensely physical experience, as well as a holy one. The culmination of the Mass is Holy Communion, where the faithful receive the consecrated host—no longer bread, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

We feed the body with the body and blood of Christ … We ingest that. It becomes part of us … You can’t get much more physical than that!

But even beyond this, there are many other liturgical gestures and movements that have important symbolic resonance. Our participation in them is an integral part of the ‘full, conscious and active participation’ in the liturgy called for by the Second Vatican Council, Professor Johnson explains.

‘We physicalise that which our minds and bodies are about to engage in,’ she says. For example, we make the sign of the cross and genuflect when we enter a church; we kneel at the pew; we stand for the gospel, acknowledging Christ’s presence in the Word; we exchange signs of peace; the priest kisses the altar and the gospel; we walk out of our pew to the threshold of the sanctuary to receive Christ, who has come out to meet us; the priest processes in and out.

None of it is accidental; all of it means something, and all of it is helping us go deeper into what’s happening in the Mass.

Another important form of movement in the liturgy is processions. ‘When we’re engaging in processions physically, by standing and watching some people process, or processing ourselves, we are symbolically moving from one place to another,’ she says. ‘We’re physically but also symbolically representing a shift, a shift in our mentality, in our attitude … We’re moving from everyday life into something holy.’

One particular procession that Professor Johnson loves talking about is the entrance procession for the order of matrimony. Although the rite of marriage allows for different ways of doing things, the first way it describes the procession is that ‘the bride and groom enter the church together as the final members of the entrance procession,’ she says. ‘The bride and the groom together process last, which gives them a point of honour, and actually recognises that these two are the ministers of this sacrament. The priest doesn’t marry them; they marry each other.’

In a post-COVID world, when some people may still be nervous about returning to Mass in person, understanding the significance of what’s going on can help connect us more deeply to the experience.

‘There’s something very different about our engagement when we’re actually physically with each other to celebrate,’ Professor Johnson says. ‘If it’s just me and my computer, it’s not the same.’

This is partly because the liturgy is about learning to practise our faith. ‘We practise our faith—as in rehearse our faith—until we embody our faith,’ Professor Johnson says. The more we do it, the better we’ll get, like a golfer trying to learn a good swing.

We have to keep trying until it all clicks, and then you’ve got to maintain that level of discipline and skill and artistry that goes into being the best Christian you can be.

This is why ‘it’s not a small thing to change the choreography of the Mass,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to really think it through, otherwise you can change the symbolic meaning of what’s going on as well.’

Relearning the language of symbols

In his apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi, Pope Francis reflects on the importance of symbology in the liturgy.

‘Every symbol is at the same time both powerful and fragile,’ he writes. ‘If it is not respected, if it not treated for what it is, it shatters, loses its force, becomes insignificant.’ He even expresses concern that our ‘modern mentality’ does not understand the language of symbols; we fail to recognise their necessity. Unlike St Francis, who could look at the sun and call it ‘brother’, we fail to see the world in a symbolic light. As a result, the liturgy of the Church becomes ‘inaccessible’ (§44).

Pope Francis continues:

So, the question I want to pose is how can we become once again capable of symbols? How can we again know how to read them and be able to live them? (§45)

Professor Johnson agrees with Pope Francis’ assessment. ‘It’s one of those challenges that the Church faces today: that we have a whole generation or two who really don’t understand the symbolism that’s going on in the liturgy.

‘It’s centuries of the Church’s wisdom enacted, and we’re the inheritors of this marvellous tradition, and the ones who are called to explain it, to explore it, to pass it on.’

As Professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at ACU in Melbourne, Professor Johnson also hosts a podcast called Speaking of Liturgy. In its own way, she hopes this podcast is an approachable way for people to dig deeper and understand the different parts of the liturgy, from music and art to architecture.