Our youngest turns 1 year old today. Last night we baked a cake, hung the birthday banners and set his presents on the kitchen table.
The same rituals we do for every child, every year.
Family life is full of rituals: school pictures, special desserts, summer reunions, game nights and grace before meals.
Anthropologists and sociologists tell us that rituals are essential. We need to mark the milestones of our lives and the passage of time in order to bring meaning and coherence to changes we face.
Theologians and liturgists praise the power of rituals at the core of our faith. Rhythms of prayer and traditions of worship orient our lives toward God and set a solid foundation in an ever-shifting world.
But we’ve neglected ritual in a stark and sobering way this year.
We haven’t mourned our dead.
Recently the United States passed a terrible milestone of 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19. I watched the media coverage and the president’s ceremony, but I saw next to nothing from our church on national or local levels. While I’m sure there were responses I missed, I felt the ache of emptiness at so many lives lost — 2.5 million worldwide — without a loud cry of lament from the faithful.
We could change this: as individuals, families and communities.
We don’t need to make up new rituals for mourning. We can draw from the beauty of our tradition, bringing all that we have to this current crisis.
We can keep praying for the dead at each Mass, remembering in the prayers of the faithful those who have died from COVID-19, their caretakers and loved ones. Repetition is key to ritual.
We could keep a votive candle lit in vigil for those who have died during the pandemic. Constant prayer is part of our Catholic identity.
We could offer a special prayer service — virtual or in-person — to remember all the lives lost to COVID-19. As we mark the one-year milestone of the virus’ outbreak in the United States, this would be a powerful time to gather and pray during Lent.
Rituals can come home, too. What if parishes sent home a psalm of lament for parishioners to pray together? Or a small candle to light in memory of those in the parish who have died of the virus?
Every night one of our kids prays for “those who are dying from COVID and the doctors and nurses who are caring for them.” The simple act of remembering has been transformative for our family during the pandemic, as we reach out across our isolation.
Plenty of parishes make space for rituals that matter to their community: daily Masses offered for beloved dead, weekly prayers for vocations to religious life or yearly displays of crosses for babies lost to abortion.
If we believe each life is sacred, then we must also ask how to honor half a million who have died here in the past 12 months.
What we cannot do is become complacent — or worse, callous. We are called to care about more, not less. We must mourn each life lost, no matter the circumstances, because each life matters to God.
My youngest son turns 1 today. My faith taught me that his body and soul held infinite worth from the moment he sparked to life inside me.
As our family turns to ritual to mark this milestone, I remember those who grieve even as I rejoice. This is part of what it means to be Catholic: that my concerns are forever united to the body of Christ and my life is never mine alone.
May we as people and as parishes ask how we can remember our dead and those who grieve for them.
Rituals help us celebrate and mourn — and faith calls us to do both.
Copyright © 2021 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops