Dear Donagh,

I meet a lot of people who feel concerned that our religious institutions and knowledge of traditional religious practices are disappearing. Can we afford to lose the old ways as we change? What was their purpose? For example, the rosary, mass attendance, divine office. Has anything replaced them? Does something need to? Hope this isn’t too many questions in one question.   Miriam

Dear Miriam,

Yes, we are living through a perfect storm.  Many things that we hugged to ourselves are being blown away, like umbrellas whooshed inside out, hats gone with the wind.  The pace of social change, already bewildering, is being accelerated all the time by social media.  The past, by comparison, appears so slow-moving, so peaceful…. Of course, it was never simply that: throughout history there has been a fairly even distribution of wars and famines, genocides and persecutions, not to mention natural disasters….  But this is our storm, and we have to come through it as best we can. 

A storm doesn’t distinguish between the church and the city hall: it blows the slates off both with impartiality.  So, to your question: how to regard the religious practices that are being carried away by the storms of change. 

There are few older people who don’t feel some nostalgia for the practices of the past.  We associate them all – even the ones we found troublesome or boring – with our parents and our childhood.  If we had a peaceful home environment and a happy childhood we are more likely to see those practices now in a positive light, and to miss them more than others do who were not so blessed.  I think it is important in this way to recognise the roots of our feelings towards our religion.  Growth comes from the roots. 

Religious practices have grown, century by century, out of the rich soil of the faith.  Like all living things they change form over time – but in an organic way.  They are not mechanical installations that can be replaced in five minutes like an old washing-machine.  They have a living continuity with the past; yet they have to be alive in the present; they are not like pressed flowers. 

You mentioned the Mass.  This is our direct contact with Jesus and the origin of our faith: “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).  This was indeed done in memory of him from the beginning: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is given up for you. Do this in remembrance of me’….” (1 Cor 11:23-24).  Years ago I lived in the Irish Dominican priory in Rome, where a 4th-century church has been excavated beneath the 12th century church.  It was always very moving to stand in that “lower basilica” and know oneself in continuity with Christians celebrating Mass there so many centuries ago – something that present-day Christians are still doing straight overhead in the “upper basilica”.  The celebration of the Mass is the deepest root there is.  It is tragic when a present-day Christian cuts that root.  What becomes of one’s faith then?  Like a plant whose main root is cut, it looks all right for a while.  It is sad beyond words to celebrate Mass with a group of children preparing for Confirmation and to realise that many of them haven't been to Mass since their First Communion.  The deep root that kept the faith alive during centuries of persecution was pulled up by their parents.  Can anything replace this, you ask.  No, nothing. 

In my experience the Mass absorbs whatever went before it.  At the end of a day of meditation, for example, the felt power of it is quite extraordinary – even when it is a perfectly ordinary Mass with no special effects or trimmings.  A couple of years ago someone who attended a Zen retreat here in our Centre said she came to it because “it didn’t sound too Catholic!”  She had not set foot in a church for thirty years, she said.  But now, because of that retreat and its daily evening Mass, she goes to Mass every day.  We see many similar, if less dramatic, transformations.  It is heart-breaking to see so many Catholics alienated from their faith.  Something in their experience has locked them out of it; some key has been lost.  A key is a small thing, but when it is lost, you are excluded from the whole house.  In my experience, Zen is the key for some people, such as the woman I just mentioned.   There must be many other lost keys, and we need to find or invent them.  It is all too easy to lock oneself in, while locking others out, and to call this fidelity to tradition. 

Practices such as the Rosary have a different status from the Mass and the other Sacraments.  These are devotional practices that are optional, though they would not have survived so long if they weren't worthwhile.  There has been variation in the way Mass and the Sacraments are celebrated through the centuries, but much more variation is possible with devotional practices.  You can see, for example, that the John Main method of Christian Meditation, while seeming very different from the Rosary, has certain similarities with it.  (Or, to put it more correctly, to see that the Rosary is in continuity with the contemplative tradition of the faith.)  There are people who object to all methods that were not in circulation 50 or 60 years ago, including even the John Main method.  This is a blind reaction rather than a thoughtful response. 

There are some practices that look very new indeed – or, at least, they go by unfamiliar names.  There is Zen, yoga, Tai-chi…. If some people are alarmed even by John Main’s Christian Meditation, they are convinced that only pagans would use these new forms.  On the subject of Zen, you can find several questions and answers on this website, and it would be tedious to repeat them.  Like Zen, these other practices have no doctrinal content of their own, unless one gives it to them. May I finish by quoting a paragraph I reprint every year on the first page of our annual programme:

‘We offer a variety of approaches.  Many of the Retreats, as you see from the list, are in the traditional format.  We also have retreats and workshops on Tai-chi, pottery, Zen, etc.  Wisely, these have been called “ways to the Way.”  In today’s complex world many people have some knowledge and experience of different spiritual paths, and as Christians we are challenged to connect these to the great tradition.  It was the genius of St Dominic to make connections rather than disconnections.  In this Retreat Centre, in a modest way, we try to gather many streams into the one great stream of Christian spirituality.  “My feet are planted in the ground of my faith,” wrote Jean Vanier, “but my arms are wide open.”’

This response is already over-long, Miriam, but if you have a more detailed question about a particular practice, I'd be very happy to hear it. 


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to