Why do Catholics pray to Saint Christopher before they go on trips? Who started the trend of praying to Saint Anthony when they lost something? Why do Catholics bury statues of Saint Joseph (upside down!) in their yards when they’re trying to sell their home?
Anyone can be perplexed by the countless traditions and devotions that the Catholic Church has celebrated and held dear in her 2,000 year history.
You’ll find great answers to Catholic questions in Dr. Helen Hoffner’s beautiful illustrated encyclopedia, Catholic Traditions and Treasures.
You can pick up Dr. Hoffner’s new book and look through hundreds of Catholic traditions. To get you started, here are seven things that make sense to Catholics, but leave others scratching their heads.
1. Liturgical colors
Why do clergy wear different colors on different days? Catholics know about the beauty of liturgical colors. Just like you may associate red and green with Christmas, the Catholic liturgy associates certain colors with different times throughout the year.
For instance, red is a reminder of the blood of Christ and martyrdom. “Red is vestments are worn on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and on the feasts of martyrs. Because red also symbolizes the fire of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, it is worn on Pentecost and often for Confirmations,” Dr. Hoffner explains.
Loving referred to as “Catholic Calisthenics,” Catholic worship not only involves the mind and heart but the whole person. Genuflecting is just one of the many “exercises” that Catholics do throughout the Mass.
“To genuflect is to make a reverent acknowledgement by bending the right knee to the ground,” writes Dr. Hoffner. “Before entering a pew, when leaving a pew, or when passing in front of the tabernacle, Catholics genuflect towards the tabernacle to show respect for Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament.”
3. Throat blessings
Holding candles up to the throats of church parishioners? Not weird for Catholics, who celebrate the feast day of Saint Blaise on February 3.
But just why do Catholics look to Blaise for protection against throat disease? “According to legend, a mother approached Blaise and begged him to help her son, who had a fish lodged in his throat. Blaise prayed, and the bone was dislodged,” answers Dr. Hoffner.
4. Epiphany door chalk
Nope, that’s not dust up on the top of the door. It’s Epiphany chalk!
“Many Catholics follow the tradition of chalking their homes on the feast of Epiphany. . . on that day, chalk that has been blessed by a priest is used to write C + M + B above the front door, the porch, or an interior part of the home. The letters represent the first initials of the three kings who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar,” writes Dr. Hoffner.
The three letters also can represent the Latin phrase Christus manionem benedicat, which means “May Christ bless this house.”
5. Holy Cards
It’s not weird at all to find holy cards in Catholics’ purses, wallets, or pockets. The practice actually goes way back in Catholic history.
“It is believed that holy cards first appeared as woodcut prints in the fifteenth century,” writes Dr. Hoffner. “Such prints enabled those who could not afford more expensive artwork to own pictures of the saints.”
They may go by a weird name, but triptychs aren’t weird to Catholics! Many churches have been displaying artwork in three panels since the Middle Ages has been found in three panels. Most likely, these three panel art pieces were displayed behind the altar in churches. Today, you’ll find them in Catholic homes, too.
“Triptychs have long been used outside churches in both Eastern and Western Church traditions,” explains Dr. Hoffner. “Prior to the Middle Ages, triptychs were often used to aid private devotions along with other relics and icons.”
7. Bathtub Madonnas
There’s nothing like seeing a Marian statue in the neighbors yard to tip you off to the fact that they’re Catholic. But Bathtub Madonnas? Nope, not weird at all.
“Often Marian statues stand in a half shell, giving Mary a place of honor,” writes Dr. Hoffner. “Because the shells resemble cast-iron bathtubs, these lawn shrines have affectionately been called Bathtub Madonnas. In fact, although most of these roadside statues stand in ceramic shells, some actually are encased in discarded bathtubs.”
Want to explore novenas, votive candles, Holy Days, and the Roman Curia? Pick up a copy of Dr. Helen Hoffner’s newest book, Catholic Traditions and Treasures at your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.