Catholicism’s Symbols and the Use of the Five Senses in Worship


There are various symbols and images within the Catholic tradition, such as The Cross, the Sign of the Cross, the use of Holy Water, and so on. In this article, we will examine several of these symbols beneath the rubric of the five senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. The appeal to the five senses makes Catholic worship a tangible, felt experience that orientates the worshiper in the direction of the transcendent.

The Use of Sight

Catholic architecture makes use of an array of symbols and images which bring to life visually the faith of worshipers. Architecture includes the varieties of spirals of gothic cathedrals, various shrines, tabernacles, and alters that make use of marble, jewels, gold, and stained glass. These are not merely images to look at but phenomena that point towards the transcendent lying beyond the empirical realm, thus inspiring worshipers to focus on heaven and God. Stained glass windows brim with life in their colourful and elaborate depictions of various sacramental, biblical, theological, and church scenes. Initially, stained glass windows had the purpose of teaching illiterate churchgoers about salvation history, but today they can be admired for their creativity and message.

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The St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Kyiv, Ukraine. Image: Discover Ukraine, B. Vasilkovskaya

Priests and deacons occasionally adorn various colourful vestments during certain services such as Holy Mass. Vestments come in various colours, including red, white, green, gold, purple, and black. They all have a symbol on them, such as of The Cross or the first and last letters from the alphabet symbolic for Christ, such as the Alpha and Omega, which symbolize Christ being the beginning and the end of all creation (Revelation 22:13). There is sometimes the letter M for Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

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A white vestment with the Symbol of the Cross. Image: Worth Point.

The Cross is arguably the most common and widely observed symbol in the Catholic tradition, and it depicts Christ being crucified according to the historical story. It is on necklaces adorned by priests, on vestments, placed in elevated positions at seminaries, cathedrals, and in churches, depicted in literature and on statues and monuments, and much more. The Cross is also presented differently in Catholicism when compared to the Protestant tradition. The Catholic tradition depicts the body of Christ on The Cross whereas Protestant depictions have The Cross without Christ’s body attached to it. As a symbol, The Cross reminds Catholics of the significance of the crucifixion and the physical and spiritual suffering Christ endured throughout his ordeal. It brings to mind the high price Christ paid purchasing humanity’s salvation and thus, by implication, the significance and reality of sin that separates humans from God.

The Use of Smell

The sense of smell is important in Catholic worship and perhaps the burning of incense from resins of certain trees stands out the most. Placed on charcoal, the resin burns into a cloud of smoke and aroma that permeates the church. The aroma is symbolic of the worshiper’s prayers believed to be going up to heaven and the sweet smell reminds him or her of the sweetness of God’s divine mercy given on The Cross. The Catholic Church points to biblical precedent for the use of incense and aroma. Psalm 141 speaks of David setting before God a prayer “like incense”, and in Exodus Moses is said to have burned “fragrant incense on it [the Ark of the Covenant], as the LORD commanded him” (40:27). In the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church, incense is used daily during liturgical worship. Western Catholics, however, use incense on special holy days, always during funerals, and sometimes during the Sunday Mass. Another common use of smell comes from the Chrism Oil used for anointing. The anointing of oil not only includes the sensation of touch but also the use of one’s smell. The oil used at a special Mass, called the Chrism Mass, has a unique aroma that comes from an aromatic perfume that can be clearly smelt.


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Image: Google Images.

The Use of Touch

One cannot neglect the tangible nature of ritual and worship in the Catholic tradition. Oil is used to confirm Catholics into the church, baptize, to consecrate altars and bless bells, as well as consecrate bishops and bless the hands of priests. Baptism, namely the literal immersion in water or water being poured over one’s head, has a clear tangible feeling to it, just as does anointing a person through applying oil to his or her forehead and palms. There is the joining of hands between the couple during the Sacrament of Matrimony. There is Ordination that has the hands of a bishop being be felt on the newly ordained priest’s head. When praying the Rosary, Catholics can feel the beads between their fingers during meditation or saying the Hail Mary. Just before the Feast of St. Blaise, the heat from two crossed candles can be felt on one’s throat as the priest goes around blessing the congregation.

The practice/sacrament of using Holy Water, also a tangible experience, was created by the Church rather than being instituted by Christ himself like, for instance, the Last Supper or Eucharist. Holy Water is water that has been blessed by a priest, bishop, or deacon, and can be used, although more rarely, to expel demons. More common is its use as a symbolic reminder of Baptism. Catholics will, upon entering or leaving a church, dip two right-hand fingers into a cup called a font located on a wall near the church doors and then make the Sign of the Cross by wetting their forehead, breast, and shoulders. Unlike other sacraments and rituals, the use of Holy Water is optional and stands in as a reminder that one is entering the Home of God.

Catholics can often be seen making a gesture in the Sign of the Cross. This gesture in the Western Catholic tradition is performed using the right hand to touch the forehead, followed by the middle breast, left shoulder, and then the right shoulder. While gesturing the Catholic will say, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” In the Byzantine Catholic tradition (former members of the Eastern Orthodox Church who again joined the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century by accepting the authority of the Pope), the gesture is exactly the same with the exception of the gesturer touching the right shoulder first and then the left shoulder. What does The Sign of the Cross symbolize? It symbolizes the positive affirmation of the Catholic Church’s central doctrine, namely belief in the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as the salvation that Christ’s death on the cross purchased for humanity.

The Use of Sound

Sound is another feature of Catholic worship, notably when the worshiper hears the preaching of the Bible as God’s Word. The Bible, usually a passage from one of the four gospels, is used during Mass and read out aloud by the priest. Various readings are taken from the Old and New testaments, and passages from the Psalms are sung by the congregation. There are also the prayers of the priests that the congregation is expected to take part in. For example, there is the homily, which is a sermon based on the Gospel, given at the Mass by a priest, deacon, or bishop. Music is another feature as the Church makes use of organs, choirs, and Gregorian chant during services.

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Singing during the service. Image: Our Sunday Visitor, Charles Pope, 2019.

The Use of Taste

Finally, taste in worship is evident in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist and its items of bread and wine that are consumed by worshipers. The Eucharist is the Church’s most sacred ritual because it is believed that the wine and bread become Christ’s literal blood and body respectively when consecrated by the priest. This is known as transubstantiation because the bread and wine literally change in substance to the blood and body of Christ. The bread and wine can be perceived through taste as the worshiper consumes them.


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