Why Do Catholics Do the Same Thing Over and Over?

As I was desperately trying to think of reasons not to become Catholic, I considered and researched all of the objections to Catholicism I’d heard my whole life.  On this score, I can’t count the number of times I googled “why Catholicism is wrong.”  One of the old standards on the Protestant hit parade of answers to this question is the topic of this post:  the charge that much of Catholic practice is mere “vain repetition.”

Now, I freely admit that much of Catholic practice is repetitive.  At Mass each Sunday, the order of the liturgy is exactly the same and a number of the prayers are exactly the same.  Catholics regularly genuflect when in a church building and often make the Sign of the Cross.  When praying the Rosary, one of the most common Catholic devotional practices, a Catholic says the Our Father no less than six times and the Hail Mary 53 times.  As a Protestant, I looked at all of this repetition and concluded:  “Wow, how monotonous.  Those folks can’t possibly be doing any of that stuff because they really believe it.  And, even if they do, it’s so sad the way they’re stifling their creativity.  God surely doesn’t want

I’ll deal first with the issue of how, as a Protestant, I felt like Catholics who engaged in all of these repetitive practices couldn’t really be taking them seriously.  The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the mere repetition of some particular practice said absolutely nothing about the sincerity of the person engaging in that practice.  For example, I’m blessed that Nikki and the kids regularly tell me they love me.  I don’t look at them and say, “Boy, you say that so much, you must not really mean it.”  No, I take the fact that they repeat those particular words so often as a sign that they actually love me quite a

On the more general issue of “monotony vs. creativity,” over time I came to feel that creativity” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Over and over again as a Sunday school teacher at the Baptist church we attended, I’d struggle to come up with an impromptu prayer at the beginning of class that sounded half-way coherent.  Also, it just seemed to me more and more that, by focusing so much on creativity, I was really focusing on myself and my own ability to say or do something clever—not on the revealed truths of Scripture (which I didn’t write) or on the wisdom of the ages passed down over the generations (which I also couldn’t take credit for).

Don’t get me wrong here:  I’m not saying that creativity is necessarily evil.  Not at all.  Indeed, I’ve never felt freer in my life to be myself than since I’ve embraced Catholicism.
My point here is simply that the most basic things in life–like our family relationships, how we eat and drink, our work lives, etc.–are based much more on routine than on any brilliant flashes of genius.  Why should I expect my faith life to be different?  If I find routine comforting in the context of my family life, why wouldn’t I want that in how I live out my faith?

I also now am firmly convinced that the apparent “monotony” of Catholic practice is simply a foretaste of what Revelation 4 tells us Heaven will be like.  There, St. John reports that, in his vision of Heaven, he saw the four living creatures before the Throne of God repeating endlessly, day and night:  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.”

If Heaven is full of repetition, though, then why did I for so long rebel against it in the practice of my faith?  I think Chesterton explains the reason well:

[I]t might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.  His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.  The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

As with so many things, children instinctually sense things we adults tend to forget when we grow up.  When we first started attending Mass, our 10-year-old, Schuyler, asked us the question, “Why do Catholics do the same thing every week at Mass?”  To which our
7-year-old, Emma, responded:  “Maybe they think it’s important.”

[1]               Although this was how I felt and also how it seemed most of the folks I knew felt, it is interesting that there has recently been increased Protestant interest in repetitive spiritual practices, such as the “Jesus prayer,” that have their roots in Catholic spirituality.

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20 Responses to Why Do Catholics Do the Same Thing Over and Over?

  1. Owen says:

    I was probably always meant to be Catholic – well, of course we all are by our Trinitarian baptism meant to be Catholic and in fact are Catholic if imperfectly joined because but that’s another issue and I digress 😉

    Even as a Protestant I found the “vain repetition” denunciation of Catholic prayers and in particular the Rosary, lacking for two basic reasons. 1) a lack of understanding of the meaning of the passage itself. The bible itself contains many repetitive prayers. One only needs consider any number of the psalms for the use of repetitive phrases. One wonders, does a Protestant consider the repeated praying of “the Lord’s Prayer” problematic or vain?. So the emphasis is not on the repetition but on any prayer being vain. As with vain glory the issue is not glory but its being vain in certain contexts. On can make an idol of anything but said thing is not therefore intrinsically an idol. 2) There are all kinds of repetitive prayers and practices within the multitude of Protestant sects. Of course Protestants have their defences and reasons for the use of these repetitive prayers and practices/ This is not a new development among Protestants but it has come to the fore especially among the so-called “emergent church” with its tendency toward syncretism; as you note, the use of the “Jesus Prayer” which is certainly repetitive and lets not forget (the even now passing but once not so long ago new and exciting) “prayer of Jabez” which when prayed for 30 or 31 days apparently guarantees the desired result – not at all like a Novena 😉

    I especially appreciate that you highlight another important factor and that is one of judgement and presumption. Only God knows the heart so how can anyone properly judge that a Catholic praying the Rosary or a Novena or a long established written prayer (take the Divine Office for example) is not doing so with full engagement, with full devotion to God, with understanding and without superstition or rote mechanism? That’s right, they can’t.

    God bless you in your continued journey in the Church Christ instituted and established for all time.

  2. Brydon says:

    It’s a little funny when fellow Baptists criticize Catholics for doing the same thing over and over. Then we go to our worship service where we have (1) welcome message, (2) Lord’s prayer; (3) hymn; (4) missionary moment or children’s sermon; (5) pastoral prayer; (6) hymn (sit down); (7) offering; (8) doxology; (9) sermon; (10) hymn; (11) welcome new members. My 13 year old son just gave me this list, so he has it memorized too. No, we Baptists don’t do the same thing over and over like those Catholics!

    • Jason says:

      This is something that crossed my mind as I came closer to the Church. I remember hearing people talk about “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches. The truth is, there’s no such thing as a “non-liturgical” church. That’s like suggesting you could have a book without words.

    • Monica Lopez says:

      There is a big difference we are saying the catholics repeat the same words over and over Baptist don’t do that there is always a different message yes the order in which the service is may be the same everytime however Baptists don’t repeat the same words over and over like the catholics I remember going with my grandma to mass when I was little and I didn’t learn anything from it, my kids have learned more in the Baptist church , it is also more kid friendly you don’t see many activites for young children like playgrounds, in the catholic church like in other religions.

  3. Rich says:

    great post — here’s to exulting in monotony!

  4. Brydon says:

    Creativity is what it’s cracked up to be.

    Your post reminded me of the short time I spent in South Africa on a mission trip. Pastor Credo Mangayi of the Baptist Union of South Africa led my group through several South African townships. We would go door to door visiting families. At the end of each visit, Credo would call on one of us to pray without any warning. I asked Credo why he did that. He responded that he wanted the prayer to come from the Holy Spirit. He did not want us to be prepared. It worked. It would not have been the same if we had ended each visit with a standard prayer.

    But, it wasn’t about being clever. It was being in the moment, feeling a connection with God, and giving the prayer from the heart.

    • Jason says:

      Hey, Brydon! I didn’t mean to suggest that extemporaneous prayer is never appropriate, that the Spirit never works through such prayer, or that all folks praying an extemporaneous prayer are necessarily trying to be clever and/or aren’t being sincere. I only wanted to address the common criticism that Catholic practice is “vainly” repetitive and to speak about how I felt pressured to be clever in a system where we pretty much only had extemporaneous prayer.

  5. owen says:

    As a former Pentecostal pastor of many years I note one of the weaknesses of “spontaneous” or extemporaneous prayer. Often, though to be clear not exclusively, are these prayers very much of the flesh, that is while not evil they are often simply totally human. Being human these prayers have often repeated pat or catch or accepted phrases – I refrain from noting any number of particular one lest it seem I am mocking them. Many times I experienced extemporaneous prayers said to be full of the Holy Spirit that were little more than a whole series of well known phrases connected together. Please note, here I am not speaking about “in another tongue” but merely accepted norms in the vernacular (in my case, English). Now, simply being repeated or patterned does not make them evil, it does not necessarily mean only of *the flesh* where there is sincere devotion and genuine intent. And *that* would be the point, a point so often missed when non Catholic Christian criticize formalized, repeated, patterned prayers said by Catholics. 🙂

    Now, tongues – well, there’s a whole ‘nother animal of which I could say much in regard to being repetitious and patterned even though apparently “in an unknown tongue.”

  6. Pingback: Lord, Hear Our Prayer | The Roman Road

  7. Your kids really get it. “From the mouths of babes and infants…”

  8. Phil says:

    We are called to have the faith of a little child are we not? Do children not delight in games and repetition of what the enjoy (as you pointed out)? Do children not find pleasure and peace in the simple (how many times have you bought a child an expensive toy to have the child find more joy in the simple card board box; wearing on his/her head to pretend he/she is a robot)?

    What I find hypocritical is how often Protestants will sit and repeat the same things over and over again and THAT is perfectly okay. I am not even talking about “liturgy” either. I am talking about singing choruses in worship. It is perfectly okay to sing “yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord” six times in a row or to just take and simply repeat the same chorus for 5 or 10 minutes (NOT an exageration) because they are “in the Spirit” but if a Catholic repeats something… oh those Heathens….

  9. Andy says:

    It is the awareness of the energy of the heart that is important. It is the awareness that transcends energy and heals the heart (God does this. The ‘I’ merely acts as the receptivity for the Grace)

    Are we falling victim to a trance state by machine gunning the rosary? Like a Tibetan Buddhist reciting “Om mani padme Hum” over and over again. It is surely better to recite just four prayers (Our father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and St Francis prayer) or to undertake one cycle of the rosary slowly at your own time with mind understanding and heart concentration than to rattle through ten cycles with others.

    I think that you were wise to say that we should not judge or discourage anyone from any sort of ‘other regarding’ communion of the heart. Yet there is an evolution in prayer depending on how unfolded/mature the spiritual heart is . First one tends to ignore God completely and distract the mind from one’s suffering. Then one has the faith to reach out to God to pray for oneself selfishly. Then one prays for another individual. Then one prayers for all sentient beings. Finally one sits in silent contemplation like Enoch or Brother Lawrence ‘walking with God’ which is purest prayer in essence as well.

    I am a Catholic and choose not to go to my Church’s ‘Legion of Mary’ as the whole evening consists of rushed rote prayers. I get left behind and cannot give my whole heart. The process seems empty and ‘religious’ rather than ‘spiritual’.

    I do feel that the rosary is undoubtedly a wonderful thing for those who find the structure necessary and supportive. It is a powerful and wise hearted prayer that provides direction and structure for the questing heart. The Church was compassionate to encourage us to use it. However the core issue is ‘mindfulness’ in the communion.

  10. Pingback: If You Want a Personal Relationship With Jesus, Become a Catholic | The Roman Road

  11. Christine says:

    Thanks! Helped alot and loved the new perspective of looking at it!

  12. Betty says:

    I do not need repetition acts or words when praying. I do not offer rituals, catch phrases or vain repetitions when talking with my friends…. and I do not do the same when talking with my creator. Prayer was meant to be communications between ourselves and our God……there is no mystery here and no routines need to take place….Open Mouth and talk

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