Everything Catholic: Is there a big source that explains it all?

By Jenna Marie Cooper 

Question Corner

Q: Is there an authoritative recommended single source of information on all the many Roman Catholic traditions, such as behavior and rituals in church,. and prayers for appropriate occasions? (United Kingdom)

A: No; unfortunately, there is no such single resource.  Of course, the Church does have wonderful resources, though.

Even when we’re considering canon law properly so-called, there is no one single master document that contains every law in the church. Although, of course, the Code of Canon Law is a good general starting place, there are many relevant laws that are not in the Code. For example, liturgical law is true law within the church, but it is typically included within the context of the liturgical documents themselves rather than the Code of Canon Law.

Furthermore, there is such a thing as “proper law,” meaning laws that apply only to a specific territory or group of people. For example, most religious communities have their own proper law in the form of their statutes and internal law. A local bishops’ conference can make bindinglaw. Each bishop may issue particular law for only the territory of his diocese.  And, of course, many, if not most, unofficial traditions and customs have strong local or cultural components.

Besides law technically speaking, there are other kinds of documents, called instructions, which determine specific ways in which a law is to be carried out. Less formal clarifications on questions of law from various Vatican dicasteries also need to be considered. Occasionally, a Pope will modify the Code of Canon Law, meaning that the nearest hard copy of the Code might be obsolete in some sections.

But to attempt a more practically useful answer to your query, if you have questions about Catholic liturgy, a good first step would be to check the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” which is essentially the instruction book for how Mass is to be celebrated. The GIRM addresses not only the actions of the priest, but also the role and participation of the faithful in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The GIRM discusses some related issues as well, such as how the sanctuary should be decorated and maintained. If you have questions about other rituals or sacraments, the liturgical texts themselves often will include similar introductory sections.

If your questions are more related to faith and morals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church would be a helpful place to start. The catechism is meant as a summary of core Catholic beliefs, and is widely available both in print and online; and there are a few searchable web versions of the catechism that make it fairly simple to navigate.

In terms of prayers for various occasions, there is a Book of Blessings that most priests would have access to. But if you, as a layperson, would like to pray in a way that is more in tune with the Church’s calendar of liturgical seasons, you might try incorporating all or some of the Liturgy of the Hours into your prayer life. The Liturgy of the Hours is a series of liturgical prayers that are meant to be prayed at specific times of the day, and that also closely mirror the church’s cycle of seasons and feast days.

For behaviors in church, I suppose at least some of this might be more a matter of courtesy and common sense than adherence to official written policy. Canon law doesn’t explicitly tell us to be generally quiet and reverent in church, but it makes obvious sense to do this out of respect for those who come into church to pray.  Church laws need proper interpretation by a bishop or canon lawyer, and priests study for many years in the seminary; without that advanced training, misinterpretation could occur.

- - -

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].