Solemn is not the enemy of humble

A priest friend sent this quote from
C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost:

This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity.

The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much of a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp-and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in.

Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, SESSIUNCULA, The Drill and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. dmreed says:

    I pray the Papal household reads this blog in its spare time and begins to understand “humility” and “humbleness” in less superficial terms.

  2. PatB says:

    I don’t understand why so many people here think they know what “the Papal household,” etc., are thinking.

  3. Choirmaster says:

    “Solemnis” and “solemn”… do we not now—when speaking in a liturgical/religious context—use these words in the sense that Lewis is describing the Middle English word? Without, of course, the common idiomatic implication of gloom and/or austerity.

    What does the word really say?

    I often caution people not to attach the sad, gloom, etc. connotation to the word “solemn” when speaking of liturgical matters, especially in the sense of “Solemnity of the Nativity”, but to think of the word “solemn” as “serious”.

  4. MKR says:

    C.S. Lewis is right; Pope Francis and his fawning media are wrong.

    Glad to see Fr. Z is coming around to the obvious conclusion that everyone on Rorate has been defending since Pope Francis was elected.

    [If you are truly “glad” about that, then you either a) have no clue at all as to what is going on here or b) have a strange notion of what should make people happy.]

  5. Bosco says:

    Dear Father Z.,
    Do you think Jesus wore a prayer shawl, a tallit, as an observant Jew or was that an insignificant item of apparel He would have jettisoned?

  6. JacobWall says:


    I see no similarity between what Fr. Z is doing and what Rorate has been doing. Rorate is working to dig up any fact, event, news article, dirt, rumour or hearsay from the past that can be used to attack the Pope. Fr. Z is evaluating what Pope Francis is actually doing right now as Pope. Two extremely different things.

  7. Choirmaster says:

    @Bosco: Your question makes me wonder if observant Jews in first-century Israel & Judea used the tallit like we see today in the diaspora. It could be something that came into general use with the spread of Rabbinic Judaism. An interesting topic I would like to know more about.

    Our Lord did express dissatisfaction with those religious leaders that would “lengthen their tassels”. I understand this to be a statement on the disparity between the beautiful religious garb on the outside and the ugliness of the soul on the inside. We may see the opposite in our Holy Father; it is possible the religious garb on the outside is not representative of the beauty on the inside. Certainly the latter is not nearly as bad as the former!

  8. JacobWall says:

    Excellent excerpt! I always enjoy C.S. Lewis’ writings. I truly appreciate this informative and clear-minded evaluation of the ideas flying around these days – and the Pope’s choice of actions. Let’s pray that the Pope demonstrates a greater sense of solemnity in the days to come.

  9. bmadamsberry says:

    People are overreacting. We have very little knowledge of what the Pope will do liturgically. The lack of mozzetta, the wearing black shoes, the silver crucifix instead of the gold… these are small things. They have deep meaning and afford significance, but we can’t overreact like the Pope is doing something horrible. He’s using incense, he’s not giving up the pallium or fisherman’s ring. People have different styles. From what I’ve seen, the Masses that have been celebrated have been solemn and reverent. Would I like to see the mozzetta? Yes. Do I think that, some how, the liturgy is in danger because of the Pope’s choices? Nope. We need to remember that the “Liturgy Wars” are not what they are overseas like they are here. How about we see a few more Masses before we make any assumptions of what liturgical style Pope Francis will follow.

  10. pseudomodo says:

    Praise is good when it is true.
    Praise is bad when it is false.

    The opposite is also true. Bad news is worse when it is false.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Yes, Jesus wore fringes on his garments. That’s what the woman with the issue of blood touched.

    The fringes just weren’t exaggeratedly long; they were just right. (And probably woven by his mom as part of his seamless, priestly garment.)

  12. JARay says:

    I had never heard of the word “solempne”. This is a most interesting observation and I do so heartedly agree that proper solemnity has a valuable place in any society. Thank you for this article Father.

  13. alanphipps says:


    “I see no similarity between what Fr. Z is doing and what Rorate has been doing. Rorate is working to dig up any fact, event, news article, dirt, rumour or hearsay from the past that can be used to attack the Pope.”

    Excellent description of the despicable behavior of Rorate.

    [Let’s ratchet down the tone now. I don’t want to pit blogs against each other.]

  14. Bosco says:

    Thanks. I was just being a bit mischievous ala the red slippers and other regalia and ceremony which have quickly disappeared in the last week.

  15. lh says:

    Thank you for this post.

  16. BLB Oregon says:

    This representation of how solemnity is often so sadly misunderstood is very true. Still, as we take the author’s point, in balance we can’t forget that C.S. Lewis also wrote this in Letter 16 of the Screwtape Letters:

    “… But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labor. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility,

    Your affectionate uncle

    Proper solemnity is very important, and ought to remain so, but how we treat those who don’t see that is even more important still. It is like Fr. Z said when he insisted that no one ought to surpass those who value the traditional rites and customs in terms of their generosity to the poor and needy. The charity with which we express our understanding of the great riches tradition has to offer with regards to how solemnities ought to be observed needs to buttress our position, and not undermine it. If we are quarrelsome about it, we’ll work against the very point it was our duty to make.

  17. JacobWall says:

    What I love about this definition of solemnity is that emphasizes the festiveness of faith, ritual and tradition; “Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not.”

    There’s a tendency for people to point to the joyous celebrations of the Bible and imagine that our “solemn” celebrations are missing that. However, the beauty of the celebration itself is an indication of its joy and festivity. That’s why Sunday is the most festive – and therefore most “solemn” – day of the week.

    This reminds me of a change of mind I’ve had over the past two years. Not that long ago, I was one of those people who “put on his oldest clothes to be happy in.” I remember complaining to my wife that people in Mexico (including her) would keep their children in their Sunday bests to go the midnight Christmas party (after Mass.) “They’re going to get all dirty and covered in food” I would complain. I tried to convince her, to no avail, to bring along a change of their old clothes. I would wear jeans and t-shirt (to Mass as well.) Despite some significant loss of Catholic culture there, on points like this you can still see the firmly Catholic roots of their culture.

    It’s not just Mexicans and Catholics. My Mennonite grandfather insisted that everyone in the house kept their Sunday bests on for the whole day, which was considered a day of joy and festivity – “solemn.”

    All the people I mentioned here are/were very poor. This is why I believe if the poor really had their way, Mass would look far more beautiful and formal.

    Fortunately for me, something along the way did “re-awaken the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in.”

  18. amont says:

    What has bothered me personally, was the report of the verbal assault on the Papal M.C. by Pope Francis just before the balcony event, and also a further simillar event immediately before the Papal Mass to mark the end of the Conclave.Hardly moments of “charity”. ( would not be surprised to see the poor Msgr leave , if only to save his dignity. )Furthermore, after all the talk of serving the poor etc., a new plain Chasuble was purchased; despite what I am sure is a noble collection aleady existing in the Vatican. This seems, to me at any rate, highly egotistical. One would have thought that having been raised to the See of Peter, Pope Francis would understand he is now Supreme Pontiff, formerly an Archbishop from Argentina; not an Argentinian Archbishop who is now Pope?

  19. Hank Igitur says:

    A priest sent this to me earlier in the week also. It is a good piece with a good message worthy of reflection.
    Jumping to conclusions without sufficient information is probably not the best approach concerning the Liturgy under the current Papacy. Let’s wait for a bit and see. There can be plenty of time for discussion down the track if needed.

  20. SwanSong says:

    I have a question, one which I promise is not intended to tease, provoke, irritate or in any way offend. But it is such a simple – and probably naive – question that I’m amazed I haven’t heard it asked before now.

    OK, this is the question: If Roman Catholics believe that the Holy Ghost influenced the cardinals when they selected Pope Francis, does it not then follow that you have to accept that liturgical renewal cannot be high on God’s list of things to do? If this man really is all that the Church claims, then you must accept, surely, that what he teaches in respect to the liturgy in some sense expresses the will of God.

    But even as I write this, I see the fatal flaw in my logic, since if the Holy Ghost chose Frances, He also chose Benedict, and Benedict taught something very different about liturgy. So was the Holy Ghost in favour of a liturgical revival in 2005 but changed His mind in 2013? It seems to me that if Popes contradict one another and make sudden arbitrary changes of the kind that Francis has made in the past week, they imply that their predecessor was in error. Bluntly, his present Holiness’s words and actions suggest that – in liturgical matters at least – he believes that Pope Benedict XVI was wrong. It seems to me that in so doing Francis undermines the authority of his Office.

    The ultimate irony of this is that, uniquely, the former pope is alive to see what is happening. I can only imagine that it is the source of some grief to him. Perhaps he is even wondering if his abdication wasn’t a mistake.

  21. Gregorius says:

    1) Wonderful quote, Fr.
    2) it reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago with someone about the solemnity of Mass. The quote above articulates what I couldn’t in my own words.
    3) Alii: try to keep in mind how many times The Pope himself has described himself/his actions as ‘humble’ versus the amount of times these have been called ‘humble’ by other people. Let’s wait before we try to guess the Holy Father’s motives.
    4) Long tassels and phylacteries were not considered in themselves bad by Christ; rather, He criticized the scribes and Pharisees who preferred these things over love of God and fellow men.

  22. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.

    And so may it not exhibit something quite different from true humility? Who has not seen parish Masses whose casual manner of celebration brought this question to mind?

  23. Charles E Flynn says:
  24. Kathleen10 says:

    Love C.S. Lewis. He would be one person I would loved to have known.

    It does seem that there is such a promotion of socialist ideas today, the wealthy pitted against the have-nots, the resentment towards people and companies who are successful, the way corporations in the US are all making themselves less “formal”, UPS = “Brown” (as in what can “Brown” do for you?), it’s not McDonald’s, it’s “Mickey D’s”, JC Penney is now “JCP”.
    Charles Schwab is now “Chuck”! There is just this overall egalitarian promotion going on, and socialism, I’m NO authority, but this seems to be socialism’s whole point, that nobody should be “UP there” while other people remain “down there”. I really do think that is what is behind the liberal’s giddiness over Pope Francis, they feel they have someone who will somehow end this “show” of authority and put a stop to this never-ending issuing of decrees and bulls and so on that dampens secular enthusiasm for living life the way they want to. Enough of this “infallibility” and jabberwocky. When you come down to our level, it will become clear we don’t have to worry about your incessant reminders that we are on the fast track to…somewhere potentially unpleasant…and hopefully all the people will realize that they’re ok we’re ok and nobody has to concern themselves with commandments and other unnecessary rules for living. Then perhaps, we might hear what tickles our ears, that there really are no rules.

  25. Legisperitus says:

    Don’t think I had read this bit of CSL before, but it reminds me why I love his stuff. It’s just perfect.

  26. CharlesG says:

    “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”

    Excellent description of the modern “cult of casual”. This used to be mainly an American thing, but sadly we have successfully exported our slapdash ways around the world. A sense of occasion, formality and decorum, appropriate (as in the worship of God), is not amiss.

  27. monmir says:

    Brilliant post. Many thanks Father to help us keep our eyes on the horizon.

  28. Andkaras says:

    As a person of little means,with one bathroom ,1 television, (basic channels) no dishwasher,no working oven, no working oven, no health insurance,I think we’re pretty close to the bottom of the totem pole ,although we are not destitute. I want to attend the EF mass.I want something beautiful. Why is this so hard for so many to understand? We live in a hard world, a cruel world. I’m not asking for money or stuff or sympathy. I just want a beautiful mass. For the peace. For the comfort, for the silence. I don’t need special greetings before or after. I know that we are already connected just like the tines of a beautiful monstrance with Jesus at the center. Jesus wants to give us something beautiful. A place where we can be” solempne.”

  29. JKnott says:

    Solemn is not the enemy of humble, nor is “inequality.” There is a brief and grand visual of solemnity and inequality at the Vatican.
    I can’t get the link to work but it can be Googled : “The privilège du blanc and God’s love for inequality”. It’s worth seeing the photos of the popes with royalty.

  30. Pingback: The Good Friday Reproaches - Big Pulpit

  31. JonPatrick says:

    amont, can you provide a link to this “report of the verbal assault on the Papal M.C. ” ? I had not heard about anything like this.

    I hope that as Hank Igitur’s priest friend says, that we give the new Holy Father some time. Some of the attacks on him as to his supposed liberalness seem hard to reconcile with the homilies of his that I have read.

  32. jaykay says:

    “…a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast”.

    Indeed, and not to mention a head waiter resplendent in his dress-suit with cummerbund, gold cuff-links etc. etc. presiding over a top-class restaurant, with minions all equally well-dressed, where all will be done with due solemnity (solempnity, even) and decorum or somebody will pay for it. Because somebody is already paying a hell of a lot for it, and therefore expects (and deserves) no less. Even kids over here (and in the US also, I’m sure) put on the Ritz when going out on their graduation shindigs, because they want to mark the occasion as something special.

    Yet somehow a lot of people (who have no problems themselves participating in the aforementioned customs of dress and manners) immediately start the screaming hib-jibs when they see Catholics giving due reverence to God with their best in solemn vesture and dignified ritual. You just know that the old standards “what about the poor” and “noble simplicity” are immediately going to be brought forward, as though we’re suddenly transformed into Lazarus ignoring the poor man at the gate, or Pharisses broadening the phylacteries, the moment we produce even a pinch of incense or beautiful antique vestments.

    It’s such a disconnection, really. As for the “why not sell the Vatican art-treasures and give to the poor” bit, that is just such a semi-educated knee-jerk that it’s no longer even worthy of response. Unfortunately, though, it’s going to have to get some response time and time again because, like a dog returning to its vomit, our “well-educated” secular friends just can’t get away from their treasured little nuggets of supposedly devastating critiques.

  33. JacobWall says:


    We must avoid seeing this in terms of secular politics and buying into the media’s image of rupture and antithesis.

    I’m sure Pope Benedict was well aware that someone very different from himself could/would be chosen. I’m sure that he worked through that before making the decision and is quite firm in what he decided. While he had no way of knowing that Bp. Bergoglio would be chosen, Benedict was very well aware of what he was doing as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his liturgical style, and in the curial positions to which Benedict himself appointed him.

    Papal infallibility applies to matters of faith, morals and doctrine. It does NOT apply to personal style or to liturgical practices. It’s entirely possible that a Pope could set a bad example or make an error in something they choose to do – even in the liturgy – without casting doubt on the protection the Holy Spirit gives him concerning matters of faith. Also, while evaluating Pope Francis’ choices in style and liturgy is perfectly fine and useful, it’s incorrect and misguided to use these choices (correct or not) to portray some sort of rupture between the two popes. While on the surface it looks like pitting one Pope against his predecessor, in reality it’s a way of attacking the Church.

    Take a look at the video from Michael Voris that Fr. Z posted today. It explains this point very well.

    Finally, this is all so much speculation. Does Pope Francis think that Benedict was wrong about his liturgical style and teachings? We don’t know, Pope Francis hasn’t commented on the matter. His changes don’t necessarily indicate that he thought Benedict was wrong. Is Benedict disappointed with the election of Pope Francis? I think it’s very unlikely, but I don’t know any more than you do. Benedict hasn’t commented on this, and I’m sure he never will.

  34. Lavrans says:

    Father Z, I have a question regarding this and Cardinal Mahoney’s recent Twitter comments. My question has to do with humility, poverty, and the liturgy. His eminence seemed excited that papal liturgies were going to be more simple and humble so as to allow a true encounter with Jesus Christ. But what about our Eastern Rite Catholic brothers and sisters? Surely there are Catholics in the Ukraine, in India, in Syria, and other eastern regions with far less money than the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, but who have far more elaborate liturgies with all of the trappings his eminence seems to want to be rid of? Isn’t this call for a return to “simplicity” in the liturgy, as if it were more “Catholic” to do so, a misunderstanding at best? Surely our eastern brothers and sisters would disagree.

    I would say that a beautiful Mass, with all of the “trappings” of the east or west, is just as “Catholic” as any more simple Mass. The Mass is the Mass. There is a place for simplicity and a place for more elaboration. There are religious orders who do “simple” but with far more “trappings” than his eminence would seem to like. I’m trying to be as charitable as I can, but I find myself at odds with him on this. Am I way off on this?

    [I have no special insights to share about the liturgical musings of the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles.]

  35. Ed the Roman says:

    Obedient to the hoc age? Am I the stupid kid today?

  36. JLHernandez says:

    Great post Father. I left a comment with same quote from Lewis in an earlier post. In the same book Lewis continues with this:

    “…The desire for simplicity is a late and sophisticated one. We moderns may like dances which are hardly distinguishable from walking and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore. Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry. …Epic diction, Christmas fare, and the liturgy, are all examples of ritual – that is, of something set deliberately apart from daily usage, but wholly familiar within its own sphere. …Those who dislike ritual in general – ritual in any and every department of life – may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance”

  37. Parasum says:

    “Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit.”

    Typical Lewisian wisdom :) – if only God had given the CC Christians as wise as he was.

    A pompa is an instance of pomp, but cannot be assumed to be (in the “worsened” sense) pompous

    OTOH, rejection of pomp can well be evidence of “vanity or self-conceit”. The quotation by that last poster is a tonic.

Comments are closed.