Simple Catholic Snapshots
This is part one of a three-part series, where SimpleCatholicTruth takes you on a short tour of a typical Catholic Church. The building layout, the content, symbols and worship practices all point to the fact that this is a sacred building designated and consecrated for divine worship.
- The Doors & Vestibule – The transition from the outside world to God’s dwelling place on earth.
- The Sanctuary – The focus of the church and our worship. Contains the altar where the sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated and the offerings of bread and wine are consecrated into the real Body and Blood of Christ.
- The Nave (with Pews) – The assembly area for all participants. While sitting, standing or kneeling, the posture of our bodies reflects proper reverence to the risen Lord.
- Baptismal Font – The location of our first Sacrament where we became adopted children of God.
- Blessed Sacrament Chapel / Tabernacle – God dwells among us and here the physical body and blood of our risen Lord resides 24 hours per day.
- Choir – Proper praise and worship includes music and song.
Simple Catholic Truths
We enter and take our standard pew. The Mass is beautiful and rich and spiritual. Approaching the altar, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord and then return to our place. The Mass ends and we exit a renewed and changed person – returning into the troubled world. But for everything that happens inside, do you ever give some thought what this building really is and what it means?
Our churches tell the story of our faith and our history, and the history of our faith. From the most simple four walls to the most grand cathedral, our churches tell a story of God dwelling with His people. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that most times when I attend Mass I don’t see my surroundings and appreciate the meaning of all the sights and sounds and smells. With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to take a tour, of sorts, of a typical Catholic church. I think the series will be three posts in length. There is so much that could be said, but I’ll keep it simple, touching only the highlights. I’m sure this series of blog posts will be just the tip of the iceberg. However, I hope they will provide a better understanding of our Catholic churches and kindle the desire to learn more.
As we approach to enter our Catholic church, we must keep in mind that this building is not simply a place of worship, not just a stage to sing and pray or be entertained – it is literally the house of God. The Holy of Holies of the Old Covenant and the eternal sacrifice of the New Covenant are contained within these walls. A miracle of supernatural proportions regularly takes place inside. We must therefore prepare our minds to join in this miraculous celebration. Let’s quietly and reverently step inside…
The Doors and Vestibule:
When you step through the outer doorway of a church you are leaving the outside world behind and approach a special holy place. Yes, the outside world, being created by God, is good but lets face it the world is a distracted and distracting place. When we pass through the outer doors into what is called the vestibule, we enter a transition zone. In this physical space is an opportunity for us to let go the troubles of our world and mentally and emotionally prepare to enter the peace of the house of God.
In Catholic churches the vestibule can be fairly spacious, depending on the size and layout of the building. In most cases the vestibule provides space for books, pamphlets, or bulletin boards. These publications provide information for those that are attending Mass or just dropping by for private devotions before the Blessed Sacrament.
We now step through the inner doors of the vestibule and stand in the church proper. There are clearly two distinct areas, namely the Sanctuary and the main sitting area called the Nave.
Before moving on, we take a moment and breath deep the refreshing silence. In many churches, the natural sunlight washes the interior with stained glass stories of our Savior, our faith history and our Saintly heroes.
A Sanctuary is, literally, a holy place protected from sinful defilement. Think of our modern wildlife sanctuaries and you begin to see the idea of a special protected space. The letter to the Hebrews (8:5) tells us that Israel’s tabernacle and temple were to serve as “a copy and
shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.” As it was in the day of the Old Testament temple and tabernacle, so it is today. With the altar at the center, our modern Sanctuary is a place of holiness, tended by priests. Jesus is our high priest whose eternal sacrifice on Calvary is re-presented on the altar during each Mass. The Catholic priest, acts “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ) by the divine power granted him in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The first fruit gifts of bread and wine are offered in sacrifice and are consecrated into the Body and Blood of our Savior.
Although there is wide variety in local customs and resultant architectures, the sanctuary’s special dignity is always reflected in its placement and decoration. Once commonly separated from the main church by short railings, most Sanctuaries today are elevated by a few steps to highlight the special uniqueness.
All Sanctuaries lie at the physical center or focal point of the church layout as much as practical. In some churches there are images of angels, like the Holy Place of the Jerusalem Temple—and the entryway to the Garden of Eden. There are candles and vessels made of precious metal: gold and silver. Sometimes the walls or ceiling will be decorated with stars or with the image of a multitude of the saints of heaven. Whatever the individual layout or decoration may entail, each Sanctuary with its altar represents the center of our Catholic worship.
The Nave (with Pews):
In terms of square footage, the nave dominates the landscape of most churches. Of course this is where the worshipers sit and stand and kneel during Mass. Those that attend Mass are not merely spectators or customers. As members of the body of Christ, we are active participants in the holy celebration and the church design must accommodate the role of the congregation during Mass. Naturally, since the altar in the Sanctuary is the center of our worship service, the seating of the congregation must be directed accordingly. It might seem obvious, but next time you enter the church, look at where all the pews are pointing. Even the seating arrangements give you a hint as to where to focus our attention.
Catholic worship is distinctive in terms of the postures and gestures prescribed for the congregation. Newcomers often say they have trouble adapting to the sequences of “Catholic gymnastics” during Mass. But we must keep in mind that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and the
standing, sitting, kneeling, and standing again is a form of worship.
These postures are part of a body language that express an individual’s relationship with God. To stand is to show respect, as one would if a great dignitary walked into the room. To kneel is to express extreme adoration and supplication – a very unusual posture in Western culture, reserved almost solely for divine worship. To sit is to position oneself open and receptive. Keep in mind these three postures during your next Mass, and relate them to what is going on at that time. I think you will gain a new appreciation for the parts of the Mass.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel and Tabernacle:
The Incarnation is not merely a historical event – Jesus is still with us. The gospel of John clearly shows that Christ is not only in our hearts and minds but also our church: “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In a Catholic church, the tabernacle is the place of Jesus’s continued physical presence. It is the place where Eucharistic hosts, consecrated during the Holy Mass, are contained.
Some tabernacles are even fashioned after the Ark of the Covenant.
This form should make the link between the Old Testament books of Moses and the New Testament Gospel of John readily apparent. Yes, Jesus our Savior, the new law, our high priest and the bread of life, is real and dwells among us.
The tabernacle is sometimes located near the altar, or sometimes in a special chapel off to the side so as to allow special personal prayer times called Adoration. But you don’t have to look too hard or for too long because one thing is certain- in all Catholic churches, the true physical body and blood of Christ is present in a tabernacle.
Go find the tabernacle or better yet, find the time when your church exposes the true presence in the monstrance during Adoration. Spend a little time face to face with God…
…it will change your life.
As we stand looking across the nave and towards the Sanctuary we notice just a few feet away is a large structure filled with holy water. Baptism is the ordinary way someone enters God’s family, usually when that person is still an infant. A typical Catholic church is constructed so that believers will remember their baptism every time they enter the building. This holy water font is used for Baptisms, but located at the entryway it serves as an opportunity to recall and reflect on your own Baptism. At the holy water font, Catholics dip their fingers and trace the form of a cross over
their upper body. Next time you enter the church for Mass, pause just a moment and think about that water that took away your original sin and made you once again an adopted child of God.
Music has always played a prominent role in religious worship. From the Levite priests in the temple with harps and cymbals, King David dancing and singing praise before the Ark, to the New Testament Ephesians playing to the Lord psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, music and song has always been use to praise and glorify God.
Yet even the greatest music should only be part of our liturgy. The point of the church is the Mass, and the Church’s music must serve to enhance the celebration of the Mass. Most churches include areas for a choir or musicians and these people are best positioned to be heard as part of the congregation, not in competition with the celebration centered in the Sanctuary.
Today the choir may be a loft—a gallery or upper level—above at the back of the church or along
Due to space and layout considerations however, in some churches today the choir is still somewhere near the sanctuary. Even so, we must remember that sacred
music is written to be prayed, not performed. Since liturgical singing is not a performance, the choir’s place is not a stage. Properly understood, the choir are attending Mass just like all of us, but they are sharing their unique talents of music and song to help us raise our voices to glorify God.
Well, that’s enough for this first installment of our introduction to Catholic churches. Next post, I’ll concentrate on the some of the other elements of the church such as the Stations of the Cross, sacred images and the confessional. In the final post, I plan of revisiting the Sanctuary in more detail.
I hope you found this introduction interesting. If you would like something specific addressed that I missed, please leave a comment.