Simple Catholic Snapshots
This is part two of a three-part series, where SimpleCatholicTruth takes you on a short tour of a typical Catholic Church. In the first post that you can find HERE, we opened the doors, entered the church and looked forward across the nave and to the sanctuary. Today we will turn around and look at the back and side walls to see what other parts of our church draw us closer to God.
- The Holy Water Font – Where we recall our Baptism
- The Ambry – A repository for the Oils used in the Sacraments
- Sacred Images – Art that inspires worship of God
- The Confessional -The place of Divine forgiveness.
- Stations of the Cross – A devotion to Christ’s passion
Simple Catholic Truths
The inner door closes and we stand just inside the main area of the church (the nave). What is the first thing we usually do?
The Holy Water Font
Placed near the entrance of each door of the church is a small open bowl of holy water. Holy water, and also the action of signing ourselves are referred to as sacramentals. Sacramentals are signs or actions that prepare us to receive the grace of the Sacraments. When we dip our fingertips into the holy water and make the sign of the cross we should take on a humble attitude of repentance and gratitude. With the words, “In the name of the the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, we should recall the Love of the Trinity, the regeneration of our Baptism and the glory of the saving Cross.
A couple of final thoughts. First, when we make the sign of the cross, I think it should not be a tiny, hurried affair; not a cramped flash in front of forehead-nose-eye-eye. No, our sign of the cross should proudly and deliberately travel from mind to heart, then shoulder to shoulder reflecting the Divine change to our complete being, body and soul. The deepest mysteries of our faith are contained in this simplest gesture. Second, since the sign of the cross is a prayer that embraces the essence of Christianity it should not be considered a “Catholic thing.”
Rooted in ancient Jewish practices, the use of oils continues today in many Christian liturgies. The Bible, both in the Old and New Testament, provides many references to the use of oils symbolic of spiritual growth, strengthening and commitment to God (Ps 2:2, Mk 6:13, Ja 5:14, 1 Jn 2:20)
The ambry, usually a cabinet, shelf or niche in a wall near the sanctuary, is the place where these holy oils are stored. It is interesting to note that the word ambry is derived from a latin word that means loosely “a worker’s toolbox.” So, in a manner of speaking, these holy oils are the tools the Church uses to build the church of God, i.e. His disciples.
The ambry contains three oils that are used throughout the liturgical year.
First, the Oil of the Catechumens is used to prepare those entering the Church prior to Baptism. Anointing with this oil symbolizes a new strength of the Holy Spirit.
The second is the Oil of the Infirmed and is used in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. St. James wrote, “Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the priests of the church. They in turn are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord. This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his” (Jas 5:14-15).
Finally, the Holy Chrism oil is linked with the sanctification of individuals and is used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders.
The location of the ambry is not always obvious but since the use of these holy oils is fundamental to our Sacraments I suggest you take a moment and to find it. Pause a moment and think a little about what a great and powerful gift these Sacraments really are.
It could be said that the church has a singular purpose and that is to bring mankind and God closer together. Of course that happens in the most mysterious and perfect way with the Eucharist. However, within our churches we also have visual icons that assist with prayer and our solidarity with God. Sacred art is a prayer of sorts, honoring the rich history of our faith and the saints that preceded us. The images and art in our churches bring attention to the sights of the created world the glory of the creator.
In many Catholic churches, in addition to Christ on the Cross (the Crucifix), you will find paintings or statues of saints such as the Holy Family, Mary the mother of Christ, the Apostles or the particular patron saint of that parish.
In recent times, some have criticized the inclusion of icons as part of Christian worship, calling it idolatry. To those I must remind that centuries before the written word, the Gospel story was told and passed on with stories with images and statues. It must also be emphasized, that when viewing and praying in front of these icons, we do not worship that which they portray (of course with the exception of the images of God) we simply venerate and honor them and draw inspiration and spiritual strength from their story.
Each icon or piece of art offers a unique opportunity to reflect on a part of the Gospel message. Walk around and see what your church has to offer. Take advantage of these opportunities – look at the beautiful images and let God’s presence wash over you.
In our walk through the church there are three stopping points of particular note in our journey. The first we mentioned is the Baptismal font where our initial justification with God took place. The climax is the Eucharist where we become “one flesh” with the Body and Blood of Christ. But along the way there is one other critical Sacrament that we have available and that is Reconciliation.
The confessional is made famous in countless movies, novels and crime stories – those doors…that screen…that difficult yet liberating encounter with Christ.
Along a wall inside our churches there is usually a set of two or three doors, one marked with the name of the priest and the other with a small light indicating occupancy.
Inside there is usually an option to confess anonymously through a screen or to sit face to face with your confessor.
Actually, I prefer sitting face to face. I feel more connected with Christ when I face the priest who is acting directly as Him (in persona Christi).
Jesus clearly gave his clergy the Divine ability to forgive sins in His absence. Think for a moment on the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 16:19) “I say to you…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Now ask this question, If Jesus went to all the trouble to give this power to his Apostles and their successors, don’t you think He intended us to use this incredible gift of grace? As physical creatures with senses, we need to hear the words of absolution as much as feeling them in our heart. That is what Jesus knew and that is why He instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Let’s get to our churches and take advantage of it!
Stations of the Cross
One of the greatest stories of the incarnate Christ, albeit certainly the most gut wrenching, is that of His passion. In Catholic churches we have a devotional prayer to Christ’s passions called the Stations of the Cross.
There are fourteen stations in all and each one tells a small story within the larger Passion narrative.
The stations are commonly used as a mini pilgrimage as the individual moves from station to station. At each station, the individual recalls and meditates on a specific event from Christ’s last day. Specific prayers are recited, then the individual moves to the next station until all 14 are complete.
The Stations of the Cross are commonly found in churches as a series of 14 small icons or images. They sometimes appear in church yards arranged along paths or in quiet gardens.
Although the stations are most commonly prayed during Lent on Wednesdays and Fridays, reciting the fourteen stations is a powerful way to remember the supreme sacrifice made by Christ that fateful day 2000 years ago.
So it’s time to wrap up part two of our tour. Next time we’ll finish appropriately by looking only at the Sanctuary. We’ll look at the Altar, cross and presider’s chair (and others) and see how they all fit together to fill the house of God.