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Inside a
Catholic Church
What's There and Why?

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

A young friend of mine took his girlfriend to Mass last Sunday, and afterwards Mike told me, "I'll never do that again! Ashley isn't Catholic and she had all these questions that I didn't know how to answer, and that was before Mass even started! Our Catholic church just has so many things that her church doesn't, and she wanted to know what these things were and why they were there."

In this Update I will try to answer some of Mike's questions for you just in case you are ever in a similar situation. Or perhaps you yourself sometimes wonder about the things you find inside a Catholic church.

A Catholic church is not like other large assembly areas, such as a sports stadium or a concert hall. In a church, there is no place for mere viewers.

Mass is not something we watch but something we do. The whole area is the "playing field" and you are the team; the whole church is the "stage" and you are the cast. We act; God is honored.

Come On In

The first thing you see when you enter the door of a Catholic church is a pool of water—the water in which we were baptized—for Baptism is the door to the Church. (In some churches a bowl of water, a holy water font, at each door substitutes for the baptismal pool.)

As I enter the church door, I dip my hand in the water, make the sign of the cross and renew the promises that my parents made for me at my Baptism. Standing by the baptismal pool is a large candle called the paschal candle. At the beginning of our Easter celebration each year on Holy Saturday night, we light this candle for the first time. The light and example of Christ dispels our doubts and fears even as the candle's flame lights up the darkness.

During the Easter vigil, the candle is plunged into the baptismal water as we pray that Christ come alive in Mother Church as in a womb. Just as we were born from our mother's womb, so as Christians we were born again in Baptism.

Also in the baptismal area of the church, you will see a niche in the wall or a little cabinet containing three vessels of oil: 1) oil of catechumens, used to bless and strengthen those preparing for Baptism; 2) oil of the sick, used by the priest to heal and strengthen the sick in the sacrament of Anointing; and 3) sacred chrism, used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders.

Anointing with oil plays an important role in our Church. The word Christ comes from the Greek word meaning anointed. When we are anointed—christened—with holy oil it is a sign of our special relationship with Christ, the Anointed One.

Also in this baptismal area you will see the door leading to a small room designed for the individual celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation. The reconciliation chapel is located here because the sacrament grew from the sacrament of Baptism. The practice of confession arose from the need to reconcile Christians who had neglected or ignored their baptismal promises.

A Place for the People

Moving from the baptismal area into the church proper, we find ourselves in a large open space called the nave.

Visiting an empty church is like visiting an amusement park during the winter. We can imagine what the park would look like when the lights are flashing, the music is playing and the children are running around through the crowds of happy people, but the park needs these people in order to look right. Just so, the nave of a church needs lots of people—a congregation—to look right.

The assembly area is usually filled with benches or pews (from the Greek podion, the place where the emperor and other distinguished persons sat in the arena).

Many of the technical names of things you find in a church come from Greek or Latin words because those were the languages Christians spoke when these objects were named. On the last page, you can learn more about the origins of these words.

Pews and fixed seating entered the church at about the same time that the printing press was invented. People began to "line up" in pews just as the printing press "lined up" words on a printed page. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, pews enabled the congregation to sit and listen to the sermon, which often lasted several hours.

Today some churches have flexible seating in place of pews. Fixed pews can make us think of the congregation as an audience in an auditorium (the Latin word audire means to listen). If that were our role, we would be mere listeners rather than doers or actors.

In the 13th century when Christians no longer received holy Communion frequently and the high point of the Mass was looking at the host rather than eating it, the congregation began to kneel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament just as they were accustomed to kneel before an earthly king or their liege lord. As the practice of kneeling in church became more frequent, small kneeling benches began to appear. Today you will find kneelers in most parish churches, although the more traditional posture of standing for worship is becoming increasingly more common and some newer churches no longer have kneelers.

Standing is a posture of adult respect and attention, as a pilgrim people ready to carry out the message of the gospel. Standing not only puts us in union with other Catholics around the world who have always participated at Mass standing, but more importantly, the official prayers presume that we are standing: "We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you" (Eucharistic Prayer II).

Where the Sacred Action Is

From wherever we stand in the church, our attention is drawn to the focal area of the liturgical action and to the three major pieces of furniture we find there: the presider's chair, the lectern and the altar table.

Formerly this area was called the sanctuary, which means holy. When the word sanctuary is used we must be careful not to imply that this is the only holy area, for indeed the entire church is a holy place.

Each church will have a presider's chair and seating for the other ministers. The presider's chair is not a throne for someone set apart, but is arranged so that the priest is seen to be a member of the worshiping community even though he has a special office to perform. The reading stand, or lectern, holds the lectionary, the book of readings from Sacred Scripture.

The altar is the holy table upon which we celebrate the Lord's Supper. It functions as both banquet table and altar of sacrifice; the Mass is both Holy Thursday (meal) and Good Friday (sacrifice). When the Eucharist is celebrated the table is covered with an altar cloth or table cloth. On the altar are placed the bread and wine for Mass. The bread is on a bread plate or paten and the wine is poured into a chalice.

The Well-dressed Priest

At Mass the priest wears a long white garment called an alb. Over this he wears a larger, more colorful garment called the chasuble. Today these garments look quite different from our ordinary street clothing. But originally the alb and chasuble were the ordinary garments worn in the Greco-Roman world. When at home, both men and women wore a long, loose-fitting housecoat. When going out in public, they covered this alb with a more ornate garment.

If you attended Mass in fourth-century Rome, the leader would be dressed in much the same clothing as the priest today wears for Sunday Mass. But at that time, everyone in the church would be wearing an alb and chasuble, not just the priest!

Follow the Light

From the time of the apostles, when members of the assembly could not be present for Sunday Mass because they were sick or in prison, some of the bread and wine was saved after communion and carried to the absent members. The Eucharist began to be reserved so that it could be received as viaticum at the moment of death.

The place for reserving this bread for the sick and dying came to be called the tabernacle. The tabernacle will often be found in a chapel designed especially to honor the Blessed Sacrament and to encourage our prayer and private devotion. A candle or sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle has traditionally told Catholics of the presence of the consecrated Bread.

The candles which we find in church were once primarily functional and gave light for reading the Scriptures and celebrating the sacred action. Now that churches have electrical lights, the candles play a more symbolic function. (Candlelight has a lovely, alive quality and the candle consumes itself in service of the sacred mysteries.) Sometimes Catholics will light a candle in front of a statue or shrine to express the desire that their prayers continue even after they leave the church.

Images That Teach

Another distinguishing feature of Catholic churches is often the presence of statues and other devotional images. In the time when the Mass and the readings from the Bible were in Latin and not always understood by the faithful, statues, pictures and stained-glass windows often became the people's Bible, teaching and explaining the mysteries of our faith and honoring the heroes who lived it.

When the priest celebrated the Eucharist facing away from the congregation, the wall behind the altar and eventually the space over the altar itself began to be decorated with statues and pictures: at first the crucifix, and then the martyr (one who dies for Christ) whose relics were under the altar, or the saint in whose honor the church was dedicated.

As these shrines multiplied and were placed higher and higher up on the altar, they became for many Catholics the focal point of the church. When older Catholics speak of the "high altar" they usually mean this collection of statues and shrines rather than the altar itself.

Often when guests of other faiths join us at Mass, they will ask about the pictures of the passion of Christ which they see around the walls. These 14 pictures, or crosses, called the Way of the Cross, help Catholics pray a devotion that has beeen popular since the Middle Ages.

From early times Christians have wanted to visit the Holy Land and follow the way that Jesus walked to Calvary, remembering the important parts of that story. In Europe during the Middle Ages the devotion of the Way of the Cross was made popular by Franciscans. This prayer enabled people who could not afford the expense of the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem to be able to follow the Way of the Cross in their own town, remembering what Jesus did for them. People would move from one cross to the next, from station to station, praying over these incidents in the life of Jesus. We still do this today, especially during Lent.

The story of Jesus does not end on Good Friday but continues to the climax of Easter Sunday. Because of this, some churches have added a 15th station: the Resurrection. In other churches people return to the altar for a final prayer. The altar itself is a symbol of the risen Christ, and no 15th station is needed. Some people say the final prayer at the tabernacle, which contains the living presence of the risen Christ among us. Popular devotions have always been very flexible and can vary from parish to parish.

Our recent liturgical renewal has reminded us that the assembly is the focal point of the church and objects which compete with that focus are out of place. This is not to say that all statues and objects of art and decoration are to be removed from our churches. Their design, however, must encourage our corporate prayer and not distract us from it.

Look Again for the First Time

Your church may not look exactly like the one we have described here. Each church is an expression of the faith and "personality" of the local community just as your room at home is an expression of who you are and what you enjoy. Just as I would not rearrange your room simply because it is not done the way that I would decorate my own, neither would I criticize a church that does not look like the one described in this article.

I have tried to describe a typical church so that you will know the function and purpose of the principal objects found there. As you learn more about these objects I hope that you will be able to feel more comfortable in this space. It is your space. It is a space which I hope shapes and preserves some of the most intense and meaningful moments of your life.

Thomas Richstatter is a Franciscan friar who has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. He has written many Catholic Updates, one of which ("A Tour of a Catholic Church") was the inspiration for this Youth Update.

Janel Geiger, 16; Amber Gindele, 17; Elizabeth Hein, 14; Karen Luebbers, 17, and Susan Luebbers, 15, are members of several parishes in southern Campbell County, Kentucky. Janet Johnson assists with a combined youth ministry for four area parishes and gathered these critics to read this edition of Youth Update by her pool on a lovely afternoon last July.

Etymology

Etymology is the study of the origins of language. Words often have a richer meaning when you know their roots. Can you match the word with its definition when you know its Latin root?

  1. nave: navis, ship.
  2. sanctuary: sanctus, holy.
  3. lectern: legere, to read.
  4. paten: patella, dish, platter or plate.
  5. chalice: calix, cup or goblet.
  6. alb: albus, white.
  7. chasuble: casula, little house.
  8. viaticum: composite, food for the journey (via, way).
  9. tabernacle: tabernaculum, tent or hut.
  1. Holds the priest's communion host.
  2. White linen robe worn for liturgical events.
  3. Part of the church building where the body of the faithful assemble. This pictures the Church as the body of believers in the ship of salvation.
  4. The place where the Blessed Sacrament is kept; reminds us of the Jewish people and the tabernacle they constructed to house the Ark of the Covenant during their 40 years in the desert.
  5. Giving the holy Eucharist to those about to die.
  6. The outer liturgical vestment worn by the priest at Mass. Originally it was a large cone-shaped cloth with a hole for the head, completely covering the person.
  7. Where the liturgical actions take place. The sanctuary is usually set apart from the rest of the church by a raised floor, special shape or decoration.
  8. Used for the consecration of the wine at Mass.
  9. From this location, the Scriptures are read.

Answers: 1, C; 2, G; 3, I; 4, A; 5, H; 6, B; 7, F; 8, E; 9, D.

Q.

You didn't say anything about bells or the ringing of bells. Do they have any religious significance?

A.

In the days before wristwatches and wall clocks, radio and television, church bells were often the only way people learned the time of day and were informed of special events. They warned the town of victory and danger. Today the bells are mainly ceremonial; bells make a joyful noise. The altar bells during Mass used to alert the people when something important was about to happen at the altar. These bells are no longer needed because the Mass is now in our own language and we know what's happening at the altar. Also, we have come to see that the whole Mass is important; there are no "magic moments."

Q.

Putting relics in the altar seems like grave-robbing. It doesn't seem very respectful to separate parts of a martyr's body to put in different altar stones. Why does the Church do this?

A.

The early Church often celebrated Mass at the tombs of the martyrs. Relics of saints are used to make altars far from Rome into tombs of a sort. Pope Gregory the Great was worried, as you are, that disturbing the remains of a saint might not be respectful. Over the centuries, this has been debated by Church councils.. The decision was that the purpose of relics was to pay reverence and was therefore acceptable. This is not the intent of grave-robbing, stealthily or carelessly disturbing a burial site.

Q.

I think statues help my prayer and I like them. Who decides whether they are distracting or helpful?

A.

The community decides together. Which brings up an important point. The liturgy is something we do together. The parish church is a place for the prayer of the parish together. Whenever we do something together, naturally compromises have to be made. If I want to go out and eat with my friends and Bob likes to eat early at five o'clock and Sue doesn't like to eat until eight o'clock, if we are to eat together, we will have to compromise! The arrangement and decoration of our parish church often involves compromises, for it is a place that we all use together.

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