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 waterthe water in
which we were baptizedfor 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 anointedchristenedwith
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
A Place for the People
Moving from the baptismal area into the church
proper, we find ourselves in a large open space called the
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 peoplea congregationto 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.