So why do Catholics traditionally build such beautiful churches?
A Catholic church building is the House of the Lord, not only figuratively but literally. As Catholics, we believe that during the Mass, the bread and wine truly become the physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. The beauty is not just for show, but as a celebration of what happens every day in these buildings during the miracle and sacrifice of the Mass.
The sacrifices of time, talent and treasure it takes to build such a church worthy and fit for God are readily seen and understood by all who see these beautiful buildings.
The Church speaks silently yet eloquently. Proclaiming that we are willing to invest and to sacrifice in order to build a proper witness that will last long after we are gone.
Go up into the hill country; bring timber, and build the house that I may be pleased with it, and that I may be glorified, says, the Lord” ~ Haggai 1:8
So, is a Catholic Church just like any other Christian church? In some ways, yes and in others, no. Let’s talk about the parts of the Roman Catholic Church building itself and the items that you may see while you are there.
When you walk into the church you will find yourself in the Vestibule or Narthex. This is the ‘gathering place’ just outside the church proper. You will see small wall-mounted holy water fonts, just inside the church doors. Catholics bless themselves with holy water when entering and leaving the church to renew their baptismal promises. You may also find information, literature and church news here as well.
The interior church doors open up to the Nave, or main room of a Catholic church. Members of the congregation are seated in this area, typically in rows of pews. Each row of pews has a kneeler so one may kneel at specific times during the Mass. In most churches, the walls of the nave feature 14 pictures or plaques, known as the Stations of the Cross, illustrating the story of Christ’s crucifixion. You may also see votive candles and a kneeler where you can light a candle and pray for personal intentions.
The elevated portion of the church at the far end of the Nave is the Sanctuary. This is where the clergy celebrate the sacrifice of the Holy Mass. The sanctuary symbolizes heaven. The Altar is the sacred table on which the sacrifice of the Mass is offered to God; the table from which the faithful receive the Blessed Sacrament. The Altar is in the center of the Sanctuary. In most American Catholic Churches, the altar is situated so that the priest stands behind it facing the nave and the congregation.
You will also generally find the Tabernacle in the Sanctuary. The Tabernacle (meaning “dwelling place”) is where the Blessed Sacrament is housed and is usually found behind the alter. The sanctuary lamp (often red), which symbolizes the presence of Jesus, is placed above or near the Tabernacle. It is illuminated at all times except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the two days preceding Easter. Above or in the sanctuary is a hanging Crucifix. This reminds Catholics about Jesus and how he died to free mankind from sin.
The Credence Table is the table on which objects are kept during the celebration of the Mass. The cruets which hold the wine and the water that are used during the Mass are kept here until the priest needs them.
On the altar itself you may see several items. The chalice which is a golden cup which holds the wine that becomes the Precious Blood of Christ. The paten is the golden “plate” that holds the bread that becomes the Sacred Body of Christ. The ciborium, a golden vessel with a lid that is used for the distribution and reservation of Hosts.
The corporal is a square cloth placed on the altar beneath the chalice and paten. It is folded so as to catch any particles of the Host that may accidentally fall. The purificator is a small rectangular cloth used for wiping the chalice. The pall is a stiff square cloth used to cover the chalice during Mass to prevent dust from settling in it or anything from falling into it.
On the sanctuary there is a large candle called the Pascal candle. This candle is special and is lit at the Easter vigil. It has an empty cross with five gold studs, this reminds Catholics of the resurrection of Jesus and the five studs represent the five wounds that Jesus received from his crucifixion. Also, on or near the Sanctuary you may see The Baptismal Font which hold the holy water for baptisms. Nearby is the Ambry which is where the three holy oils are kept.
The room where the sacred vestments, vessels, and other items used in the celebration of the liturgy are stored and prepared and where the priest dresses in his vestments is called the Sacristy. The sacristy is generally behind or to the side of the Sanctuary.
The small booth or room to one side of the nave is the Confessional. This is where the priest listens to a parishioner confess their sins and receive absolution and penance.
Catholic churches are often distinguished by their stained-glass windows and statues honoring religious figures. These elements of a Catholic church reflect a time when the Mass was conducted in Latin and not all followers could understand the readings. Stained glass windows helped illustrate the Bible’s words and drew the faithful into the experience of the Mass. Statues or images of Jesus, Mary and the saints are in the church to inspire us try to live like they did. These parts of the church which many deem as merely decorative are so much more. They tell of Jesus’ ministry, of His life, death and resurrection, so that even a child who cannot read, can begin to learn about who Jesus is and what He did. Every image and every statue is thus an opportunity to begin a conversation about God.
Not all Masses are exactly the same. Different feasts and celebrations sometimes call for specific items to be used, At certain Masses you may see a thurible being used. A thurible is a censer or vessel in which incense is burned for particular liturgical services. It consists of a metal body for holding incense, with a separate lid for controlling the smoke and a chain, or chains, allowing the censer to swing safely without spilling its contents.
You may also see the aspersorium which is a bucket used to carry holy water for sprinkling. The aspergillum is the sprinkler for casting holy water on people, places, or objects.
I hope you enjoyed my tour of the Catholic Church.
These brilliant and beautiful traditional Catholic churches serve a purpose, and it’s not to glorify man. It is to glorify God. It is a place that becomes hallowed with prayer. A place that lifts the heart to prayer and turns the mind to God. When you see a beautiful ornate church know that Catholics want to hold a beautiful celebration every time we go to mass and we will never be able to recreate the beauty of God, but we can sure try as a way of saying thank you.A Catholic church building is the House of the Lord, not only figuratively but literally. Click To Tweet