I’ve heard so many stories from Catholic converts about how they felt mysteriously drawn to Catholic church buildings, even before they knew what everything inside the buildings meant. Catholic church buildings are markedly different from other places of worship…but what does it all mean?
When I started learning the remarkable symbolism behind Catholic churches and their elements inside, I felt like I was discovering an entirely new (yet ancient) world! Allow me to share just a taste of this with you.
“Visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ… In this ‘house of God’ the truth and the harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 1180-81)
Beginning a Journey…
As you enter most Catholic churches, you’ll step into a “foyer” area, or a large front porch. This is called the narthex, where we transition from the outside world into the House of God. It is where liturgical processions begin. Because of its transitory nature, the narthex is also known as the galilee; reminding us of Christ’s journey to the Cross, from Israel’s Galilee area into Jerusalem.
…To the Water, To the Ship…
As we enter the church, we dip our fingers into holy water fonts, making the Sign of the Cross over ourselves to remind us of our Baptism. Some churches have a separate baptistry area, with a large, octagonal baptismal font. Its eight sides refer to Christ’s resurrection on the eighth day (Sunday).
We often think of the next area – where people sit – as the “congregation,” or even the sanctuary. However, the proper name is the nave, the Latin word for “ship” (think of “navy” / “naval”). Why a ship? The Church is the “ark of salvation,” the ship that carries us to Heaven over the stormy seas of life. Our Pilgrim Center of Hope logo is a ship for this very reason.
Up to Jerusalem
During Mass, we see the liturgical ministers process up to the front of the building, to a place many might refer to as the “stage” or the “altar”. This area is actually the sanctuary, from the Latin for “holy place”. The sanctuary area is raised higher than the nave to signify…
- The head of Christ (the nave signifies His Body, the people)
- Mount Zion – where King David’s fortress was located, and also the location of the Upper Room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper (instituting the Holy Eucharist)
- Jerusalem – the location of the Jewish Temple, and of Christ’s crucifixion
- Heaven – the “New Jerusalem” where we will celebrate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Christ) forever
To receive Holy Communion, we always process toward the sanctuary because it reminds that we are pilgrims journeying toward Heaven.
In the sanctuary, we see our Jewish roots married to our Christian identity.
- Tabernacle – Tabernacle means “tent”. The first Jewish Tabernacle was built by the Israelites after they were freed from slavery, as God’s dwelling place among them. Our Tabernacle is an ornate “box” commonly made of precious metals, containing the Body of Christ (bread consecrated during Mass that Catholics believe becomes the real Body of Jesus Christ).
- Sanctuary Lamp – The (often red) candle which, when lit, indicates God’s presence in the Tabernacle. The ancient Jewish Sanctuary also contained a sanctuary lamp. It was kept just outside the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelt.
- Altar – The altar is no ordinary table. Ancient Jews slaughtered an unblemished lamb on an altar as sacrifice for their sins. Jesus came to become the Lamb of God, who was slaughtered as a sacrifice for all sins. Today, the altar is where we offer bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is the Lamb of God. At the altar, time and space are no barrier; by the Holy Spirit’s power, we are present at Jesus’ Crucifixion.
- Presider’s Chair – Whereas the altar represents Christ’s priesthood, the chair represents his kingship. In ancient writings, a seated figure was a figure of authority. The presider’s chair is where the priest or bishop who is celebrating the Mass, sits.
- Ambo – Represents Christ as prophet. This “podium” is where God’s word is proclaimed to the people. It may jut out from the sanctuary into the nave, symbolizing the prophet going out to the people with God’s word.
- Crucifix – Cross with the body of the suffering Christ. During Mass, a crucifix must be present. It reminds us to unite ourselves to Christ’s sufferings*, and points to the reality of what is taking place on the altar during Mass.
Many modern churches lack an altar rail around the sanctuary. This is a beautiful “table-like” rail designed as an extension of the altar. At the altar rail, people would receive Holy Communion. Thus, the altar rail is not designed as a mere barrier around the sanctuary; it is a table where the Banquet of the Lord is given to the people.
Earth and Heaven
Catholic churches’ beauty and art are essential to Catholic worship. Statues, paintings, mosaics, and stained glass of the saints, angels, and Biblical scenes remind us of the family we have which spans history – past, present, future – and space – across the globe, in Purgatory, and in Heaven. Catholic Mass is where “Earth and Heaven kiss”. The ornamentation, marble, precious metals, jewels, etc., communicate this supernatural reality.
God does not need our beautiful things. Yet, from the beginning of Judeo-Christian history, God has asked us to make sacrifices and create beautiful religious articles / structures. Why? Our physical, human nature needs physical reminders of what cannot be known by our senses.
This is all just the “tip of the iceberg”! I encourage you to seek out resources and continue learning. Here are a few:
- The Lamb’s Supper, and other books by Scott Hahn
- Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers (Church document)
- The Parts of the Mass with Jeff Cavins (YouTube videos)
- “Sacred Signs and Active Participation at Mass” by Rev. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.
- “Taking a Tour of the House of God” by Michael S. Rose
* See 1 Peter 2:21-24, 1 Corinthians 2:2, Romans 6:3-5, and Colossians 1:24.