Have you noticed that, for nearly two thousand years, Catholic churches have been built to create a pilgrimage, from entrance to exit? Have you realized that each time you travel through your church, you are undertaking a pilgrimage?
Let’s discover this ‘hidden’ pilgrimage together!
In a previous blog, I spoke about the narthex of a church, also called the galilee. Galilee is the name of the Holy Land region where Jesus spent his youth. It is also where he called his disciples, and where he called sinners to repentance.
The galilee of our church marks the beginning of our pilgrimage. It represents those very things: the ‘youth’ of our spiritual life where we experience the call of Jesus, the realization that we are sinners, and our acceptance of Jesus’ invitation to follow him.
Early in Church history, people who were not fully in communion with the Church would remain in the galilee portion of the building. They may have been in preparation for their baptism, or perhaps were penitents in need of sacramental forgiveness. Only after they were sacramentally united with the Church community could they move forward from the narthex. So, these individuals were fully aware of the meaning of this space within the church; the galilee.
The Baptismal Font
In a Catholic church building, we next encounter either the main baptismal font (where people are baptized) or small holy water fonts. These signify the next stage of spiritual journey: baptism. By this sacrament, “the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1279). That is why, each time we enter the main body of the church building, we use holy water to renew our baptismal promises—to reject Satan and sin, to believe in the Holy Trinity, the Church, and everlasting life.
Jesus was not baptized in Galilee. He traveled to the Jordan River to be baptized. He made that physical movement from one place to another. So we, too, reflect that movement when we move from the galilee to the holy water font. We follow Jesus.
Moving forward in the church building, we enter the nave. This is the main body of the space, where pews are located for the congregation. Nave is derived from the Latin word meaning boat or ship.
After Jesus’ baptism, he called his disciples from their fishing boats to become “fishers of men”. Now that we are baptized, Jesus calls us to become “fishers of men” and bring others the Good News. Thus, we move from the baptismal font to the nave.
In a way, the disciples left one boat for another. The Catechism tells us that the Church
is that bark (ship) which ‘in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world.’ According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood. (no. 845)
The nave represents the boat which is the Church. All the people of God are gathered within it, to weather the storms and rough waves of life together. Our Pilgrim Center of Hope logo reflects this traditional image.
We know that those waves can be choppy, and along our journey of life, sometimes we fall off the boat! As we walk along the nave, we find confessionals to the side.
Confessionals are the intimate spaces where we enter and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Each is a place where we encounter Jesus Christ, and receive his mercy and forgiveness. Consider all the moments in Scripture when Jesus forgives someone: he takes them aside, and speaks with them intimately. This is what he does for us today, and this is why confessionals are located along the sides of the nave.
The Stained Glass and Art
We are not alone in our journey of life! As we move through the church and look around us, we see stained glass, statues, and other artwork surrounding us. These are reminders that the Church includes not only those on earth, but also those in Heaven and Purgatory. Along our pilgrimage through the church building, we see these depictions of our family members, the saints. They serve as inspirations and companions along our journey forward.
Traveling all through the nave, we come to the elevated place called the sanctuary. Many times in Jesus’ life, we see him go up to Jerusalem. Quite literally, anyone who visits Jerusalem will “go up”; the city is raised on a higher elevation than its surroundings. Thus, the sanctuary of our church is a raised area.
In Jerusalem, Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple as well as his own resurrection (cf. Mk 13:2, Jn 2:19). He calls people to repentance. In the sanctuary of our churches, we often see the ambo from which the Scriptures are read. The ambo signifies Jesus as Prophet.
In Jerusalem, we also see Jesus as King. Correcting many of the errant opinions of his followers that he will be an earthly king, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (Jn 18:36). In the sanctuary of our church, we see the celebrant’s chair which represents Jesus as King.
In Jerusalem, Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples and institutes the Holy Eucharist. During his crucifixion on a hill in Jerusalem, we see Jesus offering the true sacrifice for sin—himself. In our sanctuaries, the altar represents these very central moments of our faith. Not only that, but it is where we mysteriously enter those moments. The altar represents Jesus as Priest.
Truly, the entire, raised sanctuary not only represents the earthly city of Jerusalem, but also the New Jerusalem—Heaven. In many Catholic churches, the sanctuary is also where the Tabernacle is located. This is the place where the Eucharist is held. In the Tabernacle, God dwells among us, as he will in the New Jerusalem.
Each time we process to receive Holy Communion during Mass, we process toward the sanctuary—a mini pilgrimage reflecting our overall pilgrimage of life toward Heaven.
In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory. (CCC, no. 1090)
Yet here on earth, we do not stay in the sanctuary. It is the penultimate destination on our pilgrimage. Like the disciples of Christ, we hear from the elevated sanctuary, “Go forth!” We are sent out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, “glorifying the Lord by our lives”.
We exit the church building, by way of the galilee. Both Matthew and John tell us that, before Jesus ascended, he met the disciples in Galilee and commissioned them there (cf. Mt 28:16-20, Jn 21). Galilee was the place where their journey had begun. For us pilgrims, too, exiting the building, we pass through the place where we began. Perhaps the next time we leave our church building and exit through the galilee, we can contemplate how we have changed—from the person who first entered through the galilee, to the person we are now, having encountered the Risen Jesus.
If you would like to learn more about pilgrimages, we invite you to contact us at the Pilgrim Center of Hope. Our Institute of Pilgrimages provides local and international pilgrimages as a ministry to help you grow in a deeper relationship with Christ.