2 – A Tour of a Catholic Church by Thomas Richstatter

56ai- A Tour of a Catholic Church


by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

Margaret and Joe, members of our parish, recently asked me: “Father, some of our non-Catholic friends we invited to our daughter’s wedding asked us about some of the objects they saw in our church and we weren’t able to give them many good answers! —Why do you have a bowl of water at the door?’ —Why are there pictures of Christ with little numbers under them around the walls?’ Father, we knew about Stations and could answer some of their questions. But most of these things we just —grew up with’ and never really questioned why or where they came from. What can we tell our friends when they ask us these kinds of questions?”

Marge and Joe are not alone in wanting to know the reasons for some of the articles we see in a Catholic church. Whenever we invite non-Catholic friends to Sunday Mass, or a wedding or funeral, we find they are sometimes confused by the many symbols they find there. Catechumens and those seeking to join the Church want to know about the objects used in Catholic worship. In this Update we will take a tour of a Catholic church and answer some of these questions.

Your church might not look exactly like the one we tour in this article: The church building is a home for the Church, the people, the parish family. We expect differences in our church buildings just as we expect differences among the various families we know. I don’t expect any two of my friends to arrange their homes in exactly the same way: Some are modem, others are more traditional.

I would never thoughtlessly criticize a friend’s home, for I know that the home is an expression and extension of my friend’s personality and values. To criticize the home is to criticize the friend! Similarly, we must all be very careful in our tour of a Catholic church, for the church building is an expression of the personality and values—as well as a reflection of the Catholic faith—of the parish family which worships there. To criticize their church building is to criticize—not their good taste—but their living faith.

Many of the explanations and comments I will make on our tour I have taken from Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. This excellent little book from the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC, 1978) can give you further information on the objects we find on our tour.

Entering the church

One of the first things we see when we enter a Catholic church is a pool of water. Baptism is our “door” to the Church. It is the way we enter Christ’s family. The baptismal pool, or baptismal font, which ideally stands at the door of the Church, reminds Catholics that every time they come to Eucharist they come through baptism. They dip their hand in the water and mark themselves anew with that sign in which they were baptized—the sign of the cross. In some churches a bowl of water, a holy water font, at each door serves as a reminder of the baptismal pool.

Standing by the baptismal pool is a large candle, the paschal candle. At the Paschal Vigil on the eve of Easter Sunday this candle impregnated the waters of the baptismal pool as the Church prayed that the Holy Spirit unseal this font to become the womb of new life for the Church. As the candle is placed in the water we pray: “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life” (Prayers for the Easter Vigil). This prayer takes on special meaning at funerals when this water is sprinkled on the casket as it arrives at the church door.

Also in this baptismal area of the narthex or vestibule of the church, you will see a niche in the wall or a little chest, the ambry, which contains three vessels of oil: the oil of catechumens which is used to bless and strengthen those preparing for baptism; the oil of the sick with which the priest brings Jesus’ strength and healing to those who are joined with the suffering Christ in serious illness; and the sacred chrism which is used in celebrating the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders. The word “Christ” means “anointed,” and when one is anointed with holy oil it is a sign of a special relationship with Christ, the Anointed One.

In more recently constructed churches, you will also observe in this baptismal area the door leading to the reconciliation chapel, a small room designed for the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession). The reconciliation chapel is located in the baptismal area because of the historical relation between these two sacraments: The Sacrament of Penance developed from the need to reconcile Christians who were not faithful to their baptismal promises and who had separated themselves from the community by their sins.

In some churches it is common to see one or more confessionals, small “rooms” built out from the side or —back wall of the church containing a place for the priest confessor to sit, separated by a screen or grill from the place for the penitent to kneel and confess his or her sins. Confessionals appeared in Catholic churches during the 16th century and were common until just recently. The current ritual for the individual celebration of the sacrament offers the penitent a choice between speaking face-to-face with the priest or the anonymity provided by the confessional screen. This option has necessitated the remodeling of confessionals in some churches and the construction of a reconciliation chapel in others.

The assembly area

Entering the church proper, the nave ( from the Latin word for “boat”), we find ourselves in a large room. If we are taking our tour at a time when the liturgy is not being celebrated and no people are present, the space may look a little “strange,” but that is normal. The space only looks “right” when it is functioning. Visiting an empty church is something like visiting a Coney Island type amusement park during the winter when the park is closed. We can imagine what the park would look like when the lights are flashing and the music is playing and the children are running through the crowds of happy people. But the park needs these people and activity to look “right.” Similarly, the nave of the church “needs an assembly of people to complete it” (Environment, 24). It looksespecially “right” when it is actually functioning as an assembly space for God’s people at prayer.

The nave is usually filled with benches, or pews. Catholics expect to find pews in a church and are surprised when they enter one of the older churches of Europe and find no pews or fixed seating! The absence of pews in older churches is a reminder to us that the principal posture for Christian worship is standing. We stand in the presence of one we wish to honor and to serve—just as the priest stands at the altar during Mass. Standing is a mark of reverence and readiness. Pews and fixed seating entered the church at about the same time western culture discovered the printing press; people in church began to “line up” like lines on a printed page to hear the word of God read to them from a printed book. At the time of the Reformation, pews enabled the congregation to sit and listen to the sermon, which often lasted several hours.

—— Fixed pews reinforced the image of the congregation as “listeners,” like the audience in an auditorium (audire, Latin, “to listen”). Recent liturgical renewal suggests that we are present as “doers,” actively engaged in the liturgical action, and not merely “listeners.” Some churches today do not have fixed pews but use individual chairs. A more flexible seating arrangement can encourage a more active and participatory liturgy. Church architects are “striving for —a seating pattern and furniture that do not constrict people but encourage them to move about when it is appropriate” (Environment, 68).

———— In the 13th century, when Christians no longer received Holy Communion frequently and the high point of the Mass was looking at the Sacred Host after the consecration, Christians began to kneel at this point in the Mass. As the practice of kneeling was extended, kneeling benches were introduced, often attached to the back of the chairs of pews. You will see kneelers in most churches today, although the more traditional position of standing during worship is again gaining favor with the faithful.

———— Around the walls of many churches you will find the Way of the Cross, pictures (numbered from 1 to 14) of incidents in the last journey of Jesus from Pilate’s house, where he was condemned to death, to his entombment. From an early date pilgrims to the Holy Land would visit these places (or stations) and follow in the footsteps of Jesus on his way to Calvary. In the later Middle Ages the devotional Way of the Cross was made popular, especially by the Franciscans, to enable those who could not afford the rigors and expense of a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land to participate in the passion of Jesus in their own villages. The faithful go to each of the stations and meditate on an event of the passion. Our liturgical renewal reminds us that the church is primarily a place for out public worship. Objects for our personal devotion must not distract from the principal function of the church.

Focus of the sacred action

From wherever we stand in the church, our attention is drawn to the focal area of the liturgical action and to the three pieces of furniture we find there: the presider’s chair, the lectern and the altar. Formerly this area was called the sanctuary (Latinsanctus, “holy”), but when “sanctuary is used we must be careful not to imply that this is the only holy area in the building, for indeed the entire church, the entire assembly area, is a holy place.

— In the front of the assembly area we find a very special seat for the one presiding and leading the assembly. In the principal church of a diocese, this chair, the cathedra (from the Greek word “chair”), gives name to the entire building, Cathedral. Each church will have a presider’s chair or bench and seating for the other ministers. This seating is arranged so that the presiding and functioning ministers are “clearly part of the assembly, yet conveniently situated for the exercise of their respective offices” (Environment, 70).

Also in this focus area we see a reading stand, the ambo. After the 14th century the ambo was replaced by a pulpit (Latin pulpitum, a raised platform for speaking). Today the pulpit is usually replaced by a lectern (Latin legere, “to read”) from which we proclaim the Word of God and upon which is placed the lectionary, the book of readings from Sacred Scripture. Preaching can be done from the lectern, the chair or elsewhere.

In some churches you may see a second, very simple lectern, which is used by the song leader and reader of the announcements. The main ambo or lectern “represents the dignity and uniqueness of the word of God” (Environment, 74) and is used only for that purpose.

The altar is the holy table upon which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It functions as both altar of sacrifice and banquet table for the Eucharist, and is both “a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection” and “a paschal banquet —in which Christ is eaten, the heart is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory given to us’ “(Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 47, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas). No ordinary table would be able to bear the weight of these symbolic functions; that is why this table “should be the most noble, the most beautifully designed and constructed table the community can provide” (Environment, 71).

When the Eucharist is celebrated the table is covered with an altar cloth or table cloth. On the altar is placed the bread and wine for Mass. The bread is on a bread plate or paten (from patella, meaning “platter,” “plate”) and the wine is poured into a chalice (from calix, the Latin word for “cup” or “goblet”).

We will also find in this area a cross or crucifix. This may be a processional cross with a floor stand or a cross hanging from the ceiling or on the wall. In the cross we see the basic symbol of any Christian liturgical celebration. For in the Paschal Mystery of Christ we find our own image as a Christian community.


When I was a child, the climax of a tour of a Catholic church would have been the tabernacle (tabernaculum, Latin for “tent”), the “little house” in which the Blessed Sacrament was kept. The tabernacle was the first thing I looked for upon entering a church. The little golden door on the high altar with a red lamp burning before it was the sure sign that I was in a Catholic church.

Today, with increasing frequency, we will not find a tabernacle on our tour of the assembly area of a Catholic church. When Catholics enter their parish church and do not immediately see the tabernacle, it is evident that more has changed than just rearranging furniture—there has been a major change in our understanding of the Eucharist. This change has upset not a few Catholics. We do not like liturgists and architects tampering with our faith, particularly our faith in the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist.

The reasons, the very important and serious reasons, for taking the tabernacle from the altar in the sanctuary area and placing it in its own eucharistic chapel are explained in the Bishops’ statement on the environment for worship: “The celebration of the Eucharist is the focus of the normal Sunday assembly. As such, the major space of a church is designed for this action. Beyond the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church has had a most ancient tradition of reserving the eucharistic bread. The purpose of this reservation is to bring communion to the sick and to be the object of private devotion. Most appropriately, this reservation should be designated in a space designed for individual devotion. A room or chapel specifically designed and separate from the major space is important so that no confusion can take place between the celebration of the Eucharist and reservation. Active and static aspects of the same reality cannot claim the same human attention at the same time. Having the Eucharist reserved in a place apart does not mean it has been relegated to a secondary place of no importance. Rather, a space carefully designed and appointed can give proper attention to the reserved sacrament” (Environment,78).

A lamp, often a red votive candle or sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle, has traditionally served Catholics as the sign that the consecrated bread is present there. Other candles will be found in both devotional areas and the assembly area of the church. Once they were~ primarily used to give light for reading the Scriptures and celebrating the sacred action. Even in our age of electrical lighting, the symbolic function of the candles remain—the beautiful quality of candlelight—the candle consumes itself in service of the sacred mysteries. Sometimes Catholics will light a votive candle in front of a statue or shrine as a reminder that their prayers continue even after they leave the church.

Statues, art and living saints

Another high point in a tour of a Catholic church was often the reredos (from arrere “rear” and dos “back”), the statues and paintings on the back of the altar together with their beautiful and elaborately carved shrines. The reredos or extension of the altar is what most Catholics meant when they spoke of the altar (rather than the table itself). These altars with their reredos were often objects of great beauty, the focal point of the assembly area and the pride of the parish.

In churches being built today we usually do not see a reredos. In older churches which have been recently remodeled, the removal of statues and the “high altar” has caused even more protest from Catholics than the removal of the tabernacle. Understandably, the reasons for these changes must be as serious as the pain they have caused.

In the early Middle Ages a greater stress began to be placed on the sacredness of the Mass and the “other worldly” character of the mysteries. Holy Communion was received only by the clergy. The altar gradually moved away from the assembly of the faithful to the rear of the choir and was placed against the back wall. The back wall itself began to have a special significance. The wall had been ornamented from early times, often with a painting of the cross, Lamb of God, Good Shepherd or Christ in Glory. These paintings began to be placed on the altar itself and the altar was extended back and up to form the reredos. Statues appear on this extension of the altar: First came the crucifixion, then the martyr whose relics were under the altar, or the saint in whose honor the church was dedicated. Later other saints were added.

The statues and paintings of the saints aided the devotion of the faithful at a time when active participation in the liturgical action was reserved to the clergy. The statues placed us in union with heroic Christians of other times and places. The saints were intercessors for particular favors and blessings.

At the time of the Reformation, many Protestant Churches removed these decorations so that the Word of God could be heard more clearly. Excessive decoration is a hindrance to effective preaching. As the American playwright Thornton Wilder said regarding his minimal staging for his plays: “If the eye sees too much, the ear doesn’t really listen.”

Because our liturgy was in a language which many of us did not understand, Catholics were not as concerned about the ear and continued to create a feast for the eye. This changed when the Second Vatican Council allowed the liturgy in our own language so that we could hear the Sacred Scriptures and understand the prayers and proclaim our faith in songs and acclamations. Today Catholics are beginning to look for a balance: seeing, hearing, doing. One sign of our new interest in hearing is our increasing concern for good preaching and quality homilies.

We will not strengthen the ear by starving the eye! There is no movement to remove statues and decoration simply to make our churches bare and plain. Quite the contrary. To quote again the bishops’ statement on the environment: “In a world dominated by science and technology, liturgy’s quest for the beautiful is a particularly necessary contribution to full and balanced human life” (Environment, 34). Statues and beautiful objects of art, banners and flowers will always be an important part of the environment for our worship.

One of the historical functions of stained glass windows, in addition to bathing the assembly area with their beautiful light, was to illustrate the stories of the Bible for those who could not read or afford expensive manuscripts. (The 13th-century windows of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris contains 1,134 illustrations from the Bible!) But such objects do not merely teach; they are not history lessons. Their artistic beauty reveals to us something of the beauty of God and God’s dreams for us.

Our liturgical renewal has helped us become more aware that the principal function of the church is our common worship. Objects which compete with that purpose are out of place. Images in painting or sculpture “must take into account the current renewed emphasis on the action of the assembly. If instead of serving and aiding that action, they threaten it or compete with it, then they are unsuitable…. In many areas of religious practice, this means a simplifying and a refocusing on primary symbols. In building, this effort has resulted in more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners” (Environment, 98-99).

In our day the principal “decoration” and “treasured possession” of the church is the worshiping community. Faces of the saints have always aided our worship, and we~ continue to revere our sisters and brothers in Christ of other ages. Today, nonetheless, we are designing our assembly space to enable us to see more clearly the other members of the congregation. We want to be encouraged by the faces of the living saints as well—the heroes and heroines who carry the message of the Eucharist out into our world and our time.

As our tour ends

Our tour may have led us through a great variety of Catholic churches: some with many statues and some which have none—through churches with golden altars and ceilings and those with wooden altars and plaster ceilings. But as in the homes of my friends, where some have more money than others and perhaps more expensive decorations and furnishings, more important than the cost of the furniture is the warmth, hospitality and friendship I experience there. The principal beauty of the Catholic church is the hospitality of its assembly, the eagerness with which they hear the Word of God, the devotion with which they share the holy Eucharist and the love which they take forth to transform the earth.

Vestments—ritual clothing

Vestments, the special ritual clothing worn by those who lead the assembly in prayer are “an appropriate symbol of their service” (Environment, 93) and add their own element of beauty to the celebration. The priest wears a long white garment, an alb (from albus, Latin for “white”). Over this is worn a chasuble (from the Latin for “little house”).

Today these garments look quite different from our ordinary street clothing. Originally this was not the case. The alb and chasuble find their origins in the ordinary garments worn in the later Greco-Roman world. Around the house bothe ment and women wore an alb, a long loose-fitting garment. When going out in public they out on a more ornate garment, a chasuble, over the alb. If you attended Mass in fourth-century Rome, the leader of the liturgical assembly would be dressed in much the same way as the priest today vests for Sunday Mass. But at that time, everyone in the church would be wearing an alb and chasuble!

Since the ninth century the priest has also worn a stole, a long piece of cloth about four inches wide draped around the neck. The origin and meaning of this vestment is lost in history.

Thomas Rlchstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. A popular writer and lecturer, Father Richstatter teaches courses on the sacraments at St. Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology.