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The Sacred That Surrounds Us
A Tour of Our Catholic Church
You’ve been here at this church or other Catholic churches hundreds and even thousands of times. Every time you enter a Catholic church you are surrounded by the Sacred. Can you see it? Can you name it? Do you know why it’s there and what its purpose is? Perhaps you’re a young Catholic and your religious education books haven’t gotten to that yet. Or maybe you’re a more mature Catholic and the information you gleaned from the Baltimore Catechism is no longer automatically accessible in your memory. No matter what the case may be, allow me to be your Catholic tour guide today. Come with me to discover the Sacred that surrounds us.
By JoAnne Ranstrom
The Altar: in Hebrew meaning “place of sacrifice”. The top is called the mensa which in Latin means “table”. Altars have been parts of religious services for thousands of years. In the early church, Mass was celebrated secretly on the tombs of martyred Christians or on portable altars in homes because Christianity was illegal. When Christianity became legal, permanent altars were built and used but to observe the custom of celebrating Mass near the departed faithful, a relic of a saint is found under or within church altars. We reverence the altar because it is the place where bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. When we walk by the altar, we bow to show that reverence. When the priest enters the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass, he kisses the altar which signifies this is where Jesus will become present during Mass. We focus on the altar until the end of Mass when the priest kisses the altar again before leaving the sanctuary. Then we focus on the tabernacle where Jesus is reserved.
Altar Cloths: The altar is covered to adorn and protect it. The colors on the altar usually indicate the liturgical season or if the Mass is celebrated on a feast day. Green is for ordinary time. White/Gold is for Christmas and Easter and feast days. Purple is for Lent and Advent. Red is for Palm Sunday, Pentecost, and for feast days of martyred saints.
The Ambo: where the Sacred Scriptures are read, where the priest or deacon delivers the homily, and where the Prayers of the Faithful are read.
The Ambry: the cabinet for the three holy oils which are blessed by our Bishop at the Chrism Mass at the beginning of Holy Week and used in sacramental rites. The oils are placed in vessels called stocks. They are on display in a place of honor for all to see. The cabinet is always locked like the tabernacle to protect the oils. On Holy Thursday, the oils are processed to the sanctuary and placed in the ambry. The three oils are: The Sacred Chrism, the most important oil, consecrates persons or things and sets them apart for God. The Chrism is used for baptisms, confirmations, holy orders, and to consecrate a church. The Oil of the Sick is to anoint persons who are sick or dying. The Oil of Catechumens is used at baptism to strengthen the person receiving baptism.
The Baptismal Font: filled with holy water which is used to pour over the head of the person during the sacrament of baptism or the person is immersed in the holy water during the rite.
Confessional or the Reconciliation Room
The Confessional or the Reconciliation Room: the place where penitents confess their sins to a priest, have contrition for what they have done, and have a firm purpose of avoiding these sins in the future. The priest who acts in persona Christi (in the per-son of Christ) offers absolution or forgiveness to the penitent. The priest is bound by the seal of confession not to reveal what he has heard in confession. In the confessional there is the option of confessing face-to-face with the priest or remaining anonymous behind a screen. We should not be embarrassed or afraid to confess our sins. Confession helps us to have a humble heart. If we have forgotten how to go to confession, the priest is there to help us make a good confession. We should not be receiving the Eucharist if we are in a state of sin.
Credence Table: a table within the sanctuary that holds the sacred vessels and cloths used at Mass. Credence comes from the word “credenza” which is a side table where food was placed before being served. The credence table allows all the vessels needed to be near the altar. All the vessels are sacred because of their association with the Body and Blood of Christ so they are placed on a white cloth.
The Crucifix: Latin cruci fixus which means “one fixed to the cross.” We better connect with Jesus’s suffering for us when we can see it. A crucifix helps us remember the amazing love of God and that Jesus is our Savior who paid the ultimate price for our sins. St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “When you look at the crucifix, you understand how much Jesus loved you then. When you look at the Sacred Host, you understand how much Jesus loves you now.”
The Narthex: also called “the vestibule” is the entrance to the church. We enter in the narthex and immediately prepare ourselves for Mass. We enter with others who share our Catholic belief. We all come to be disciples of the Lord and to be as close to God as we can on this side of heaven.
The Nave: Latin “navis” meaning ship, as in navigate and Navy. It’s where we gather for the Mass; it’s the ship of the church. All the pews face and focus on the sanctuary—where the altar is. The nave is our place for worship where earth meets heaven. As we enter the nave, we renew our baptismal promises by dipping our fingers into the holy water font and making the Sign of the Cross, not like the early Church did by making a little cross on our foreheads but making a big cross from our forehead to our stomach and out to each shoulder declaring whose we are, that we belong to Christ crucified. We genuflect to Jesus who is present in the tabernacle. In the nave, we are called to be active participants in the Mass; we sit, stand, kneel, and respond. At Holy Communion time, we proceed through the nave toward the sanctuary like walking toward heaven to receive heavenly food. The next time you’re in the Communion line, imagine the angels adoring God saying/singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” While we are on the ship, we are strengthened by God’s Word and the Eucharist.
The Offertory Table: a table in the back of the Nave to hold the bread and wine to be brought up during the procession of the gifts.
Pachal (Easter) Candle
The Paschal (Easter) Candle: symbol of the Light of Christ. The flame is blessed at the Easter Vigil each year. It is usually placed by the baptismal font but is placed by the ambo throughout the Easter season. The candle is lit during the Easter season, at baptisms as the light of Christ comes to the baptized, and at funerals as a reminder that the deceased has been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Pews and Kneelers
The Pews and Kneelers: always face our Lord in the tabernacle and on the altar. We gaze at him not at one another. We sit to learn. We stand when something great is happening such as the reading of the Gospel and for specific prayers. We kneel before God to show our humility and reverence.
Presider’s Chair: the largest chair in the sanctuary where the presiding priest sits. It is a sign of authority. At the cathedral, the Bishop’s chair is very large and is called the cathedra.
Processional Cross (Crucifix)
Processional Cross (Crucifix) and Candles: At the entrance procession the cross announces that we are Christians, and the candles are the light of Christ that lead us toward the sacred power of the Mass. The candles are placed on the sides of the altar to remind us of Christ’s presence. At the recessional, we are being led out into the world to be Christ’s light in the darkness.
The Sacristan: the person in charge of the sacristy and in charge of helping prepare for the Mass.
Sacred Artwork: We teach our Faith through images even more importantly than words. That was especially true in the early church. We have stained glass windows, the Stations of the Cross, the Divine Mercy print, the statues of Mary, Joseph, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Saint Peter and Saint Paul. That artwork makes it easier to remember, to pray, and to ask for the saints’ intercession.
The Sacristy: from the Latin sacristia meaning “sacred.” It is the resting place of all the sacred vessels, vestments, altar cloths, candles, candle lighters/snuffers, censor and boat or thurible for the incense, keys for the tabernacle and ambry, etc. and etc. and it is the place where the priest vests or dresses and prepares himself to celebrate the Mass, and where he gives his thanks after celebrating the Mass.
The Sanctuary: Latin sanctus meaning “holy”. It is the raised area of the church where the altar, the Crucifix, and the tabernacle are all prominently in the middle. It is where the priest pre-sides during Mass. It is the Holy of Holies where the Lord is truly present on the altar at consecration and reserved in the tabernacle.
The Sanctuary Lamp: the continuously burning candle which is usually red and placed near the tabernacle to let us know that Jesus is present. When we need to change the candle, we should transfer the light from the old candle to the new candle because that flame comes from the Easter candle at the Easter Vigil. From Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil, Jesus is not present in the tabernacle. The sanctuary light is extinguished, and Jesus is reserved elsewhere. The open and empty tabernacle reminds us that he is going through his passion and death. Easy to remember when the light is on Jesus is home.
Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross: 14 moments during Jesus’s passion from the moment he was judged by Pontius Pilate to the moment he was laid in the tomb. They allow us to enter into the suffering, passion, and death of our Lord. We especially pray and reflect upon the Stations during Lent and on Good Friday.
The Tabernacle: where Jesus resides sacramentally in the form of consecrated Hosts. The Hosts are in a ciborium or gold bowl. Our tabernacle also has a consecrated Host in a luna which fits into a monstrance which is where Jesus is exposed for us to gaze upon him and pray to him during Eucharistic Adoration which we have on Tuesdays in our parish. The tabernacle is locked and immovable to protect Jesus. We protect what is most important to us.
Prayer (Votive) Candles: Latin votum meaning “a wish or a vow.” These candles stay lit until they burn out completely to signify that your prayers keep going. The candles are placed by Mary to ask for her special intercession
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