Article 96 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 1179-1186 This section of the Catechism considers “where the Liturgy is celebrated.” The opening paragraph tells us that, as members of the New Covenant, our worship “is not tied exclusively to any one place” (ccc 1179). What matters “is that when the faithful assemble in the same place, they are the ‘living stones,’ gathered to be ‘built into a spiritual house’” (ccc 1179). As Sacred Scripture puts it, incorporated into Christ by the Holy Spirit, “we are the temple of the living God” ( 2 Cor 6:16).
These sentences are not meant to suggest that the church building, such as a parish church, is unnecessary for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. In fact, a little later, the Catechism tells us that a church building or “worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial” is constructed for the public prayer of Christians where “the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved” (ccc 1181). The point the Catechism makes here is that the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy does not depend on brick and mortar. In fact, liturgical ceremonies may even be celebrated in circumstances where public worship is not even legal, let alone tolerated. Such was the case in the early Church for about 300 years, when Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire, including many killed for the faith, like the early apostles Saints Peter and Paul. In recent memory, places like the Soviet Union and other communist and socialist regimes around the world made it illegal to practice one’s Catholic faith. There are also places in Africa and the Middle East today where being identified as a practicing Christian can lead to a violent death.
The next paragraph begins: “When the exercise of religious liberty is not thwarted, Christians construct buildings for divine worship” (ccc 1180). These buildings, the Catechism tells us, “are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place” (ccc 1180). As such, these church buildings which are really houses of prayer, “ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial” (ccc 1181). Why? Because this is where “the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior” (ccc 1181).
Wherever we attend holy Mass, the center of focus is the altar on which “the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs” (ccc 1182). The Catechism explains further that “the altar,” figuratively speaking, “is also the table of the Lord, to which the People of God are invited” (ccc 1182). Regarding the tabernacle, generally made of gold or other precious metal, where the real Eucharistic presence of Christ is reserved, the Catechism tells us that it ought to be situated “in a most worthy place with the greatest honor… the dignity, placing, and security (of which) should foster adoration before the Lord” (ccc 1183).).
Sacred Chrism, “used in anointing as the sacramental sign of the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” is also something that “is traditionally reserved and venerated in a secure”
locked box in the sanctuary (ccc 1183). For about 30 years following the Second Vatican Council, many of these “built-in boxes” were left empty in sanctuary walls. In recent years, however, more and more old and newer churches have been reinstating the use of these sacred old receptacles to store not only Sacred Chrism, but “the oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick” as well (ccc 1183).
The chair of the bishop and of the presiding priest is also mentioned. The bishop’s chair, called the cathedra, is always given a prominent place in the diocesan Cathedral. The presiding priest’s chair, says the Catechism, “should [also] express his office of presiding over the assembly and of directing prayer” by its prominent position in the sanctuary (ccc 1184). Why is the presiding priest’s chair important? Because, in short, as “presiding priest” he represents Christ and, in the context of the Sacred Liturgy, even acts “in persona Christi” or in the very person of Christ when he utters the words, “this is my body … this is my blood.”
The lectern (or ambo) where the Sacred Scriptures are proclaimed during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, is also highlighted. The Catechism explains: “The dignity of the Word of God requires the church to have a suitable place for announcing [Christ’s] message so that the attention of the people may be easily directed to that place during the liturgy of the Word” (ccc 1184).
The last church appointments or furnishings mentioned in this Catechism passage reference the baptistry, the holy water font and the confessional. Why? Because the baptistry or baptismal font, is both the place and a reminder of the place where we receive the first sacrament of initiation; the holy water font is a sacramental that serves as a reminder of our baptism, and the confessional is the “appropriate place to receive penitents” where they confess post-baptismal sins (ccc 1185).
Finally, the eschatological significance of the church building is highlighted. Entering the church or house of God, we must “cross a threshold, which symbolizes passing from the world wounded by sin to the world of the new Life to which all people are called” (ccc 1186). The church building “is a symbol of the Father’s house toward which the People of God is journeying” (ccc 1186) and where God Our Father “will wipe every tear from their eyes” ( Rv 21:4). It is meant to be a space “that invites us to the recollection and silent prayer that extend(s) and internalize(s) the great prayer of the Eucharist” (ccc 1185).
In summary, the church, where the Liturgy is celebrated, is all-embracing; “the house of all God’s children, open and welcoming” (ccc 1186) to all people who seek Christ and His message of forgiveness.
Father Hillier serves as Director of the Office of the Pontifical Mission Societies, Censor Librorum and oversees the Office for Persons with Dis abilities