Liturgy Matters — What do Catholics mean by ‘church?’

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville
Dr. Judy Bullock, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville

What do Catholics mean when they use the term “church?”

The term “church” has two primary meanings for Catholics. The first meaning refers to the community of believers, God’s people, the living temple. The second meaning refers to the building where the Christian community comes together to hear God’s word, to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments and to pray. It is also the place for reservation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Why do Catholics have one church in every diocese that is called a cathedral?

The cathedral is the “mother” church in a diocese.  It is usually located in the largest or most central city of a diocese. It is the church where the bishop presides and is the location where the “cathedra” is situated. The cathedra is the bishop’s chair, a symbol of his authority.

What are the main focus points in the church building? 

The altar, the ambo, the tabernacle, the presider’s chair, the space for the congregation, the Baptismal font and the Reconciliation chapel are the most important areas in the worship space.

The sanctuary is the area of a Catholic church where the altar, ambo/lectern, the presider’s chair and, sometimes the tabernacle, are located. The sanctuary is usually a raised platform frequently accessed by a number of steps. It is usually located at one end of the church space farthest from the entry area or somewhat centered with the seating surrounding it. The tabernacle, the place for reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, may be located in the sanctuary or in a separate chapel organically connected to the church.

The altar is the primary focus in the worship space of a Catholic church. From early New Testament times to the present, the altar is honored as a symbol of Christ and the location for the celebration of the Eucharist.

The ambo or lectern is the location where the Liturgy of the Word takes place. This reading stand is used only for Scripture, the responsorial psalm, the homily, the prayer of the faithful and, at the Easter Vigil, the “Exsultet.” Since the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist make a single act of worship, the ambo and the altar are designed to be artistically connected.

The chair where the priest celebrant sits is included in the sanctuary as a sign of the priest’s role as presider, representing Christ our Head.

All Catholic churches also have a special place set aside for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.  The tabernacle, a solid, opaque, secure container for the Blessed Sacrament, may be placed on a pedestal or stand, attached to the wall, or in a niche apart from the altar of celebration. A separate chapel provides an alternate location for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. This special chapel provides an atmosphere that facilitates private prayer and devotion.

In addition to these sacred areas, there is usually a Baptismal Font and a Reconciliation Chapel. These are usually in the entry area. The font is the place where initiation into the Christian community takes place. Baptized Catholics dip their hand in the water and sign themselves as they enter the church as a reminder of their own baptismal commitments. The Reconciliation Chapel is the place where the Sacrament of Penance or confession of sins takes place.

Catholic churches also have devotional spaces where artwork and images are placed, such as, the Stations of the Cross, images of Mary, the Mother of God, St. Joseph or other saints.

Last but not least is the place for the people, the Body of Christ, the ones called by God to celebrate the Liturgy with Christ the Head. This area is called the nave of the church and contains pews or chairs with kneelers for the congregation.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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