Each of Our Catholic Churches Tells a Love Story

This is a special moment in the life of the Catholic Church, as we carry out the work of the New Evangelization by deepening and sharing our Catholic faith, and as we celebrate a Year of Faith coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Our Archdiocese of Washington, meanwhile, is preparing to mark its 75th anniversary with a synod that will convene on Pentecost in 2014.  This event, for which we have already begun preparations and listening sessions across the archdiocese, will give the faithful an opportunity to participate in the work of our local Church as we review its mission in manifesting the kingdom of God here in our community.

As we proceed, it is important for us to understand our frame of reference as Catholics — that the Church is the home of God’s word and the sacraments, and it is the enduring, visible presence of Christ in the world today. As members of the Catholic Church, the mystical Body of Christ, we are part of God’s family, baptized into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Jesus.  That is one sense in which we use the word “church,” but another common usage is in reference to the building in which we assemble to pray and worship.

Mike Aquilina and I have just completed a new book, The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home. This book is about church buildings and it explores the architectural and spiritual components of the places that are truly “home” to Catholics, where from life’s beginning to its end, we experience God’s word and the sacraments.  In learning about the church, we can gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for the Church.

Every part of a Catholic church building is rich in meaning and mystery, theology and history. Every furnishing or ornament reveals some important detail of the story of our salvation. That is why our churches – whether they are on city streets, in suburban neighborhoods or in the rural countryside – truly stand as holy ground, where we encounter Christ in his word, in the sacraments and in each other. God is present there. Every one of our churches, whether a soaring Gothic cathedral or a simple country church, tells a love story – a story of God’s love for us, and of our love for God.

As co-authors, we approached this subject from two distinct viewpoints. Mike Aquilina is a married layman who has prayed with his family in the pews of hundreds of churches and tried to see the arches and vaults, ceilings and cloisters through his children’s eyes. I am an ordained priest of the Catholic Church who has celebrated Mass at the altar for 46 years. Working together, we hope to share a panoramic vision of our churches.

We conceived of this book as a companion volume to our earlier book, The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition, which is now available in paperback.  “The Mass is what Catholics do. It’s the heart of Catholic life,” we wrote, as we took a walk through the Mass, stopping to see the sights along the way, from the opening procession to the closing prayer. We hope this book will help deepen people’s understanding of and love for the Mass, by looking at the historical and biblical roots of each part of the Mass.

With our new book on Catholic churches, we likewise take a walk through the features in a typical church, from the front door to the holy water font at the entrance to the spires overhead to the gleaming stained glass windows along the walls. Every Sunday at Mass, we see the tabernacle, the altar, the ambo, the crucifix, the presider’s chair and the candles, we hear the bells and the choir. Each of these has meaning, none of them is superfluous or arbitrary.  Hopefully, this book will help foster a deeper appreciation for the important role of each of these features in a church, their history in our worship and their relevance to our prayer life today.  In this way, the reader should gain a greater understanding of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ.

The goal of the book on the Mass, and now this one about Catholic churches, was not to produce a guidebook, but to help Catholics encounter Jesus more fully in the Mass and in our churches.  Perhaps reading about and understanding a church will foster deeper prayer and a more meaningful experience of God’s presence there. Our churches are not museums or tourist attractions. They are temples of the living God who wills and wishes to meet us there. And that is why they are the places Catholics call home.