Tour of St. Generica’s Catholic Church

Friday 24 August 2018 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — St. Bartholomew Day

This week, dear readers, we are concluding our tour of a generic Catholic church — not any one particular church, you understand, just your average Catholic church. I’ll call it St. Generica’s Church.

We have already toured the narthex and the nave. We have seen the baptismal pool, the Paschal candle, the ambry, the Stations of the Cross, the pews and kneelers, the altar, the ambo, and the presider’s chair. Let’s take a closer around the Sanctuary, shall we?

Is that an altar or a table? Well, it functions as both. It’s an altar/table. It’s an altar of sacrifice for the commemoration of Christ’s death and Resurrection. It’s a table (but no ordinary table) for the celebration of the Eucharist, our pledge of glory at the eternal banquet of Heaven.

The altar is covered with a cloth during the celebration of Holy Mass. In some very Liturgically-oriented communities, the altar is left bare before and after each Mass. That’s actually required only during the Easter Triduum, but still a worthy practice year-round, if you are so inclined.

Preparing for the celebration of Mass, one will be needing certain Liturgical items. You will need a missal or Mass prayer book (not to be confused with “missile,” which is something entirely different). You need at least two candles on or near the altar (best to omit the candles if you’re celebrating Mass in a medical facility with oxygen nearby). You need just one visible crucifix, either wall-mounted or freestanding. You need a paten or bread plate (from the Latin patella, meaning “platter”). You need a chalice (from the Latin calix, meaning “cup”). 

With the passing of my old friend Father Frank Wallace, I have inherited his Army-issue field chalice. It polished up nicely. It’s perfect for saying Mass at the local nursing homes. 

Is that a pulpit or a lectern? Well, it’s a stand intended to be used for the reading of the Bible, for preaching the homily, for leading prayer, and for chanting the Responsorial Psalms and Easter Proclamation. It started out as a stationary ambo, dignified and worthy of the proclamation of the Word of God, often slightly raised for increased visibility. In the 14th century it morphed into a pulpit. 

You might say a pulpit is an ambo on steroids. Some pulpits are mounted high on pedestals or affixed to the wall — so high one needs stairs for access. “Pulpit” comes from the Latin word pulpitum, meaning “staging.” Some pulpits are topped by a structure called a “sounding board,” sonantibus tabula in Latin. This was intended to amplify the voice of the speaker before the invention of sound systems. You don’t see this sort of thing in more recently-built church buildings.

At the ambo, a lectionary is used to read the assigned Scriptures. (Please, no newsprint “missalette.” The Word of God is not disposable). Ideally, you could also use a separate and more ornate Book of the Gospels

An ambo is not really a “lectern,” though people often call it that. A lectern is light and portable. It’s nothing more than a convenient place to make routine announcements. It suffices as a music stand for announcing hymns, for example. A pulpit should never be used to point out that someone driving a red Lexus has left the headlights on or that the guild is selling homemade gluten-sensitive brownies after Mass. A bake sale may seem important, but it’s nowhere near as important as the Word of the Lord. Use a lectern, not the ambo.

As for the presider’s chair, it needs to be visible to all, but it should in no way resemble the imperial throne of the Emperor of Japan. 

Then there’s the Tabernacle. The veil or covering of the Tabernacle in our churches (and secondarily, the Sanctuary lamp burning before the Tabernacle) represents our belief that here, Our Lord is present to us in a physical way, as in the Old Testament Tent of Meeting.

The location of the Tabernacle remains a hot-button issue. The consecrated Hosts reserved following the celebration of Holy Mass are kept in the Tabernacle for two reasons. One is to afford the opportunity for private prayer before Our Eucharistic Lord. The other is to provide 24/7 availability of Communion to the sick. 

On the other hand, the focus of the main worship area is supposed to be the altar. Personally, I don’t think these need to be mutually exclusive. 

Then there are the statues of saints. These images assist us in our own faith and devotion. They remind us of certain exemplary Christians, our brothers and sisters, one and all. As we join together at Holy Mass, we are surrounded (physically and Spiritually) by those who have gone before us in the faith. The photograph of my great grandmother on my bookshelf is not a graven image or idol. It’s a reminder of whence I have come. So are the statues of the saints.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of St. Generica’s Catholic Church. Do come again. 

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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