By Father Aaron Johanneck
(From a series found in The Prairie Catholic)
Over the course of these articles up to this point we have explored the nature of the Sacred Liturgy, especially of the Holy Mass, and what it means to participate in it. The questions we have been attempting to answer are, “What is the liturgy?” and “How do we enter in?” In this article we will discuss a new topic and question with respect to the liturgy: “Where is the liturgy celebrated?”
This question provides the heading of the section in which the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about the church building and some of the significant items found in churches. It begins by acknowledging that in the New Covenant established by Christ worship is no longer bound to one place, but is carried out “in Spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24). In the Old Covenant the Temple was the place where God dwelt and where worship was offered. When Jesus cleanses the Temple He reveals that His Body is the true Temple, the place where God dwells (cf. John 2:21). We who are members of Christ’s Body through Baptism can worship God anywhere.
However, the Catechism goes on to say, “When the exercise of religious liberty is not thwarted, Christians construct buildings for divine worship” (CCC 1180). The first Christians did not build churches because for about the first three hundred years of Christianity Christians faced on and off persecutions. To build an identifiable building dedicated to the worship of the Christian God would have clearly marked the places where the they could be found to be arrested, tortured, and killed. Once Christianity was accepted and legalized in the Roman Empire, the construction of church buildings and the “conversion” of Roman civil basilicas into Christian places of worship followed shortly thereafter.
What exactly is a church building? The church building is more than just the place where Christians gather. The Catechism explains, “visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC 1180). The word “church” is used to describe both the Mystical Body of Christ and the building in which Christians worship and pray because a church is meant to be an icon, image, and representation of the Church and of all that the Church is called to be.
So what is a church? Canon law defines a church simply as “a sacred building designated for divine worship” (CIC 1214). The Catechism expands on this describing a church as “a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar for the help and consolation of the faithful” (CCC 1181). It also instructs that “this house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place of prayer and sacred ceremonial” (1181), and that a church “must also be a space that invites us to the recollection and silent prayer that extend and internalize the great prayer of the Eucharist” (1185).
A church building is not a multi-purpose space, or another busy and noisy place among many. It is a building that has been built and set apart expressly for the purpose of sacred things: for the celebration of the sacred mysteries, for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and of the Sacred Liturgy, for the worship and adoration of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and for quiet prayer in His Presence. In the busyness and craziness of our lives what a gift it is to have such a place.