The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home

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9780770435516: The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home
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From the bestselling authors of The Mass, an insightful and practical guide that explores the architectural and spiritual components of the Catholic Church.

Your local church is not only a physical place, but a spiritual home. In this thought-provoking book, Wuerl and Aquilina illuminate the importance of the Church in its many guises and examine the theological ideas behind the physical structure of churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. How is a church designed? What is the function of the altar? What does the nave represent? What is the significance of the choir loft? With eloquent prose and elegant black-and-white photography, these questions and many more will lead to answers that illuminate the history and practicality of Catholic life.

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Q&A with Cardinal Donald Wuerl

Q. Why did you write a book about churches?

A. A couple years ago, my co-author, Mike Aquilina, and I wrote a book titled The Mass, and it guided readers through the Catholic Church's principal act of worship, explaining the meaning of all the parts and prayers, vessels and vestments. Readers of that book asked if we could do the same for a church building.

Q. What about a church needs an explanation?

A. Churches are very special places. They are different from any other place. Churches by their very definition are sacred space. There you'll witness events you won't see any place else. You'll see people, especially clergy, dressed as they would not dress in other places. You'll hear a congregation speak and sing in distinctive ways. You'll notice furnishings you won't find in other buildings, and they have unusual names: the ambry, the ambo, the tabernacle. You'll find symbolic forms -- geometric shapes and sometimes Greek letters -- and you may wonder what these mean. Our book provides answers. While we are respectful of the divine mysteries, we do try to de-mystify the terminology and give clear simple explanations for the things people encounter in a Catholic church.

Q. How do you manage that?

A. We look at each part of the church individually and examine the history, doctrine, and devotion associated with it. What does the altar mean? What is its purpose? What are its biblical roots? We examine all the parts of a church that way, from the front door to the bell tower, from the choir loft to the holy-water font. There are fascinating reasons why these elements are the way they are. Some of them, like pews and kneelers, are relatively recent developments in history. Others, like the altar and votive lamps, have been around since the very early years of Christianity.

Q. Are all churches alike inside?

A. The architecture styles of churches reflect the history, cultural background, ethnic traditions and artistic creativity of people all over the world. But they do have common elements, and there are deep doctrinal and theological reasons for the identical nature of the basics of every Catholic church. When architects design a church, they are speaking a certain language with its own vocabulary. They are trying to communicate truths about God, about history, and about heaven. Our book focuses on what churches have in common, but we address the differences as well, because part of the beauty of the Catholic faith is its rich diversity.

Q. How does that diversity manifest itself in churches?

A. Churches are homes. What we find in a home tells us much about a family. What we find in a Catholic church tells us much about the Catholic Church -- the family established by God in Jesus Christ. What we find in a particular church will tell us a lot about the love shared by that particular part of the family. It has been my privilege to visit churches all around the world, and certainly throughout three dioceses where I have been privileged to serve. Even in places where people do not have great financial resources, they want to give their best to their church. Over centuries some churches have become homes of artwork, of great beauty and, in some instances, of great simplicity. These churches are the patrimony of God’s people and nurture the spirit – the soul – the same way that our daily bread nurtures our body.

Personally, I have always marveled at the fact that any person visiting Rome, for example, can walk in free of charge to Saint Peter’s Basilica and enjoy the masterpieces by Michelangelo, Bernini and others. The Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington presents a magnificent array of marble and mosaic. A young college student said to me just some months ago, “I come here not only to pray but to be enveloped in beauty that I don’t find anywhere else.”

Q. In the book you say that churches speak with a language of love. What do you mean by that?

A. The elements that make a Catholic church different from any other place are things of beauty. They're signs of God's abundant love and mercy: the confessional booth, the oils of anointing, the tabernacle of Jesus' abiding presence. For a non-Catholic, these things arouse curiosity. When Catholics welcome you into their churches, you have a chance to get to know their Church and know what they believe and love most dearly.

For a Catholic -- even a non-practicing Catholic -- to enter a church is a homecoming. Going home, we remember who we are. We can be ourselves and become more perfectly the person God made us to be. But, again, it helps if we know what it all means.

Q. Yet it's not all theory. It's not even mostly theory. Your book conveys doctrine, but often by means of stories.

A. The Catholic heritage is rich, and the insides of a church -- like almost everything else -- are best explained by the actions of the saints. Mike and I share a love of Scripture and early Christian history, so we often call forth our witnesses from the classic Christian documents and the ancient church buildings themselves. Though today we build with modern materials and technology, we are building on foundations laid by some fascinating figures from history: King Solomon, the Emperor Justinian, and Michelangelo. In our book we trace the developments that got us from there to here: the tabernacle and temple of ancient Israel, the house churches of early Christianity, the haunting cathedrals of the middle ages.

We also let the builders speak for themselves. Readers of our book will meet some fascinating characters, like the fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea and the medieval bishop William Durand. The architect who designed Big Ben, London's clock tower, was a convert to the Catholic faith who studied and wrote about the meaning of all the elements of a church. We call upon his witness, too. These Christians had something wonderful to say about the places where they worshipped, and we let them have their say for a new generation.

About the Author:

DONALD WUERL is the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and the bestselling author of The Catholic Way.

MIKE AQUILINA is the author of more than 20 books, including Angels of God, and appears regularly on EWTN with Scott Hahn.

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