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Sacred Space:
A place where we show God respect

by Bishop Joseph Perry

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), we have succeeded in educating ourselves that we are the Church; that the Church, first off, is made up of people. People are more sacred than anything we value. It follows that the place where we believers assemble each week is sacred because we are a holy people.

In our more cynical moments, we may wonder how holy we really are. Suffice it to say, we are called to holiness. Christian life features consistent struggle to be the faith-filled, moral and just people expected of our baptism. Our Catholic faith embodies an ancient principle of religion called sacred space. The building and areas where we exercise the cult contain objects and appointments set aside for entertaining God.

The church building is indeed a special place. Public worship has always featured clothing, utensils, furniture and art given separate status for worship apart from the things we handle and use from day to day. These things are usually given a blessing or consecration to indicate their special usage. These sacred objects help place us in the proper disposition for worship. They essentially point to God and remind us of the spiritual world, the angels and the saints. Being sacred objects, we do not handle them as we handle objects not considered sacred. We give sacred space and sacred objects due reverence. And if they must be touched, there should be only a careful handling.

We older Catholics will recall the older discipline when the Communion host was placed on the tongue and not in the hand; where there was a railing separating the congregation from the sanctuary; where the chalice, ciboria and altar linens came under the exclusive touch of the priests, notwithstanding special permission given certain nuns and sacristans whose job it was to set up for Mass; where hushed silence was the posture ordered in church to give credence to the true presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. Since the liturgical reforms of the council, worship space in Catholic churches, in many places, has been renovated to accommodate greater participation and familiarity with one another.

Some modern church designs allow for transfer of the tabernacle with its eternal flame to visible and attractive chapels off the nave, thereby creating environments for greater movement, relaxed conversation and mutual contact. All these shifts are good. But what remains, if anything, of our tradition with a sense of the sacred? While we strive to see holiness first in each other, there is still room for an essential reverence paid the sacred place of the assembly and the objects, vessels and appointments used in worship. In fact, disrespecting the house may well indicate a disrespect for those who live in the house. For example, the altar is sacred because upon it rests the body and blood of Christ. The priests and deacons reverence (kiss) the altar at least twice during each Mass in homage to the sacred table. Hence, we never use the altar as a desk to sort papers, to rest upon or pile things on, even for the slightest moment.

At the sign of peace, with a genuine Christian joy involved in our greeting and embrace, we are conscious, nevertheless, that we stand in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, an acknowledgment that should preoccupy us similar to if Jesus walked in our midst and moved among us.

We teach our children a proper reverence for the church, its art, candles, furniture, books of the altar and pulpit and vessels, so that certain kinds of behavior in church space is always out of place. Even we adults temper the noise level of conversation and direction giving, always to respect Eucharistic presence and to respect others who benefit from a quiet environment while they are praying. We never call out or greet another or give directions in a raised voice from one end of the church to a person at the other end. We are careful to pick up paper, Kleenex, etc. When we drop them; when we refrain from gum-chewing, eating food and language and clothing unbecoming church.

Men and boys appropriately remove their hats upon entering church. A bow or genuflection is still appropriate upon entering the pew when the tabernacle occupies center space or when we pass by the tabernacle. Notice, a few of these manners are expected when we visit museums, theaters and libraries.

We live in a society which has discarded long held courtesies and formalities connected with a lot of things. One commentary says much of the former etiquette was stiff and out-of-date. Another commentary says that even our popular enlightenment and education nonetheless calls for certain time-honored gestures and attitudes of respect. And we need a reverence for God, the things of God and one another. We benefit by respect paid to our fellow believers.

All this preoccupation with sacred space and sacred things serves only to remind us that we each are sacred. And coming together weekly to remember the Lord makes the space and the things we use sacred. We are not conscious of this, necessarily, working in the factory or at a desk with a computer.

Worship, on the other hand, reminds us we are a holy people. Hopefully, how we behave in church with one another can carry over to life outside church so that life can be more humane and every man, woman and child can be honored for the sacred beings they really are. Postures of respect and reverence cannot help but model us for viewing all of life as sacred.

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