Why Are Catholic Churches Like That? Reviewing “The Church” by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aqulina

The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call HomeMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sacramental principle tells us that, since the Word became flesh, God has begun to heal and restore his creation. Spiritual light can now shine through the material world. On one level, bread and wine; on another, oil, candles, fabrics and paint, bricks, blocks, and filigree–all these can mediate God’s presence in the world.

I honestly thought I already reviewed this book. When I saw it on my “to review” stack, I thought it was misstacked (I’m pretty sure that’s a word … or, like Shakespeare, I just invented it). Anyway, my apologies for not telling you about this one sooner. Now, let’s get down to why I feel that way.

In every church, invisible realities shine through the visible ornaments. Something spiritual shines through all the material elements, inside and out. The ritual book for blessing a church offers a basic explanation of this symbolism: “The church is a visible building that stands as a special sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects the Church dwelling in heaven.”

One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church is her insistence that the material matters just as much as the spiritual. Like a pair of folded hands, you can’t fully see reality as God intended it without both body and soul. The Catholic attitude to church buildings reflects that same reality. Symbolism is key to all of this because it helps us unlock all the places we can find God shining through into our lives.

God created our bodily senses to lead us to spiritual truth. Thus, Catholic churches engage the human body as God created it. Eyes delight in seeing the play of light through stained glass. When Christians gather for worship, the church is full of the sound of music and sometimes the aroma of incense. Fingers touch stone and wood and dip into holy water. A church well built is a feast for the senses, a festival of praise for the God who fashioned the human body.

Grace builds on nature, heals it, and elevates it. This is one of the fundamental notions in Catholic theology, and is also a key to understanding what one sees and hears and senses in a church.

Sometimes the symbolism is obvious but often the meaning has been lost over time or not passed on due to poor instruction in the faith. That’s why we need this book.

The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home does exactly what it says in the subtitle. It gives you a key to why there are all those statues, what’s up with the kneelers, and why a crucifix holds place of pride at the front of the church. In short, Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina aim to demystify things so that the next time you go into a Catholic church you can recognize the reminders of God’s grace that surround you.

This book will be just as important to Catholics as it is to non-Catholics. The example often told to show how Catholics don’t understand their own faith well is that if you ask one why they cross themselves with holy water when entering the church, you rarely find someone who knows the answer. (It’s a reminder of your baptism, just in case you’re curious.) The Church has both pictures and words that help anchor those important facts in your heart.

This is a companion piece to an earlier book, The Mass. As with that book, I found The Church not only instructive but inspirational. Just to share one example, we are reminded of the scandalous nature of the cross in this book and it helps us understand a Protestant friend who is horrified by the crucifix in the front of our church. Not only that, we are reminded of just how much humiliation Jesus Christ took on for our sakes and how, as St. Paul said, “The cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Ultimately, for my own part, I was reminded that just as Christ turned that humiliation into glory, so too His grace and redemption can turn my shortcomings and sins into something good, something greater than I could ever achieve on my own.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It will open your physical eyes so that your soul can also see the glory that is all around you. You may, like me, find yourself seeing your surroundings in an entirely new way. I can’t resist sharing this last bit.

Perhaps the earliest precursors of motion picture photographers were the builders of the great medieval cathedrals. They created images that were invisible to the surrounding world, yet spectacularly beautiful to worshippers inside the church. Catching sunlight, the bits of glass seem to coalesce and come alive, revealing the forms of standing saints in heavenly splendor.

The windows provide motion pictures really: the images change slightly as the earth slowly makes its rounds and clouds pass now and then before the sun.

This never occurred to me and I now look at stained glass windows in an entirely new way. Because, of course, what the building shows our eyes also reflects what is being done in our souls. But I’ll let you read more about it for yourselves when you get the book.

About Julie Davis

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