Everything about the Mass means something, and that includes the building that we celebrate the Mass in. Basic church architecture comes from the ancient period, especially during the 4th century after Christianity was legalized, and it was refined during the High Middle Ages. They tried to design the Church to speak to us of the faith and teach us about God just by seeing it.
First, the Church buildings represents the Church itself. Of course, the Church is more than a buildings or a charitable organization. The Church is the body of Christ, with Jesus Christ as the head of the Church and we, the faithful on earth, along with the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven, are the members which make up the body. In a Church building the sanctuary, where the altar, celebrant’s chair (cathedra), and tabernacle are is the head and represents Jesus. The altar is connected to Jesus because it is on the altar that the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Christ, is offered to God the Father. The celebrant represents Jesus because He presides over the Mass in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, by using Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. The tabernacle, of course, holds the Eucharist, which is the presence of Jesus Himself. The nave of the Church represents the body of Christ, including us on earth, the angels, and the saints. The nave has the pews and is where the people gather to attend Mass. It also usually has images of the saints in stained glass windows and as statues. If you look at an image of a Medieval Church you’ll see that it even has arms, like a body.
The Church also represents heaven and earth. This goes all the way back to Solomon’s Temple. The Sanctuary of the Temple was decorated with angels and represented heaven, while the rest of the Temple was decorated with gardens and animals representing the Earth. In a Catholic Church the sanctuary is where Jesus is, where the offering takes place, and is often decorated with angels, like St. Louis Cathedral downtown. The nave represents earth and is where we are gathered for the Mass. During Mass we look towards the sanctuary, just like we ought to have our eyes fixed on heaven. When it’s time to receive Communion the priest and ministers bring the Eucharist down to the nave, symbolizing the Incarnation, when Jesus came down from heaven to earth, and the people go up towards the Sanctuary, showing that heaven is our final destination. That point where the sanctuary and nave meet, where the altar rail would be in a traditional Church, represents the meeting of heaven and earth both in the person of Jesus Christ and in the Mass.
Whenever I go into a Church for the first time, I pay the most attention to the tabernacle, the altar, the stained glass windows, and the stations of the Cross. Look around in churches, look at the details, designs, and artwork in the Church, and ask how this Church is pointing us towards heaven.
Fr. Bryan Recommends
The iPieta app
Not too long ago the average Catholic would have had a family bible in their home, possibly a copy of the Baltimore Catechism, and maybe a book on the lives of the saints, the life of Christ, or a similar spiritual topic, and many people would not have even had that. If you wanted to study the faith in more depths, you had to rely on your priest or what few resources you could get your hands on. Today, with the advent of the internet, we all have access to Catholic writings, videos, and materials at every level, from beginner to doctorate, but how do we know what to trust or where to look?
One of the very best Catholic resources available is the iPieta app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, and it’s completely free (although it does take up quite a bit of space). The app has four sections, Bible, Calendar, Prayer, and Veritas.
The Bible section has the entire Bible in English, Latin, Spanish, French, German, and more. The English translation is the Douay-Rheims Version, which is the traditional English version of the Bible. The language is a bit old fashioned, since the last version was from the 1800s, but it’s a very accurate translation, and it’s very nice to have the entire Bible on your phone or tablet.
The Calendar section has the liturgical calendar on it. If you’re wondering if today is the feast of a particular saint, or what weekday Christmas will fall on this year, you can find it in the calendar all the way out to 2050! It also has the readings for the day, which is very good if you want to pray with the readings for next Sunday ahead of time to prepare spiritually for Mass. Just remember, even though it’s the same readings, it’s not the same translation that we use in Mass.
The Prayer section has literally hundreds of prayers for all kinds of different circumstances. It has prayers to Jesus, prayers to the Holy Spirit, prayers for consecration, for the Blessed Virgin, the angels, and the saints, prayers to ask for blessings, and prayers for the Eucharist. It has the Mysteries and prayers of the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, other novenas, and more.
The Veritas Section is perhaps the most impressive of all, because it contains an entire Catholic library. It has the entire 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the Baltimore Catechism, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, hundreds of official writings of the Popes and Church councils, Bible commentaries, writings of the Fathers of the Church, like St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. John Chrysostom, and dozens of spiritual books by saints and spiritual masters.
When I downloaded it about 10 years ago, I thought paying $2.99 was a pretty darn good deal for all of that, but, now you can download it for free. If you have a smart phone it’d be silly not to get it.
In just a few days we’ll celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our nation, Independence Day, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We are rightly proud to be Americans. Our forefathers declared their independence from the oppressive government of England, fought to defend that independence, and set up a government that has, in large part, preserved the liberties they fought for through these past 243 years. We also recognize that the United States isn’t perfect. In our history, we can point to slavery, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and other episodes as points of shame, and today we still fight against the scourge of abortion, racism, and violence.
Patriotism is a form of love, and love is not made up of affectionate feelings. Love can produce good and affectionate feelings, but that’s not what love is. Love means a firm commitment to seek the good of another, not counting the cost to yourself. Love must be grounded in truth, so that it can lead to self-giving and self-sacrifice. Patriotism is the love of our country; so, let us be grateful for the freedom and prosperity that is ours, and ask how we may insure that freedom and prosperity for future generations.
The virtue of patriotism doesn’t mean that we blindly proclaim the glory of our homeland, but that, out of love for our homeland and fellow citizens, we work tirelessly to defend her and help her to grow in virtue. A patriot defends his country from aggression and all those who seek to harm it. We have a long history of patriots and heroes who have taken up arms to defend this country, and some of their finest moments have come at the times of greatest danger. We must remember to pray for everyone who’s risked or given life or limb in our defense.
The virtue of patriotism also makes us want to help our country to grow in virtue. If we think that the United States is already perfect, the chosen land, the city on a hill, then we might blind ourselves to its problems. We can admit the weaknesses of our country while still loving it, and then we can work to improve them. We can pray for our neighbors, our country, our elected officials, and all those who work for the government. We can pay attention to what’s happening in politics and stay informed, so that we can be informed voters, not voting just for what’s best for ourselves, but for the country.
The point is that if we love our country in her greatness and in her best moments, then we must love her more in her weakness and sin; we must love her enough to see her weakness and do something about it.
For decades, priests recognized that people would stop attending Church regularly in their late teens and 20s, but the thought was that they would always come back to get married, to baptize their children, and to send them to parish religious education or a Catholic school. So, you’d have a chance to bring them back into the Church and get them actively participating, going to Mass, and growing in their faith. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Statistically, there are more people calling themselves Catholics than ever before in the United States, but fewer of them are participating in the life of the Church.
Since 1970, the US population has increased from 205.1 million to 327.2 million, and the Catholic population has likewise increased from 54.1 million to 76.3 million. In 1970, about 26% of the US population considered themselves Catholic and by 2018 that fell to about 23%. However, while the number of Catholics has increased, the number of Catholics participating in the life of the Church and receiving the Sacraments has decreased, in some cases dramatically. The number of Children of elementary and high school age receiving religious education, either in a Catholic school or parish program, has decreased from 9.9 million in 1970 to 4.7 million in 2018, just under half. The number of infant baptisms was 1.09 million in 1970 and 615,119 in 2018. The number of Catholic marriages dropped from 426,309 in 1970 to 143,082 in 2018. Confirmations went from 419,360 in 1970 to 630,465 in 2000, then decreased steadily to 556,418 in 2018. Similarly, first communions increased from 849,919 in 1970 to 881,321 in 2000, before dropping to 685,595 in 2018. This is all bad enough, but there are two more changes that are even more disturbing to me. The percent of Catholics attending Mass weekly has dropped from 54.9% in 1970 to 21.1% in 2018, and the percent attending monthly has dropped from 71.36% in 1970 to 45.3% in 2018. There was a greater percent of Catholics going to Mass every week in 1970 than there are going to Mass once a month now. Finally, even the number of Catholic funerals has begun to drop, from 417,779 in 1970 to 472,789 in 2000, then down to 392,277 in 2018. The one rule of Catholic life that we could count on was that people always came back for their funerals, but even that is starting to change.
I don’t mean this to be a depressing article. The Lord comes to bring us life and true and lasting joy. Jesus Christ is the Price of Peace who brings hope to the world, and we should always be filled with hope in the Lord, knowing that the Holy Spirit is still with us. However, we also need to do our part. We need to teach the fullness of the faith. In the 1960s and 70s the faith was watered down in many places. I remember my mom telling me that the only thing she learned in religious education was “to be a good Catholic, you just need to go to Church and be nice to people.” If we don’t take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously, how can we expect anyone else to? We also need to treat the Eucharist with the reverence it deserves. The Mass shouldn’t look like everything else in our lives. When we enter Church, we should be immediately aware that we are in God’s house. It should look, and smell, and sound different, and it should feel different, more reverent and more holy. If the Church and Mass aren’t obviously places of holiness, then how can the holiness of God be translated into the rest of our lives. The Spirit of God is present in His Church, let’s work to make sure that His Presence has an impact in the way we worship and in the way we live our lives.
Belief in God as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is central to Christianity and, amazingly, all of the mainstream Christian and evangelical Christian denominations believe in God as the Trinity. Christians disagree about almost everything, including the books that make up the Bible, how to interpret the Bible, how one is saved, morality, spirituality, heaven, hell, and purgatory, the Church, the Sacraments, grace, and more, but we agree about the Holy Trinity even though the word Trinity is never used in the Bible.
The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one God, with the three persons of God united in one Divine nature. God the Father is fully God, God the Son is fully God, and God the Holy Spirit is fully God, but they are all united as the one true God. There are many ways to try to explain the Trinity, like the three leaf clover or the image of God as a family, but they all fall short of the reality and fail to explain some aspect of the Trinity. In reality God is an infinite sharing of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity, without beginning or ending. This is a great mystery, one that we will never fully comprehend on earth, and probably not even in heaven.
We can’t fully comprehend the Trinity because God is truly infinite. He’s not infinite like we say the universe is infinite. The universe is unimaginably large, but matter and energy can never be truly created or destroyed naturally, so there must be a certain amount of stuff in the universe. God is truly infinite, without limit. You could sooner explore every planet in the universe than explore the depths of the mystery of God. You can never fully comprehend God, but you can gain more understanding of Him through prayer and meditation. God is a mystery not in the sense of being incomprehensible but in the sense that there is always more to explore.
We don’t believe in some immaterial force of the universe or some distant clockmaker God who started the universe but wants nothing to do with it. We believe in a personal God, a God of infinite love, who has invited each one of us into His inner life, the love shared between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So spend some time this Trinity Sunday contemplating who God is, how He’s been at work in your life, and how He might be calling you to share in His life.
Pentecost is the final day of the Easter season and is, in a way, the birthday of the Church, since on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and they began to preach the Gospel to the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the holy festival. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that 3000 people were converted on that day. The Church has continued that mission to preach the Gospel of the death and Resurrection of Jesus in every age and on every continent and in every nation. As Catholic Christians we are also required to support the mission of the Church not only through giving to the Church, but, first, through preaching the Gospel ourselves.
We believe that Truth is important. Some, with Pontius Pilate, ask, “What is truth?” They say that it’s impossible to know the truth, and that the best we can do are educated guesses. Or they say that there is not truth, as they believe what’s true for one person isn’t necessarily true for other people. People say things like, “That’s my truth.” Well, opinions, like where to get the best boiled crawfish, aren’t right or wrong, but truth is true for everyone.
Today we celebrate the Spirit of Truth come into the world. God the Father sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and, after His ascension, Father and Son together sent the Spirit of God into the world. Jesus said to the disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit reveals to us the truth about God, about the world, about ourselves, and about life.
Some people think that we’re just trying to stop them from living the way they want to. They see the truth as limiting and enslaving them. However, Jesus tells us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). If you try to play a piano without following the rule of music you’ll end up just making noise, and if you try to climb a mountain with your eyes closed you’ll probably slip and fall, maybe to your death. However, if you open your eyes you’ll see the light, and if you let the Spirit of Truth guide you, He’ll bring you to the top of the mountain.
The Feast of the Assumption was last Thursday, although we celebrate it on the Sunday in the US and many other places to make it easier for people to participate. On the Ascension Jesus ascended to heaven in His body. Of course, as God, Jesus was never not in heaven, because God is everywhere. Jesus didn’t stop being God when He became a man. When He was born of the Virgin Mary, was baptized in the Jordan River, suffered on the Cross, and descended to the realm of the dead, He was also everywhere else in the universe as the second person of the Trinity. God is not limited by anything, even by space and time. However, Jesus is also human, and so, in His humanity, He is limited by space and time, and it was in His humanity, His human body, that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven.
Think about the fact that Jesus, and Mary, His mother, are physically in heaven. When the saints die and go to heaven, they go to heaven spiritually, not in their bodies. We bury the body as a sign of faith that, where Jesus has gone before, the faithful will follow after. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and publicly proclaimed as the Son of God, so we are baptized and become children of God. Jesus died, and so we die. Jesus rose from the dead, and so we believe that we will rise from the dead at the end of time when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead and the world. Jesus ascended to heaven in His body, and so we believe that we will be brought into heaven in our bodies.
There are many people who, for one reason or another, can’t be buried in Christian ground. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be resurrected in the body and raised to heaven; God will be able to find our bodies wherever they end up. However, burial in holy ground is a powerful symbol of trust in Jesus. When we bury someone we are professing our faith that Jesus will raise them up again. The Church even asks us to bury the remains after a cremation, which is allowed as long as it’s not done as a rejection of faith in the Resurrection; after all, we all end up as dust and ashes anyway. Still, Jesus Himself was buried, but He overcame the grave. May God give us a stronger faith in the Resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that we may be confident that He will overcome our graves, too.
Tomorrow, May 27, is the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, a saint who’s worth knowing something about. He was born in Rome sometime in the 5thcentury and died in Canterbury, England, in 605 AD. He is called the apostle to the English and the Anglo-Saxons. His remains are interred outside the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Canterbury.
While still living in Rome, Augustine became a monk in the Benedictine tradition and was eventually elected as Abbot of St. Andrew’s Abbey. In the year 597, Pope St. Gregory the Great send St. Augustine and 40 of his monks to evangelize the British Isles. This was a terrifying assignment. The Roman Empire first established a presence in the British Isles 55 BC when Julius Ceasar invaded and conquered the Celtics tribes in the southern part of England, but he was not able to establish a permanent colony there. That wouldn’t happen for another 98 years, when Claudius Ceasar invaded with a large Roman army. Although the Romans were never able to completely conquer the British Isles, the did control most of England and Wales for over 300 years, until about the early 400s, when the Romans were forced to pull back. So, when St. Augustine traveled to Britain it had been over 150 years since the Romans had left Britain, and the rumors of the barbaric celtic tribes that had taken over caused St. Augustine to turn back.
When he got back to Rome, however, Pope St. Gregory the Great convinced St. Augustine that he had to go and bring the Gospel to the English, and so he set out again. St. Augustine succeeded in converting King Aethelberht and many thousands of his people, reestablishing the communication between the people of Britain and the rest of western Europe, and establishing the Catholic Church in England. He would soon be ordained as the first bishop and then archbishop of Canterbury. In his 8 years in Canterbury, he worked to spread the Gospel, bring about conversions, and strengthen the bonds between the England and the Roman Church, in union with the Pope. He’s been venerated as a saint for well over 1000 years and is the patron saint of England.
If you go into just about any Catholic Church or home in the world, you’ll find the images of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints and angels, but if you go into a protestant home or church, a Jewish home or synagogue, or a Muslim home or mosque you probably won’t find images of God or the saints. They all believe that these images are idolatrous and basically equivalent to worshipping images as gods. Why is that, and how do Catholics use images?
Those who are against images point to Exodus 20:4-5 as their proof, which says, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor a likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on earth below, nor of those things which are in the waters under the earth. You shall not adore them, nor shall you worship them.” This read this as saying that we shouldn’t make any images of God, angels, humans, or animals because of the possibility that we might be tempted to worship them. However, if we look just 5 chapters later in the book of Exodus, we find God telling Moses how to build the tabernacle, “Likewise, you shall make two Cherubim of formed gold, on both sides of the oracle. Let one Cherub be on the one side and the other be on the other. And let them cover both sides of the propitiatory, spreading their wings and covering the oracle, and let them look out toward one another, their faces being turned toward the propitiatory, with which the ark is to be covered” (Ex 25:18-20). If God didn’t want us to make any images of anything “in heaven above,” then why did he command Moses to make these images of angels?
The Catholic, and original Christian, interpretation of Exodus 20 is that God doesn’t want us to make any images that are meant to be worshiped, or to worship any images. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 officially approved and regulated the use of images. Images of God or the saints are to receive veneration, they are to be respected and should not be treated with disdain or disrespect. They should not, however, be worshiped and adored, as worship and adoration are reserved for the person of God Himself. So, the Eucharist, which is the real presence of Jesus Christ, is to be worshipped and adored, and so we may kneel or even lay prostrate before Him present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, but a statue of the Sacred Heart should only be venerated.
The purpose of images is to call to mind the person, event, or idea that it represents. We can make an image of Jesus Christ because Jesus became man, and we can make an image of His human nature, and that image reminds us that God is always present with us and raises our minds and souls to worship God Himself. The images of our Blessed Mother, the saints, and the angels also make us think of those people, of their lives, of how they are alive in heaven and can pray for us, and can motivate us to imitate their holiness in our lives.
Just as the cherubim on the tabernacle weren’t thought to be real angels but only represented the cherubim who worship God constantly in heaven, so the images that we keep in our churches and homes and even in our cars (like those visor clips with the St. Christopher medal) can lead us to contemplate the realities that they represent and so draw us closer to God Himself.
Here in southern Louisiana we spend more time in nature than people do in many places. We enjoy and use nature when we hunt, fish, spend time in the wild, and live off the land. However, we also understand, better than many, the need to care for the land. Due to neglect and coastal erosion some of the bounty our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed is gone, and we’ve had to take steps to protect what remains. Since we just passed Earth Day on April 21 and Arbor Day on April 26, we should look at how the Church calls us to treat the world around us.
After God created the world, the animals and humanity, “God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.” After God made man and woman, he said, “God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.” The earth and nature are good and they are gifts from God. God has commanded us to both fill the earth and subdue it.
The Hebrew word for rule means literally “to tread under your feet,” as in treading grapes to make wine. We are given rule of the Earth so that we can make it serve our needs by cultivating it and using the produce of the land. However, the command to subdue the earth is connected to the command to “fill” it through having children. We are stewards of the earth, and we must protect it so that future generations will have all the good things of the land that we have.
In 2008, Pope emeritus Benedict said, “Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man. Rather, it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.”
We have to stay away from the two extreme views. There are those who actually believe that animals and plants are more important than people. They don't just want to reduce the human population, they want to eliminate it, believing that our absence will allow the environment to flourish.
On the other hand, there are those who wantonly violate and destroy nature for their own personal gain by polluting, destroying, and misusing it. They don't care about their responsibility to be good stewards of the gifts of the earth or about their responsibility to future generations.
God has given us the freedom to use creation for our own benefit, for our families, and for our communities, but He requires us to use it responsibly. We must consider how our actions affect the people around us and future generations.
Those in positions of authority in government have a responsibility to put in place laws and programs that protect creation for ourselves and future generations while at the same time respecting the right of people to use nature responsibly.
Those in the business world have a responsibility to steer their companies towards uses of creation that consider the good of the entire community and not just one person or company.
Parents have a responsibility to teach their children respect for the natural world so they can enjoy it safely and responsibly.
All individuals have a responsibility to respect creation as well, even it is by simply cleaning up your camp site or not littering.
Remember, Christ taught us that power means the power to serve others, not to be served. Even in how we treat creation, we must try to be of service to others, and not expect them to serve us.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.