Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

Together at Mass

Together at Mass 5

How lovely is your house, O Lord.

It is good for us to remember what prompted this series of leaflets and talks on the Liturgy of the Mass. We are currently having major repair and maintenance work done to our church. It seemed to be an opportune moment to re-examine what we do inside the church. So, in today’s leaflet, we will have a look at the church building itself, to see what it has to say about the way we worship. A thoughtful examination of the lay-out of the church will tell us more about the shape of the Mass and of our different parts within it. We Gather at Mass on Sunday because we are God’s people, called through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We gather so that we can become more perfectly and more visibly God’s people, to celebrate all that God has done for us and to share in offering him a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.

We Listen to the Word of God, not as individual people but as an assembled people. Over and over again, in many different ways, we hear God say to us: “You are my beloved people, and I am your God”. We hear retold the story of God’s reaching out to the whole of humanity, through the stories of creation - the history of salvation - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - the writings of the early Church. We remember that we are part of that same story.

We Respond to God’s love with thanks and praise. We remember what Jesus did for us by his death and resurrection, gathering around the table of his Body and Blood, so that we may become “one body, one spirit, in Christ”. With him and through him and in him, we offer ourselves to the Father.

We are sent out into the world to spread the , the Good News of salvation Christ has brought to the whole world, to proclaim and work for the Kingdom of God in today’s world, a kingdom of truth, love, justice and peace.



Getting our bearings

To give us time to linger on the notion of becoming a worshipping community, we will pause for a while this week and examine the place where we assemble. We noted in last week’s paper that the primary purpose of our church building is to give us a place where we can gather together as a family. It was described there as the living room of God’s family.

The nave of the church
When you look at the plan of a church, you will usually find the main body of the building named as the “nave” (from the Latin word ‘navis’ meaning a “boat”). Different accounts are given about the origin of this use of the word. Some see it as the Ark of Salvation, like the Ark of Noah; others speak of the Barque of Peter. In general it was used to denote that part of the building which was separated from the sanctuary area. That was the place for the laity.

Note, however, the present lay-out of our church—there are no separating barriers, rails or screens. The entire space is one, intended to gather a united people. If the space at the front is slightly elevated, it is so that it may be clearly seen as the focus of the sacred action, not to cut it off from the rest.

1. The altar. Our attention is drawn first to the altar. It was during a meal, the Last Supper, that Jesus instituted the Mass. Ever since then the Church has been true to his command to “Do this in memory of me”. But in the course of history the manner of “doing this” has changed. In early days the Christian community gathered round a simple table for what they called the ‘breaking of bread’.

As time passed and the Church’s understanding of the liturgy changed, the shape and position of the altar changed. Eventually it was placed at the very back of the sanctuary area, where the priest would stand with his back to the people. On it rested the tabernacle, and above it there would often be a large and very intricately designed reredos.

The sense of a table had been lost, but with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church returned to its roots concerning the altar. It has become again a free-standing table, not simply so that people can see what is happening there, but so that it may be recognised as the table of sacrifice around which Christ gathers his community to nourish them.

On the front of our altar are two symbols; what looks like a cross and a letter ‘P’ is really two Greek letters ‘ch’ and ‘r’, first letters of ’Christ’. The other two letters are ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet—reminding us Christ is the beginning and end.


2. The Lectern: Those who were altar-boys in the past will remember how they had to carry the heavy missal from one side of the altar to the other, as the priest moved from reading the Epistle to go on to read the Gospel. Since the passages from Scripture were being read in Latin, there was no need for the priest to move away from the altar; he simply read to himself, in silence.

One of the major points in the revision of the Mass was the important place given to the proclamation of the scripture readings. The Lectern is spoken of as “the table of God’s word”. This is not just some sort of book-stand; the lectern has a distinct dignity as the place from which God speaks to his people. The image on the front of our lectern, depicting a dove and rays of power descending, reminds us of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the composition of the Bible. We will reflect on the Liturgy of the Word in next week’s leaflet.

3. The Presider’s Chair: This is a title which may be unfamiliar to some. The role of the priest is described as follows in the General Instruction of the Missal: the priest “presides over the assembly in the person of Christ, leads it in prayer, proclaims the message of salvation, leads the people in offering sacrifice through Christ in the Spirit to the Father, and shares with them the bread of eternal life”. This description is yet again a powerful statement of the fact that the action of the Mass belongs to priest and people together. If the chair is in a prominent and slightly elevated position, it is not to make the priest presider remote from the rest of the assembly. Rather the opposite—it is so that he may be clearly seen and heard as he exercises his presiding role within the assembly.

4. The Tabernacle: Some readers may be surprised that this has been mentioned last. After all, this is the ‘tabernacle’ (which means a ‘tent’); this is the dwelling place of Christ among us in the Blessed Sacrament. Were we not taught that the first thing to look for on entering a church was the tabernacle, with the red lamp burning before it to remind us of the presence of Christ? Surely that is where we should have started out little tour of the church? Why did we not do so?

Quite simply because we are concentrating in these papers on our assembling for the celebration of the Mass. We come together to participate in a sacred action, and the church is designed primarily for that action. That is why we have been reflecting on the uniting space in the church, drawing us all together as one; on the presiding role of the priest, leading the assembly in prayer; on the lectern from which God speaks to his people; and on the altar, the table of the Lord’s Body and Blood, given for our nourishment, making us one in communion.

Now beyond the action of celebrating the eucharist, the Church has a most ancient tradition of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, to keep with reverence any consecrated bread not consumed at Mass, to bring communion to the sick, and to encourage private devotion. The respect we pay to the presence of Christ in the tabernacle is in no way to be diminished. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament will always remain at the heart of our Catholic faith and practice, and it will continue to be a source of increased fervour in our personal participation on the action of the Mass.



The Second Vatican Council

Reference has been made several times already to the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council. Many parishioners will remember that event, but many others will simply be left feeling bewildered, and wondering what was this “Vatican II” that Catholics talk about so often? So what can be said briefly?

In reaction to the many problems of the sixteenth century Reformation, the Catholic Church became very fixed in ways of expressing and of practicing the faith. But during the nineteenth century, there were small beginnings of some new developments which were to grow later into important movements:
— a new interest in the Bible was growing, at first very cautiously. For many Catholics the Bible, the Word of God, which had remained a closed book, was now being opening up to them.
—through the work of Benedictine monasteries, especially of France, the ancient beauty of the liturgy was being rediscovered and restored, opening up renewed understanding of the whole of the liturgy of the Mass and the sacraments.
—the study of the great teachers of the early Church, the “Fathers” of the first six centuries, was bringing fresh insights into the beliefs and the structures of the Church, bringing to light many things that had been forgotten.

These developments grew slowly and gradually gained ground during the last century. They gave rise to enriched understanding of many aspects of Church life. During the 1940’s Pope Pius XII supported these initiatives with firm guidance for their future development. Especially important were three of his encyclicals - on the study of Scripture, on the reform of Liturgy, and on the nature of the Church. These documents of Pius XII gave shape to these developments, which would later be of great importance to the work of the Second Vatican Council. But still there was a sense in which the Catholic Church was closed in on itself.

The key figure in the next stage of development was Pope John XXIII. Elected Pope in 1958, he announced in January 1959 his intention to call a Council of the Church. He wanted, through the Council, “to open the windows and let in a bit of fresh air”. He used the word “aggiornamento” to describe his intentions, seeking to revitalise the Church, to strengthen work for Church unity, to allow the whole Church to be a real sign of salvation and an instrument of peace in the world.

The Second Vatican Council was the twenty-first ecumenical (world-wide) council of the Church. Over 2600 bishops and several hundred theologians and other specialist consultants attended the Council. But numbers were not the only point of significance; it was also the most representative council in terms of nations and cultures. In addition the council was attended by representatives of other Christian churches, and by lay observers.

The Council opened on October 11th 1962. Pope John died in 1963, between the first and second sessions, leaving it to his successor, Pope Paul VI, to oversee the completion of its work. Pope Paul formally closed the Council on December 8th 1965. After a truly colossal amount of prayerful study, vigorous debate and work in drafting committees, the Council produced sixteen documents setting out new directives for future development in the Church. The first of these was devoted to the reform of the Liturgy of the Church.