CONCISE OVERVIEW OF
ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
In the municipal boys’ school in the outskirts of Antwerp, my day invariably started with half an hour of catechism. Later, my favourite subject was devoted to Sacred History. And in the sixth year, we even had a textbook on liturgy. In the first year, our teacher prepared us for our first communion, including a visit to the sacristy, where the priest who would administer this sacrament initiated us in the various church vestments. Since then, we also went every month with the entire class confessing all our sins and were encouraged to go to Mass every day. That we did this every Sunday was obvious and to actively take part in the worship, a father came to teach us a song on Saturday that would be sung in Mass the next day. As I wrote, this was a municipal school. I suspect this was just a decay of what happened in a very Catholic school.
You may think I am Medieval, but I am not – at most, a man who just passed middle age. At my first communion, the priest stood with his back to the faithful for most of the celebration and prayed in Latin, but six years later the altar was brought forward, the pastor looked at us and spoke Dutch.
So, like many of my peers, I have been educated as a decent Catholic. But the dust of time covers so much knowledge. As a result, when reading the above text, some may have wondered what I meant by “father”, “priest” and “pastor”. Because a father is a priest, but not every priest is a father and certainly not a pastor. And what is a “sacristy”? And if anyone would ask to explain what a “sacrament” is, or an “altar,” would this work?
Like every other domain in our society, the Church has its specific vocabulary. For people who want to dust off or refresh their former knowledge, this booklet is intended, but also for anyone who wants to know the correct terminology for whatever reason.
Because words only take on meaning in a context, I have tried to put as many words as possible in a text about one specific aspect of the church and its servants in a first part. On the right you can access a glossary of definitions, descriptions and/or explanations.
I have limited myself in this. Maybe some curiosity has crept in, but I tried to avoid it as much as possible. Some of the glossary concepts are filling libraries, so I sometimes had to simplify greatly at risk of not being 100% correct. I apologize for this.
I wish you to enjoy reading and refresh.
Oud Turnhout 2020
Many thanks to Kristin De Raeymaecker, Louise Stroobants, Dirk Vermeiren and E.H. Rudi Mannaerts for their critical look and advice.
Translated from the original Dutch version by Marc Dehaese.
The first churches were basilicas with an apse, according to Roman model, or hall churches. In the course of history, we also see exceptional round or polygonal church buildings. Since the Middle Ages, and until the middle of the 20th century, most church buildings have a ground plan in the form of a Latin cross.
Churches with a cross-shaped ground plan consist of a choir and a ship, which are in each other’s extension and crossed by a transept. The place where these three parts meets is called the crossing.
In length, the ship is divided into several beeches: the nave in the middle and on each side of it one or more aisles. The number of aisles is usually the same on each side, so that a church consists of 3 or 5 beeches. The Antwerp Cathedral is exceptional as it has 7 beeches.
In a large church, the choir can be surrounded by an ambulatory giving way to several chapels [choral chapels and radiating chapels]. In this case, the choir is sometimes separated from the crossing by a rood screen. In Belgium we use the same name for the high balcony on which the organ usually stands above the entrance of a church.
Ancient pilgrimage churches sometimes have a crypt, where relics are preserved, and which is usually set up as a chapel.
An important component is the sacristy.
People usually enter the church through a draft portal. In the oldest churches it is noticeable that there is still a large room ahead of the actual church. This is the narthex, which was reserved for the unbaptised and/or penitents.
At the very front of the choir stands the main altar. At the end of the aisles there may also be side altars. Some churches also have altars at pillars, possibly within an altar garden. In a cathedral, a collegiate church, and a monastery church the choir is flanked by choir benches, which together form the choir chair. Sometimes you will also find church master’s benches in the front.
Nowadays, lecturers usually just stand behind a lectern. In old churches one sometimes finds ambos, from where the lectures were given: left [north] the gospel side, right [south] the epistle side. The same lecturer’s lectern is nowadays used by the preacher for the homily. It used to be from the pulpit.
In a church you will also find some furniture related to the sacraments: the font [not to be confused with a holy water vessel] and the confessionals. The tabernacle, in which the consecrated hosties are kept, is essential for the Eucharist. After the Second Vatican Council, the communion benches disappeared in most churches. Only those with great artistic value were preserved.
ECCLESIASTICAL OBJECTS AND DECORATIONS
The most common object in a church is the cross. When the crucified Jesus is depicted on it, this is usually a Latin cross. Naked crosses are often Greek crosses. Above the entrance of the choir usually hangs a triumphal cross; when there is a rood screen, the triumphal cross is placed on it. Since 1741 you find in the ship pictures of the fourteen stations of the way of the cross.
Each altar is equipped with an altar stone. This is usually hidden under a stray. The altar can be tucked in front (partly) behind an antependium. When the altar is against a wall or pillar, there may be an altar piece [retable].
During mass the priest reads the prayers of that day from the missal. For the Bible readings there is the lectionary.
For the Eucharist the altar boy or acolyte brings the chalice. On it lies the chalice cloth and the paten with the hostie; it is protected by the pall and there is sometimes a chalice veil on it. On the altar, the chalice and the paten are placed on the corporal. Then the ampoules are brought. The priest pours wine and a little water from the ampoules into the chalice.
During communion the consecrated hosties are awarded from a ciborium. In it they are also kept within the tabernacle. There they hide under a ciborium veil. To carry consecrated hosties outside the church to, for example, bring communion to the sick, one uses a pyxis.
To show that there are consecrated hosties in the tabernacle, the god lamp lights. This state or hangs near the tabernacle.
When the consecrated hostie is displayed for worship, it is placed in a monstrance.
On solemn occasions, special honour is paid to people and objects with the incense barrel.
Geographically, the entire inhabited world is divided into church provinces, which in turn consist of dioceses, from which the local Church is governed. The most important diocese within a church province is the Archdiocese. At the head of a diocese is a bishop. He is assisted by various vicars. A diocese consists of several deaneries, each led by a dean. Each deanery counts several parishes with a pastor, which bears the ultimate responsibility. All these persons are priests. In addition, non-priests can also be appointed for parish work: deacons and pastoral workers.
During a ceremony, a priest can be assisted by one or more altar boys, acolytes and lectors. For the material care in a church, the sacristan is very important. The church masters take care of the financial management of the church’s patrimony.
There are two types of priests: secular and regular. Regular priests are part of a certain monastic order and therefore fall under the authority of their superior. Secular priests are not monastics and therefore fall under the authority of a bishop.
In men’s monasteries and abbeys there are usually two kinds of clergy: those who are priests – fathers – and those who are not – brethren. Members of a monastic order that devotes itself mainly to spiritual life are called monks. Members of a women’s monastery are convent sisters. If they do not leave the monastery site according to their rule, they are nuns.
Beguines distinguished themselves from sisters because, like their male counterparts the beghards, they took only temporary vows and no vow of poverty. Even less bound were the spiritual daughters.
People who live spiritual lives in total seclusion are called hermits.
To a cathedral and other important churches a chapter of canons is connected, who vouch for the choral prayer.
The highest function, after that of pope, in the Church is that of Cardinal.
Since the Second Vatican Council, most religious people wear in ordinary life clothes that do not stand out from those of other people. Some religious people want to be visible as such: men wear a clergyman, and women wear a cap. More traditional priests wear a soutane [possibly with a cincture] and on the head sometimes a bonnet.
Monks and nuns wear a habit. Most religious orders have specific dress codes. Their members are therefore recognizable by their habit. Franciscans wear a brown habit and around the waist a rope having three buttons. Norbertines are also called White Canons because they wear a white soutane. Dominicans traditionally wore a white habit with a black cloak and trappists a white habit with a black scapular on top.
In religious ceremonies, priests, deacons, altar boys and acolytes carry an alb. During mass, priests wear a stool arranged over both shoulder and with the two ends in front equally long, with a cincture around the waist. A chasuble is carried over this. Chasuble and stool have the liturgical colours.
When deacons wear a stool, they do so over the left shoulder diagonally over the chest. At religious ceremonies they can also wear a dalmatic) in the proper liturgical colour.
Altar boys and acolytes sometimes wear a white surplice above a black or red bar.
Like other priests, bishops can wear a bonnet. However, the most eye-catching headpiece of a bishop is the mitre. He only wears it in ceremonies. Under the mitre he wears a solideo, which he drops off ‘only for God’, during the Eucharistic prayer.
For a pope, in addition to the mitre and the solideo, there are two specific headgears, which have fallen somewhat into disuse. The state crown, the tiara, was last worn in 1964. The camauro also fell into disuse and was carried one more time by Pope Benedict XVI: in the winter of 2005. It was bitterly cold in St. Peter’s Square.