Following upon their successful book The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition, which was a helpful primer going into the implementation of the revised Roman Missal during Advent 2011, Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina have teamed up again for what is certainly its logical sequel. The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home is a helpful journey through the important elements that make a typical Catholic church, well, Catholic.
If you have read the previous volume from Wuerl and Aquilina you will immediately notice that this new volume has a familiar look and feel to it. Many of the chapters are concise and to the point, and include helpful photographs that illustrate the particular feature being highlighted. It seems that every possible liturgical furnishing is examined in this book, from the importance of pews and kneelers to the poor box and ambry. My favorite line in the book comes on page 19, where the authors write: "Everything we see in a Catholic church is there for a single purpose: to tell a love story. It is a story as old as the world, and it involves the whole of creation, the vast expanse of history, and every human being who ever lived. It involves Almighty God, and it involves you." When I read those two sentences, my only response was a joyful "Yes!" How beautifully put! It sets the tone for the rest of the book.
The purpose of this book is to show that a church's art and architecture are there to communicate something that goes beyond its initial appearance. For example, the chapter that discusses the importance of church doors begins by referring to a moment in some Eastern liturgies when the deacon calls out, "the doors! The doors!" At that somewhat strange, almost awkward, moment, all those who were non-Christians during ancient times were sent outside the church doors, which were then locked. For only those who were baptized could "approach the altar for Holy Communion (132)." While that line remains in some of the Eastern liturgies, the custom of expelling the visitors has ceased. Yet, as Wuerl and Aquilina point out: "The liturgy preserves the line because it reminds us of the distinction between the Church and the world (132)."
I also found the chapter devoted to the Ambry to be quite informative. To be honest, I had really not given it much thought in the many years I have been going to church. I just figured that it was the glass box that we kept the oils in, however, there is much more to it than that. As most of you know, the ambry is the repository for the three different oils that are blessed at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday and then used in different sacramental rites throughout the year. The authors then went on to give more clarification to the word ambry: "The word ambry has workaday origins. It comes from the same Latin word from which we derive the word armory, and that Latin word, armarium, was often used to describe a laborer's toolbox. The oils and chrisms kept in the ambry are the tools of the Church's trade, so to speak (162)." That is just fascinating. It actually made me think back to Ephesians 6 and Paul's call to put on the whole "armor of God" for spiritual warfare. You can imagine going into a medieval armory and seeing all the major weapons being lined up and ready for use. In the same way, when you enter a Catholic church, our main weapons against the "principalities and powers" are there too, ready to be used for combat.
As you can see, I found this book a helpful reminder of the important theological reasons behind the way our churches are constructed. I also really appreciated the historical background that the book provides. This is a very accessible book, that would make a wonderful gift for someone who is new to the faith or perhaps someone who is beginning to take his/her faith seriously. You can access the very first chapter of this book here and give it a quick read to see if this is something you might want to purchase. I recommend that you do!
Thank you to Image Books for providing a review copy