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Parts of the sanctuary

First slide

Every part of a well-designed church is deliberately planned to bring glory to God — the shape, the artwork, the liturgical furnishings and everything in between. This final installment of the series aims to explain the art and architecture of diocesan churches, so the faithful can better appreciate the beauty around them.

Each Sunday, Catholics around the world gather in the nave of the church with eyes fixed toward the sanctuary. All the liturgical furnishings and art within the sanctuary provide both function and beauty for the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Here are a few of the parts of a sanctuary:


According to How to Read Churches by Denis R. McNamara, “many altars include elaborate screens showing images of Christ and the saints known by the French term reredos, a combination of the words for ‘behind’ and ‘back,’ indicating the location of the screen in relation to the altar.” The reredos at Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria fittingly feature golden statues of the 12 Apostles and Blessed Mother.


As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The altar ... represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of sacrifice and the table of the Lord,” both the Last Supper and the crucifixion. Most altars contain relics of saints, a tradition that began with the early church when Mass was celebrated in the catacombs on the tombs of martyred Christians.


At least two candles must be present for Mass, said Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for catechetics and sacred liturgy, but most churches have several around the altar and throughout the sanctuary. The larger and more ornate paschal candle is lit during the Easter Vigil Mass. It is the candle from which all baptismal candles are lit year round. The light signifies the flame of faith and the illuminating power of Christ.


The step or steps leading up to the sanctuary help create the sense that the sanctuary is a distinct space within the church. McNamara writes that the elevation “(evokes) the holy mountain, a microcosm of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and image of God’s enthroned heights.”


Sometimes called a pulpit, the ambo is used for the readings, the Gospel and the homily. In Queen of Apostles, as in many churches, the style of the reredos, altar and ambo all complement each another.


The apse is a semicircular feature at the back wall of a church, in this case directly above the tabernacle. The apse at Queen of Apostles shows God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as a dove in the clouds of heaven.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016