Church buildings and furniture - continued

The Roman Catholic Church

Traditionally, Roman Catholic churches were built in the shape of a cross - cruciform - or a rectangle. However, many of the newer ones are circular. This is to stress the equality of all people as they worship in God’s house. In such places of worship the people either surround the altar or sit in a semi-circle in front of it. In both cases the symbolism is clear – the altar is the place where God meets with His people in the Eucharist, so it is appropriate for it to be in the middle of His people.

An example of a church built in the circular style is the St Oliver Plunkett Roman Catholic Church at Toomebridge – the altar is in the exact centre of the church and the worshippers sit round it.

Saint Oliver Plunkett Roman Catholic Church, Toome
Saint Oliver Plunkett Roman Catholic Church at Toomebridge (as mentioned above), photo by Kenneth Allen

Main features

  • Holy water font - Just inside the door of a Roman Catholic church there is a small container of holy water, which can either be on a stand or built into the wall. Worshippers dip their fingers into the water as they enter the church and make the sign of the cross on their bodies. The water has been blessed by a priest and symbolises new life and cleansing. The sign of the cross indicates that this new life comes through the death of Jesus. It also reminds Catholics of their baptism and reaffirms their faith.
  • Altar - This is the most noticeable feature of a Roman Catholic Church. In traditional cruciform churches the altar stands in the middle of the east wall, at the top of the cross shaped building. The east wall location was originally chosen as it is the most holy part of the church – this is because the sun rises in the east and it was seen as symbolic of the resurrection. The altar is where the priest celebrates the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The term ‘altar’ is used for this particular furnishing as Roman Catholics believe that Holy Communion is not a memorial of the Last Supper, but a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
  • Baptismal font - This holds the water needed when a baby is being baptised. In older Roman Catholic churches the baptismal font is located at the back, near the door. This is symbolic as the door is the entrance to a church, and a baptised baby has just entered his or her Christian life. However, in more modern churches the baptismal font is moved into the middle of the congregation. Again, this has symbolic significance. It is a reminder to the family of the baby, and the congregation, that baptism brings the baby into the heart of church fellowship where it will be cherished, loved and cared for.
  • Tabernacle - The tabernacle is a special box which is located behind the altar. After Mass, any consecrated bread which has not been used is placed inside it. Catholics believe that Christ is present in the bread and therefore it cannot be thrown away, so it is stored in the tabernacle to be used again. Sometimes this bread may be taken by the priest to any members of the church who are ill or housebound and cannot attend Mass. More importantly, keeping consecrated bread in a tabernacle means that Christ is present in the church in a special way. The sanctuary lamp, a small red light, shines when there is consecrated bread inside the tabernacle. Those entering the church will see the light and genuflect (bend their knee) in the direction of the tabernacle because they believe Christ is present there.
  • Ambo - This is the name given to the reading desk (or lectern) in the Roman Catholic Church. It is located near the front of the church to be a focal point. From here the Bible is read at each service.