Tag Archives: catholicism

#27 — Sacred Words

Catholicism is filled with sacred words to accompany the sacred gestures, time, space, and objects.

The most sacred words, of course, are the words of Scripture, and within that, the Gospel accounts. One of the first things visitors notice is the treating of those words as sacred. When the priest or deacon begins the reading, saying, “A reading from the Gospel of…”, parishioners make three small crosses with their right thumb: one on the forehead (belief), one on the lips (desire to proselytize), and one on the breast above the heart (desire to keep the words in one’s heart). Thus, the sacred words are a catalyst for sacred gestures.

Prayer is another moment when sacred words bring forth an accompanying gesture. When a Catholic begins a prayer, she intones, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and makes the sign of the cross simultaneously. The one without the other is incomplete, and while it might become a mere habit with some Catholics, I’ve seen some obviously sincere moments was parishioners cross themselves, and that sincerity itself is moving.

Not all sacred words are for all Catholics, though. Some obviously are reserved for priests. Blessings and absolution come to mind, but they’re not the most important sacred words a priest can utter; the Eucharistic Prayer is. The highlight of the mass is the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. They revere it accordingly. Of course this is not always the case: unconsecrated hosts are simply that — hosts. So there comes a moment when, according to the Church, the Holy Spirit transforms the hosts. A skeptic might say, “Hocus pocus — nothing more than cheap parlor magic,” and I myself said the same thing for years. Yet whether or not it’s effective is not my point here: the fact that the tradition of sacred words continues is somehow admirable. I suppose it’s the faith that impresses me.


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#26 — Confession

Confessional in Poland

Confessional in Poland

Confession is perhaps one of the most inexplicable elements of Catholicism for non-Catholics. The common view is, “Why should I confess to a priest instead of confessing directly to God?”

It’s not my intent to discuss whether or not confession is, as Protestants would press, strictly Biblical. In that end, I’ll mention only the basics: The Catholic Church bases confession primarily on two passages. The first is John 20:19-23:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgivn; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The other is the renaming of Simon in Matthew 16:17-19:

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

One can argue about the interpretation of those passages, but even a cursory reading seems to indicate that the Catholic Church is on fairly solid ground, Scripturally speaking.

Still, I’m not interested in proving anything; I’m fascinated simply by the act. So many non-Catholics seem to find it appalling, but it seems to be a healthy way to deal with guilt — provided one is a believer. As I understand it, confession is not merely a matter of saying, “I’ve done this,” and the priest responding, “Now go do this.” If one is fortunate enough to get a good confessor, it seems like it would be more of a dialogue than a diatribe. One would not be going to confession over a matter one didn’t think was a character flaw. The act of confessing — truly confessing, and not just going through the motions — indicates that one wants to change, and discussing how to make those changes seems healthy.

It is, after all, what psychiatrists do.

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#25 — Mysticism

Mysticism is one of the many elements of religion that seem to exist in every faith. It is present in monotheistic religions and Eastern religions alike: there are Christian mystics, Muslim mystics, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu mystics.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines mysticism as “either a religioustendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire.” In that sense, it’s easy to see why mysticism is a religious universal.

Yet by and large, there are no Protestant mystics. Indeed, part of the Reformation was a rejection of all that’s non-Biblical, and so reformers viewed mysticism skeptically.

Catholic history, though, is filled with mystical visions and experiences. As with so many other aspects of Catholicism, it seems to me to be something admirable regardless of one’s personal take on it. To so vehemently defend the importance of something the rest of the “modern” world explains away is the height of either or trust. Or perhaps a mix of the two.

It stands to reason that Catholics would be more included to accept mysticism than Protestants: at the heart of the Catholic faith is mystery. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” says the priest at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, to which English speaking parishioners make one of four responses:

  • Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
  • Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.
  • When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.
  • Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

The mystery the priest speaks of is not a Mystery Machine type of mystery. In this sense, mystery simply means something we cannot fully grasp through reason.


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#24 — Sacred Gestures

For a long time I felt a little ill at ease when I was attending a Mass and realized I wasn’t doing the gestures everyone around me was doing. On entering the Church, they dipped a finger in holy water and crossed themselves; I didn’t. When crossing in front of the tabernacle, they stopped genuflected or bowed; I didn’t. Just before entering the pews, they genuflected and crossed themselves; I didn’t. When the priest opens the Mass with “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” they crossed themselves again; I didn’t. When they spoke the creed or the Confiteor, I remain silent. When they struck their breast during the “mea culpa” phrase of the Confiteor (at least in Poland), I remained motionless. When they made the sign of the cross on their forehead, their lips, and their heart before the reading of the Gospel, my hands stayed by my side. I stood when they stood, knelt when they knelt, and sat when they sat, but otherwise, I was strictly an observer.

And I felt conspicuous.

At last I began going through the motions, literally and figuratively. What an odd feeling to begin crossing oneself at the age of thirty-eight.

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#23 — Reasonable Redux

For example, if one were to set a Lenten goal and were not be able to make it despite intentions to the contrary, the Church is wise enough to realize that in many things, the intentions are as important, if not more important, than the actual action. And that is why I can write this exhausted post and still feel I’m keeping my Lenten promise.


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#22 — Visual

Any Catholic space is a feast for the eyes. There’s so much to look at that it’s almost overwhelming: stained glass, statues, icons, frescoes, murals, carvings — a traditional (i.e., old, European) Catholic church is filled with visual stimuli.


Even the simplest wooden church is filled with details that drawn individuals to get a closer look. And entering a great cathedral like Notre Dame of Strassbourg is an overwhelming visual experience.

Yet it’s not just what individuals see now that sets apart Catholicism; there’s a history of visions throughout the Church: corporal visions, imaginative visions, intellectual visions, visions of saints, visions of demons, and probably, at least once, visions of visions. They’ve happened all over the world, and they continue occurring today, so there’s something in Catholicism that either encourages this or encourages believers by causing this. It’s either wish fulfillment or genuine experience — or a mixture of both.

Now I’m not going to suggest that this impresses me. I don’t know whether these seers actually had an experience or whether it was all suggestion and will. That’s not something I can decide. However, I find it striking how very important vision is in the Catholic faith, especially compared to other faiths. Seeing is not believing, but it helps, and Catholicism realizes that and makes use of it.


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#21 — Authority

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont of 10...One of the reasons there are so many Protestant denominations is that they don’t recognize a common authority beyond Scripture. The problem with that is simple: whose interpretation is correct? When we look at the varied beliefs of Christians and the doctrines that are contentious (infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, the nature of justification, salvation, divorce and remarriage), it’s sometimes difficult to wonder how they can all claim to be within the same religion.

When Luther broke with the Catholic Church, he expected most believers to follow him and that would have been that. No one was supposed to break from him, and in fact, he anticipated mass conversions of Jews to his purified Christianity.

What he got instead was not a reformed church but reformed churches.

What’s more, he set a precedent: when one claims that the Bible alone is one’s authority, then one necessarily and inescapably adds one’s interpretation into the mix. Sola scriptura might more accurately be “by scripture and interpretation alone” (try as I may, I can’t figure out what that would be in Latin). Without an authority to determine which interpretation is appropriate and which is not, we’re lost. To suggest, as some do, that the Bible somehow interprets itself doesn’t solve the problem at all, for any and all reading requires interpretation. To read is to interpret, and to read one part of a text in order to interpret another part doesn’t magically lift us out of the interpretation quagmire.

The Catholic Church, though, claims to have that authority. Other groups do as well, to be sure, but not many other groups can trace their history back as far as the Church. Not many other groups can claim to have made the decisions about which books and epistles to include in the canonization process and which to exclude. Not many other groups can claim an unbroken line of successive authority back to 32 AD.

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#20 — Fr. Robert Barron

Father Robert Barron is what one might call a rising star in Catholic apologetics and philosophy. A professor of Systematic Theology at The University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, Barron runs the Word On Fire website, which includes an enormous number of resources. What’s striking about Barron is how he manages to balance theology, philosophy, literature, and culture in each and every lecture, sermon, or talk he gives. He is one of those rare intellectuals who doesn’t sound like an intellectual.

Here’s a prime example: his discussion of “All Along the Watchtower.”

He also discusses everything from The Matrix to Christopher Hitchens — in a word, everything.

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#19 — Plainsong

My first, indirect exposure to Catholicism was in a friend’s living room in Knoxville, Tennessee sometime in the early 1990s. Several of us were staying over with this friends family, and as we sat talking that evening, she put on Enigma’s debut album, MCMXC a.D. It was the first time I’d really heard plainsong, though it was layered under so much sampling and shallow lyrics that I really didn’t know the power of what I was hearing. But I was curious: I wanted to hear pure chant, without all the drum machines and pan flute melodies.

It seemed such a simple idea: a single melody, often limited to a handful of individual tones, sung by dozens of voices. No harmonies; no differentiation whatsoever. Polyphonic choral music– the famous SATB — seemed overly complicated in comparison.

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#18 — Ancient

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

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The church I grew up in was founded in 1934. My best friend growing up attended a church that was twenty years older. My next door neighbor attended a church with a denomination that was began in 1609. A good friend from high school traces her denomination’s roots to 1521.  Yet the Catholic Church, by its reckoning, is older than all of these combined and doubled.

Of course many Protestants — particularly many here in the south — hold that Catholicism was a perversion of the original church, and  thus the founding of the Church cannot be traced by to the first century. Yet even if we take the official start of the Catholic Church as late as 313, with Constantine’s Edict of Milan, it still has 1,200+ years’ experience over the first major Protestant division. (I’m leaving aside the Great Schism of 1054, which led to the division of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. By and large, though, the theologies of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have a great deal in common.)

That’s a lot of time for doctrinal evolution.

What’s most amazing is that during that time, the core Catholic theology has never come into question. The papacy might have descended into immoral chaos, the bureaucracy of the church might have condoned, encouraged, and even committed awful acts, and corruption might have been rampant, but the doctrines remained steady. What we find in the early Church Fathers is eerily similar to the theology we see in the Catholic Church — a fact that has led to several notable Protestant-to-Catholic conversions during the last few decades.

What does it take for an institution to last so many centuries?


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#17 — Universality

“Catholic” means “universal,” and that is an apt description. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a local priest with a reputation that extends well beyond the region, explains it better than I could:

We had confirmation at Our Lady of the Rosary parish on Tuesday. What I love about the Catholic Church is her universality. In the congregation were Vietnamese, Palestinians, Nigerians, Poles, Philippinos, Mexicans, El Salvadoreans, French, German and more…why there were even a few converts there too.

We were all united in one church, one faith, one baptism. The bishop was there and our priesthood was united with his and with the gift of Our Lord to the Apostles.

In addition to the ethnic mix there was the socio-economic mix–executives from Michelin and BMW mixing with Mexican immigrants and everyone in between. (Source)

Another measure of the universality of the faith is the number of languages used to celebrate Mass at a given church. The church we attend has Mass in English, Spanish, and, once a month, Polish. Other, larger cities certainly have even more variety.


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#14 — Sacred Time

2007 Corpus Christi procession in Lowicz, Pola...

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Catholicism is centered around a sacred calendar, which means there is a notion of sacred time. Indeed, the whole reason I’m attempting to write daily about something positive in Catholicism is due to our being in the midst of Lent, one of several periods of the year that are juxtaposed to “ordinary time.” Additionally, sprinkled among the various holy and ordinary times are saints’ days and holy days, serving as temporal mile markers throughout the year.

Yet like many things in Catholicism, it’s not simply that there are periods of the year that are holy while others are ordinary. Time itself has a sacrality about it because of the historical nature of the religion. Christianity is based on events that happened in time, and Catholicism punctuates time with the offering of the various sacraments, but most especially through the daily Eucharist.

This heavy reliance on time gives a rhythm to Catholicism that is lacking in many forms of Protestantism. Because of the recurring holy times, a pattern emerges: Lent leads to Easter, with the Feast of Corpus Christi and a handful of other holy days  punctuating the long period leading to Advent and Christmas. And then the cycle repeats. The overall effect of this is not immediately obvious, but essentially Catholics are commemorating the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection on a yearly basis.

It’s no wonder Catholics use the various feast days as temporal references for memories. One thinks of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet discussing Juliet’s age with Lady Capulet:


Thou know’st my daughter’s of a pretty age.


Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour.


She’s not fourteen.


I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth,–
And yet, to my teeth be it spoken, I have but four–
She is not fourteen. How long is it now
To Lammas-tide?


A fortnight and odd days.


Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.

Perhaps one reason I like this sense of temporal rhythm is that it reminds me of my youth and our church’s peculiar insistence on observing Jewish feasts. Those festivals provided a sense of continuity from year to year, something to look forward to and something to reminisce about.


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#13 — Steadfastness with Reasonableness

Catholicism is steadfast. There are simply some things — many things — that are non-negotiable. Whether or not I agree with all of those particular positions, I admit that I admire the Church’s willingness to take stands on issues that it knows will not easily or immediately win converts and may in fact drive some people away. It doesn’t seek popularity; it seeks truth. It is, in other words, the exact opposite of contemporary politics, where compromise is everything.

Yet the Church is not unreasonable. The Church teaches abortion to be a sin so grave as to warrant immediate and automatic excommunication. However, far from being absolutist on the issue, the Church admits several reasonable exceptions:

To actually incur the excommunication one must know that it is an excommunicable offense at the time of the abortion. Canon 1323 provides that the following do not incur a sanction, those who are not yet 16, are unaware of a law, do not advert to it or are in error about its scope, were forced or had an unforeseeable accident, acted out of grave fear, or who lacked the use of reason (except culpably, as by drunkenness). Thus a woman forced by an abusive husband to have an abortion would not incur an excommunication, for instance, whereas someone culpably under the influence of drugs or alcohol would (canon 1325). (Source)

Even the excommunication for abortion is not the final response to the act the Church so consistently teaches and campaigns against. Like all sins, it is something that can be confessed and forgiven, with absolution for the excommunication.

The pro-choice response to this would likely be, “Well, the Church shouldn’t excommunicate for abortion to begin with; it’s the woman’s body and the woman’s choice.” That strikes me as more unbending, more absolute that the Church. For pro-choice advocates, the Catholic Church’s preaching against abortion is always and forever wrong, and as such unforgivable; for the Catholic Church, the purposeful ending of a pregnancy is always and forever wrong, but it is forgivable.

The Catholic Church’s reasonableness is not limited to social issues. Its theology is circumspect as well. One of the most troubling doctrines of Christianity is the existence of hell. An extreme Protestant position always struck me as unreasonable: individuals who have not heard of Jesus and his sacrifice are unquestionably condemned to the flames, thus adding great impetus to proselytization. The Catholic position is much more nuanced: it simply states that, apart from saints, humans can’t know who will be condemned and who won’t. While not a pluralistic theology (i.e., all are saved no matter what), it is much more respectful of the simple fact that it would be God, not humanity, making such decisions. It’s a frank admission of a quirky religious agnosticism.


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#10 — Smells

The camera was lent to me by my dear little br...

Image via Wikipedia

Walking into an ancient Catholic church can be overwhelming to the senses: the magnificence of the architecture, the completeness of the silence punctuated by echoing footsteps, the cool damp air on one’s skin. Yet for first time visitors, the most distinctive surprise is the odors of a church.

A mix of old incense, wood, dampness, stone, cleaning solutions, humanity, and a thousand other mysterious odors almost seduce me from the moment I first entered an historic Catholic church. The stone has been gathering the breath of believers for ages, and the natural dampness of the air activates these strong, earthy odors in the walls and floors. Incense, one of the most noticeable Catholic/Orthodox distinctive practices, lingers from Mass to Mass, mixing with the stones and damp to form a redolence that can only be described as the smell of tradition.

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#9 — The Singularity of Mass

If a deacon participates, he reads the Gospel....
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The first time I attended a church other than the one I grew up in, I was shocked at how utterly different the service was compared to what I was used to. When the pastor began, “Our scripture for today is…”, I immediately began wondering how in the world one could possibly have a sermon with one scripture. I was so accustomed to sermons that often amounted to an artillery barrage of verses that having a sermon with only one verses seemed like having a car with only one wheel.

As I visited other churches, I found that not only did every denomination have its own liturgy but also every single church within a denomination might have its own version. Going to churches in other countries, I imagined, might uncover even more differences.

Today, one can find a liturgy to fit whatever mood one might be in. Looking for something heavy on entertainment? Head to the nearest mega-church. Looking for a calm, quiet, predictable service? Look for Methodists or Presbyterians. Want a little danger in your worship? Seek out the few remaining snake-handling, strychnine-drinking Pentecostals in the hills of Appalachia.

The Catholic Mass, however, is different because it’s the same. No matter the country, no matter language, no matter the culture, the Mass is the same. Before Vatican II and the introduction of Mass in the vernacular, it would literally be the same wherever one went. And here’s the thing that really impresses me: it’s been that way for centuries. The Mass of today would be recognizable, more or less, to Thomas Aquinas as much as it would be to G. K. Chesterton. Certainly the hymns would be different, and the use of the vernacular (as opposed to Latin) would probably seem odd, but the heart of the Mass itself would be comfortingly familiar to both men.

I realize I’m using broad strokes here: there are certainly minor cultural differences in the Mass, and the Catholic church isn’t the only church to achieve this liturgical homogeneity. But one thing is certain: it’s had this homogeneity longer than any other institution in the West, and there’s something to be said for an institution that can be that grounded in the past and the present.


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#8 — Cathedrals

Even those who know nothing about Catholic theology know about Catholic cathedrals. Religions in general have a way of inspiring great architecture, for sacred objects and sacred time requires sacred space. St. Peter’s, Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, Canterbury, Chartres, Reims, St. John the Divine, Westminster Abbey, and seemingly countless others tend to be top tourist destinations even for non-believers. Everyone wanders in, looks about, and inevitably looks up — which, at least in the case of Gothic architecture, was the whole point.

Basilica of St. Mary

The scale is impressive enough, but for the faithful, cathedrals can be only grand, for they house the “body, blood, soul and divinity” of Jesus, according to the doctrine of the Real Presence. Whether one believes the doctrine or not is somewhat irrelevant: the designers, builders, and curators of the cathedrals did, and those attending services did and still do believe it. If one believes that Jesus is really present in the host (which is the heart of the doctrine of the Real Presence), then it’s only logical to build the best tabernacle imaginable to house said host.


This goes a long way in answering the objection a friend from the States raised as we wandered in and out of churches in Krakow just K’s and my wedding. “How does this help anyone spiritually?” he asked. The Catholic answer is, “They weren’t built primarily for man but for God.”


Whomever they were built for seems almost irrelevant when I’m standing in the middle of a soaring cathedral, wondering at the engineering required both to design and to construct such spaces.

View from the Crypt

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#7 — Sacred Objects

Breaking of the bread.

Image via Wikipedia

Among the elements that sets Catholicism apart from almost all other Christian denominations is the notion of the sacred embodied in the physical. There are a host of sacred objects in Catholicism, while Protestantism considers almost nothing on Earth sacred. Only God is sacred, say Protestants, and that was indeed one of the myriad motivations for the separation of the Protestant denominations from the Catholic church.

Having grown up in a Protestant group (though it would have never called itself “Protestant,” it was: if it’s not Eastern/Greek/Coptic/etc. Orthodox or Catholic, it’s Protestant), the notion of a sacred object was completely foreign to me. It smacked of superstition, of primitive belief that bordered on idolatry.

Websters.com defines sacred as follows:

  1. dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity
  2. a : worthy of religious veneration : holy
    b : entitled to reverence and respect
  3. of or relating to religion : not secular or profane

I grew up, I suppose, with only the second definition; the first definition is more Catholic, though.

In Catholicism, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the number of sacred objects. At the top of the list is the consecrated host, but there are numerous others: the Bible is sacred, especially the Gospels. One will notice this immediately in the how the priest handles the volume of Gospels the priest uses in the Mass reading. Yet it’s not limited to the Bible and host: the church itself, the crucifix, the vessels used in Mass, the altar itself, rosaries, statues, and icons are all in their own right sacred.

This is where the Protestant accusation of idolatry arises, especially with the use of icons and statuary. It seems to be a direct violation of the commandments.  Yet Catholics aren’t worshiping these objects (except for the consecrated host — but that’s an entirely different theological knot)  and in fact condemns such as idolatry.

What I like about sacred objects is they force one out of normal routines and require a reverent  thoughtfulness. In a culture in which only radical individualism seems to be sacred, such thoughtful moments are welcome.


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#4 — Location of the Pulpit

In most Protestant churches, it’s always the center of attention. Front and center, the pulpit is the center of all eyes, all ears. In mega-churches, the stage has replaced the pulpit, but on the stage, there is a lectern of some sort, making it clear the high point of the service is the pastor’s sermon.

Willow Creek Community Church

Willow Creek Community Church

Protestants sometimes suggest that Christ is not the center of the Catholic Church, but it’s hard for them to make such an argument when the pastor is the center of theirs. The sermon is the center of the church service, and so the pastor’s personality, wit, or erudition is what ultimately brings congregants to this or that church. In mega-churches, it’s often a combination of the show and the sermon.

Catholic Church in Krakow

Catholic Church in Krakow

In a Catholic church, the pulpit is always to the side. The priest’s homily is not the reason people are in attendance, and as such, the pulpit is tastefully moved to one side.

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#3 — The Sacred

The Papal Altar

The Papal Altar (Photo: G Wong)

The sacred — an idea that, in the ancient world, was an everyday reality. To be sacred is to be “consecrated: made or declared or believed to be holy.” It’s only been in the last few centuries that this notion disappeared from the everyday life of Everyman.

In a Protestant church, the idea of the sacred is almost non-existent except in a historical, Biblical milieu.  The Ark of the Covenant was sacred; the showbread and the Holy of Holies were sacred; God’s name is, in some sense, sacred. But in the sense that time, space, gestures, words, or objects can be sacred, Protestantism proclaims loudly and, for its own part, definitively, “No!” Only God is sacred. Nothing on Earth is truly sacred.

The rest of the religions in the world beg to differ. And Catholicism (as well as the Orthodox East) in particular would argue that there is sacredness on Earth. Indeed, Catholicism is, in part, all about bringing that sacrality to humanity on a daily basis.

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