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What makes a Catholic church Catholic?

Catholic churches in the past were immediately recognizable by their exterior grandeur as well as their interior parts; today, that may not be as true — but there are still very distinctive parts that make them Catholic. And perhaps the most important part of the church is beauty.

According to Deacon Robert Hoffman, director of construction and planning for the Archdiocese of Denver, emphasizing beautiful design is something they’re working toward.

“What do you identify as a church, and what does that bring out of you from a faith standpoint?” Deacon Hoffman said. “I know one of the things the Archbishop is very in tune to is the beauty of the church.”

And a beautiful design is extremely important — it’s the most important way to identify it as a Catholic church.

“I think there’s this element of recapturing the church architecture from previous centuries,” said John Miller, director of liturgy at the Archdiocese of Denver, who assists in the construction process. “When you build a church, it needs to be immediately identifiable as, ‘This is a Catholic Church.’”

There are several other parts that are essential to making a church a Catholic church.

The altar is the focal point of every Catholic Church. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“The center focal point of every church building is the altar,” Miller said. “The tabernacle is in the center, and there’s an image of Christ crucified…preferably in the center focus…a center aisle with pews, a baptismal font in the nave. Those are kind of the key things.”

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The structure of the center is important — the altar, tabernacle, crucifix — because it’s there that the most important action takes place: the sacrifice of the Mass. This takes place in the sanctuary. The other parts of the church building include the nave, the main body of the church; the sacristy, where the priest prepares for Mass; and the narthex, where the faithful enter the church and gather for fellowship after.

“The narthex is a space for gathering, greeting, and it also has a liturgical function. In the rite of baptism, you are greeted at the front doors of the church, in the narthex,” Miller said. “From there you are then led into the threshold into the nave, into the church itself. [For funerals,] the body of the deceased person in a casket typically is in the narthex and then is brought into the church, is brought to the baptismal font and is sprinkled with water.

“It’s also the place where the priest or the deacon greets the bride and groom to welcome them into the church to celebrate their marriage. It does have a functional purpose, a place of fellowship, or greeting,” Miller added.

The nave of the church is where the congregation gathers during Mass and other liturgical functions. It is the main body of a church. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

Another key part is also the reconciliation chapel.

“[Another important] part, too, is the reconciliation chapel, room, confessional,” Miller said. “It is a room with a partition, which allows for anonymous confession and allows for face-to-face meeting, and accessibility. It needs to be sound-proofed, and needs to be a safe environment.”

Catholic churches also have an ambo, which is a stand for lectors and cantors and a pulpit where the priest preaches and reads the Gospel. There is a space set aside for the choir. Statuary and stained glass are also important, as they help raise the minds and hearts of the faithful to God.

Once a church remodeling or building is completed, Archbishop Aquila dedicates and blesses the building and ground.

“At the end of the day, the Archbishop comes out and dedicates the space or the existing space that was renovated. The architects come, the construction workers come, it is a huge event in the life of the parish. It is big,” Miller said. “It’s such a joy to go with the Archbishop for those, to be with the parish and celebrate, and to see the joy on the people’s faces. They take great pride in their building.”


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