The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home

By Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

240 Pages; $21.99

Random House, 2013

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“Every Catholic church is built to tell this story, the story of how ‘God so loved the world,’” state the authors of The Church, as they beautifully explain how each facet of a church reveals the history of salvation. The sole aim of this precious volume is to demonstrate the relationship of the people of God — the Church universal — to the church, the physical structure where we Catholics gather to worship God.

The book describes the art and architecture of churches as forms of communication between God and us.  The churches we build reveal our Catholic identity, and, in the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the altar, “they bring us salvation.” 

“Everything about our churches, inside and out, is a unique material token of the most profound spiritual love,” the book tells us.

The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to Places Catholics Call Home is the work of Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, and Mike Aquilina, author of more than 20 books and a frequent guest on EWTN.  They are also co-authors of the previously published book The Mass.

Being the good teachers that they are, the authors have done extraordinarily extensive research, drawing on a multitude of sources, from ancient times down to the present day. And they have presented it in crystal clear, easily understood fashion that makes for enjoyable reading for everyone.

“Catholics build their churches with love; and our love has a language all its own,” explain the authors. “Like romance, Christian devotion follows certain customs and conventions — a tradition poetic and courtly — hallowed by millennia of experience.”

There is “meaning and mystery, theology and history,” they tell us, from the church doors to the altar and everything in between; from baptismal fonts and stained-glass windows to Stations of the Cross and, yes, even pews and kneelers.  

Included are chapters on the ambo, the poor box, the choir, candles and relics, as well as on the very shape of the church itself. Each description is intent on revealing the “detail of the story of our salvation,” latent in each ornament, structure or furnishing of the church.

“A church’s interior should reflect the Church’s theology of the laity,” the authors remind us. Worshippers, they state, “are not spectators at the liturgy.” Catholics, upon entering churches, are exposed to the handiwork of artists, builders and artisans — handiwork meant to inspire the faithful to pray and to more fully realize the presence of God in our lives.

The book’s explanations can help worshippers today to more clearly understand and recognize the importance of the altar to the Sacrifice of the Mass, but also teach the theological and historical pertinence of other things in church that are seemingly less significant.

For instance, the presider’s chair signifies the priest’s authority as delegated to him by his bishop. In ancient times, the bishop didn’t preach from the pulpit. Rather, he remained seated as he spoke to the congregation.

Another example is the meaning of the postures of standing, sitting and kneeling during Mass. To sit, as the authors explain, is to be open and receptive to Scripture and the homily, whereas standing is a sign of respect when in the presence of greatness, while kneeling is a sign of adoration.

Cardinal Wuerl and Aquilina’s The Church truly unlocks the secrets of our churches, but it also offers us an invitation to enter more fully into the love story of our salvation. 

During this Year of Faith, this book is a must-read, after which your experience of a Catholic church will never be the same.

                                                               Bill Loughlin writes from Glendale, California.