The next very important piece of “furniture” that you see in Catholic churches consists in—how shall I describe it? Perhaps it looks like a sentinel-box, or a telephone-kiosk, with an extra little room on either side. You may see a priest sitting in the middle part, listening to what someone in one of the side parts is telling him. This bit of furniture is called the “confessional,” and sometimes it is differently constructed—the priest may be in a real little room walled off from the part into which people go to speak to him. But the point is, in all Catholic churches there is some arrangement for the priest to sit separate and in privacy, so as to hear what people want to say to him. They usually say it through a grating or sheet of perforated metal, rather like what you see round a meat-safe, and sometimes there is also a curtain across this, so that the priest does not see the face of the person speaking at all. The persons who kneel down to speak to the priest across this grating are confessing their sins. When you see people doing this, you cannot jump to the conclusion that they are great criminals, or start wondering what wickedness they have been guilty of, or build up a detective-romance about them, because often they may have been saying quite simple things, such as that they have not always prayed with proper reverence or have rather lost their temper. Plenty of people have nothing worse than that to say. But when they feel even small things like that upon their conscience, they “go to confession,” especially just before receiving Holy Communion, and ask to have their faults forgiven by God and absolved by his priest.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave to his priests the power to absolve from sins: “Whose sins ye shall remit, are remitted to them” (John 20:22-23). In order to do this, it stands to reason that priests must know what the sins are. Hence the practice of confession, which for other reasons too is very helpful and comforting to a sinner. Though Catholics are obliged to confess only their grave sins, yet they are allowed also to confess their lesser faults, and it may be hoped that a Catholic who tries to live up to his faith will not often have grave sins to confess. But whatever he says is said in absolute secret. As a rule, the priest has no idea who is making the confession. But whether he has or hasn’t, he is absolutely forbidden in any imaginable circumstances to make any use at all of what he has heard in the confessional. He may not even mention it to the person who has confessed it, outside of the confessional. In fact, a sort of special help blots out from the priest’s mind what he has heard, so that he can meet the person who has confessed without so much as remembering what has been said to him, should he happen so much as to know who it was.
We have left the most important part of the church to the last-the part, that is, in the middle, which is railed off. This part contains the “altar.” There may be several altars in one church, but the one in the middle is always there and is called the “high altar.” Sometimes the “side altars” are not railed off, for lack of room, but they are always raised a step or two above the level of the floor, partly to enable people to see the priest, when he is standing there, more easily, but also to make a little place for the altar itself and to separate it off from the main part of the church. This is not because ordinary people are supposed to be unworthy to enter the part round the altar (which is called the “sanctuary”) for you often see crowds of small boys inside there who are far from angelically pious. But the sanctuary and the altar especially are where the worship of God officially goes on, and it is because of God and his holiness and the holiness therefore of his worship that a special place is set aside for this.
Since you could not even understand what an altar is, unless you knew a little of what Catholics believe, we have just to make an outline of that. We hold that our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night before he died, took bread and wine, and, saying “This is my Body, This is my Blood,” did in fact by his almighty power change them into himself. And we hold that he entrusted power to do the same thing to properly ordained priests. This is one of the ways in which our Lord, though veiled beneath the appearances of bread and wine is really and truly present among his Christians for ever.
First and foremost, in every Mass this thing happens—that is, the change of bread and wine into the true Presence of Jesus Christ—and the first thing to be done with this is to offer it to God. That is what an altar is for—to carry upon it the “Blessed Sacrament” (as we call it) during Mass or the time for offering sacrifice to God. The second thing to be done with the Blessed Sacrament is to give it in “Holy Communion” to those who ask for it. That is what the altar rails are for, as well as for the purpose of separating the sanctuary from the body of the church. People come up and kneel down there and receive our Lord in Holy Communion. But a third thing is done with the Blessed Sacrament—it is kept all the time in the church, in a little cabinet or cupboard called the “tabernacle,” or “dwelling-place,” which you will notice in the middle of the altar. It is usually covered with a silk veil, and so you can always tell exactly where the Blessed Sacrament is, because, though other altars may have such a tabernacle upon them, it will not be veiled so long as it is empty, and the Blessed Sacrament is kept in one place only in each church. When Catholics pass it, they go down on one knee, to show that they remember that Christ is there and to do reverence to him.
So upon the altar, at any rate over one of the altars in a church, you will always see this little “tabernacle,” with the silk veil or curtain hanging over it and a lamp burning near it, either hanging from the roof, or standing on a small column, or fixed to the wall. This is the light that you can hardly help noticing when you come into a Catholic church, and it tells you that our Lord is not only remembered in our churches, but actually present. This is the “treasure” I mentioned in the first part of this essay.
You may also see flowers on the altars just as you may see them round statues. Again, it is part of human nature to use flowers in order to make things look nice and sweet and fresh. People always like to have flowers in hospitals, and what a difference a bunch of fresh flowers makes in a sickroom! There are flowers at weddings-the bride often carries them, or has a wreath of them, and even the bridegroom as often as not wears a boutonniere! If there is a festival dinner of any sort, you may be sure that the table will have flowers on it. Few things are so lovely as flowers—nothing artificial, manmade, is so lovely. That is the difference between a thing that is alive and anything that isn’t, for life is what God can give, and no one else can. Therefore anything that is alive brings you very close to God.
But you will also see two candles on our altars and sometimes more. On the high altar you will see six big ones, as well as the two smaller ones at either end. In very early Christian days, when people were savagely treated for being Christians (as they are nowadays in Russia), and even killed by the Roman government, they used to take refuge underground in “catacombs,” that is, the long underground galleries where the dead were buried. Of course, they needed lights down there to see with, and that is how the custom first grew up of having lamps, and then candles, on altars or around them. But even in those days they liked to use lamps for decoration and so candles are placed on our altars, at times because they look bright and attractive. This happens especially at our evening services. You will also see them round statues and may watch people coming into the church , buying a candle, sticking it on a sort of frame which has either little spikes or else sockets upon it for holding the candle steady, and then lighting it, praying a little, and going away leaving it alight. Perhaps this may seem a strange thing to do, but really it is quite natural.
People have always felt there was something alive about a flame! In fact, when you see a light shining through the dark, you can usually take for granted that there is a house there or nearby, and that people are awake there. Before Christ, they used to light little lamps on graves, because they half felt that the soul of the dead person went on living in the grave, and the little lamp pictured this to them. But also it pictured their own presence there; even though they had to go away, they seemed to have left their thoughts and love behind them, along with the one who had died and was buried there.
So when Catholics light a candle and leave it burning before an altar or the statue of a saint, what they mean is that though they have to go away and do their job, or just to their proper amusements or rest, they do not mean because of that to forget God or his goodness or the help that they need from him. They know perfectly well that God does not need candles to inform him of anything, but to put a candle there like that is a human and simple-hearted thing to do, and people like doing it, and so the Catholic Church is glad that they should do so.
You certainly know a “pulpit” when you see it, and in any Catholic church of any size there is a pulpit for the priest to preach his sermons from. Sermons are preached, if possible, from some high-up place, because the voice reaches further like that; also, the preacher likes to see his people, and some of them like to see him. The pulpit is a more important place than you might suppose, because the Catholic Church has the command from Christ to teach: He himself taught certain things, and then gave the command to the Church to teach the same things to all peoples for all time to come. And he said: “He that hears you, hears me; and he that hears me, hears him who sent me.” The priest then does not teach ideas out of his own head merely. By teaching the doctrine of the Church, you have the certainty that he is teaching Christ’s doctrine, and Christ’s doctrine is God’s doctrine. So if you are in the church when a sermon is going on, keep your ears open! The most important parts of what you will hear are always those in which the priest will say exactly what the Church believes and teaches. The second most important part is when he explains this. Eloquent or pathetic parts may tickle your fancy more, but they are not what Catholics go to sermons for. They go in order to learn better just what their faith is. We all need reminding, and we can always understand more deeply what we know already.
Now, really, I cannot think of anything else to say about the furniture of a church, except that when you turn round to go back out of the door, I hope you will see near it a sort of book-rack full of pamphlets. It is called the “Catholic Truth Society Box” and has papers in it that should contain all that you can possibly want to know about the Catholic Church. Attentive people have charge of these boxes and keep the pamphlets changed from week to week, and see which are the most popular, and make sure of having a good supply of them always there, though the others, as I said, are changed so as to make sure of suiting everybody’s taste. These pamphlets cost you twopence, and though the Catholic Truth Society would far rather you took one and read it and did not pay for it if you really couldn’t afford it, yet it would be a good thing if you produced the two pennies and put them into the box for coins. After all, no one can print pamphlets for nothing. And then, pamphlets are apt to get dusty or soiled, even in a clean church, and have to be thrown away. Then plenty of people take pamphlets out, look at them, finger-mark them, perhaps, and make them look shabby, and then don’t take them away, but put them back (usually in the wrong place) and so make the whole box look uncared-for and unattractive, and all for nothing. So much for this book-box.
Should the reader of this, then, not be a Catholic, I am sure that, all the same, he will go into a Catholic church in a reverent way, at least for the sake of the Catholics who use the church and to whom it is a very sacred place and also for the sake of those whom he may find actually praying there.
It is quite true that Catholics “feel at home” in their churches: After all, why not? God is their Father, and they are his children—sometimes his disobedient children, but that does not stop him from loving them and ought not to stop them from trusting him. So they do not wear long faces when they go into a church, nor do they feel it a bore while they are in one; but, on the contrary, as you can see, they are ready to drop in at almost any moment — when they are passing by on their way to their job, or coming home, or during the break in the middle of the day.
In several churches, there are quite short services in the middle of the day, especially where there are many people, as in a crowded part of London, like the City; you usually would find these services full of people. And even, in some places, men take turns to pray all night through in a church, partly because they are sure of complete quiet then, and also because that is when people are usually asleep and cannot be thinking of God or, even, are profiting by the darkness to do wrong. So the church is reasonably called not only “God’s House,” but “the House of Prayer.” When you read those sensational articles in the papers about “Why are our Churches Empty?” and so on, the proper answer for a Catholic to make is: “They aren’t.” Catholics simply cannot find money for building churches quick enough or for enlarging them, as they constantly need to be increased to contain their growing congregations.
Last of all, you will see that the Catholic church is truly the home of the Christian, because that is where he begins his Christian life, at the font; where he learns best about his faith, both from the pulpit and by means of all sorts of pictures and other things that teach him; where he can get put right again, if things have gone wrong, in the confessional; where he can meet his heavenly friends, the saints, and the Mother of Jesus Christ, who is his mother too. This is where he may, some day, be married and begin under God’s blessing his full human life of home, and this is where he can at all times come close to Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives here in his tabernacle, and where he can actually get into personal, individual touch with him by means of Communion at the altar-rails, and where, by joining in offering Christ to his eternal Father in Mass, he can wash away sins, express his proper thanks, obtain his petitions, and offer due worship to God. And this is where his body will lie when it has died, till it is taken away for burial, and where those who love him will never cease praying for his soul. So the Catholic church is the House of God, the Home of Christ, and the truest house and home of the Christian. Everything in it has got something to do with this fact.