Externals of the Catholic Church – Church Buildings and Their Parts

A church is a building set apart for worship, and the name is used only for such structures as are for the general use of the faithful, as distinguished from chapels, which are for some community or family, or oratories, which are for private devotion.

The use of churches may be said to be as old as Christianity, for places of Christian meeting are frequently mentioned in the New Testament. At first, private houses were used for this purpose; and this state of things continued probably for three centuries. In the days of persecution the Christians usually worshipped underground, in the recesses of the excavations known as the Catacombs, which were also used as burial-places, and they registered their assemblies as “collegia,” or burial-societies, so that they might hold property as legal corporations. About the beginning of the third century we find mention of churches properly so called; for when the final and greatest persecution broke out under the Emperor Diocletian, an edict of that tyrant ordered the destruction of Christian churches throughout the Empire.

Early Churches

As soon as peace had come to the Church under Constantine, the erection of magnificent temples of the true faith began everywhere. These early churches always had the sanctuary at the east end, so that the worshippers might pray in the ancient fashion, facing the east, whence the light of faith had come to them. At this end was the apse (Greek “apsis,” a wheel), within which the altar was placed. Behind this was the bishop’s throne, and the priests occupied seats in a semicircle. This part was called the “presbyterium” – the priests’ place, the name of sanctuary being of much later date. Just forward of this was the choir, wherein the singers were placed. In those early days the Blessed Sacrament was not kept on the altar, but in a cell or chapel near the apse. The baptistery was usually a separate building, often octagonal or round, with a pool in which the Sacrament was administered by immersion. Fine examples of such detached baptisteries, though of much later date, are to be seen at Florence, Pisa and elsewhere.

The laity were placed in the nave, the body of the church, which derived its name from the Latin “navis,” a ship, from its shape and from the symbolism of a ship as emblematic of the Church. This part of the building was divided into sections by low partitions – the nearest to the presbyterium being for virgins and consecrated widows. Next came the parts for men and for women – carefully separated from each other in those days; and in the rear were the catechumens (those preparing to embrace the faith) and the penitents, who were also arranged in a certain order according to their guilt.

The Kinds of Churches

The principal churches are called, in Church law, basilicas (Greek “basilike,” a palace or handsome building), which may be greater or patriarchal, or minor basilicas. The chief church of a diocese, wherein the bishop customarily officiates, is known as a cathedral (Latin “cathedra,” a chair). An abbatial church is the seat of an abbot; and if a church had a chapter of canons for the daily solemn chanting of the Divine Office, as is usual in many dioceses of Europe and elsewhere, it is called a collegiate church. A parish church, of course, is the chief place of worship in a parish; other churches within its limits, attended from the parish church, are often known as mission churches; and other places in which Mass is said are, in our country, called stations.

Some Styles of Architecture

Let us devote the remainder of this chapter to an explanation of the principal features of our present-day churches, so that the various parts of these edifices may be familiar to us. There are several distinct styles of architecture in common use in our country – and, unfortunately, some of our churches are a mixture of details of many styles and of no style at all.

Grecian Architecture

This ancient form of construction is not often used in its purest form for Catholic churches at the present day, though Roman modifications of it are common enough. Its essential features are the columned portico, the low-pitched roof overhanging it, and the plain or pilastered side walls of massive construction, to carry the weight of the broad roof. The front columns support a triangular “pediment,” of which the sunken panel, called a “tympanum,” is often highly ornamented with sculptures.

There are three distinct types of Grecian architecture, differing mostly according to the columns used. The Doric has columns of simple design, fluted, with a capital consisting of a projecting curved moulding surmounted by a flat square block called an abacus. The Ionic has also fluted columns with moulded base and a capital with curled ornaments known as volutes. The Corinthian is the richest form of Grecian architecture. The capitals of the columns are carved exquisitely into leaves, surmounted by a gracefully moulded abacus. There is a legend that this beautiful form of capital took its origin from a basket filled with acanthus leaves.

Roman Architecture

In imperial Roman times all these styles of columns came into use and are to be found in ancient buildings; but the distinctive feature of Roman architecture was the round arches supported on rows of columns. The Roman style later developed into the Italian Renaissance, marked also by round arches and by the attachment of columns and fluted pilasters to the fronts of buildings. In the early Middle Ages the contact of Rome with the East resulted in the introduction of the Byzantine style, of which a fine specimen is the cathedral of Saint Mark, in Venice.

Gothic Architecture

This has as its distinguishing feature the pointed arch. The nations of Europe, after their conversion to Christianity, devoted their energies to the construction of great churches; and when the light of learning had begun to shine upon them they developed this new and beautiful style of architecture, full of grace and captivating harmony. It is distinguished by comparative lightness of material, as well as by art and boldness and engineering skill in execution. The heavy piers and massive walls of earlier days were replaced by graceful clustered columns carrying on exquisite capitals lofty and beautiful pointed arches; by buttresses, both solid and “flying”; by grouped windows with slender mullions between, and complicated tracery; by great “rose windows” of circular shape; and by mighty towers, buttressed and pinnacled and often surmounted by graceful spires, “like angels’ fingers, pointing ever heavenward” – sometimes at the front of the church, sometimes at the intersection of the nave and transept. Wonderful examples of this beautiful style of architecture are to be found throughout Europe, and nowhere are they more numerous than in once-Catholic England, where the services of a mutilated Christianity have replaced the Holy Sacrifice and the Divine Office in majestic cathedrals that were built by Catholic hands for Catholic worship.

The Gothic style has varied in detail in different countries, and has passed through many modifications in the course of centuries. Space will not permit even a brief description of each of these. In England we may distinguish the Norman, the Early Pointed (also called Lancet or Early English), the Middle Pointed style, the Flowing or Curvilinear, and the Third Pointed or Perpendicular. Similar changes took place in French architecture, resulting in the majestic cathedrals of Paris, Amiens, Rheims and Chartres, varying much in design and detail, but each an exquisite specimen of the handiwork of the men who built well because they built for God.

Details of Our Own Churches

Now let us, in imagination, approach a church – our own parish church. Above us, it may be, rises the tower. If this has a belfry and spire, the whole is called a steeple. It may be battlemented – in which case the openings in the battlement are embrasures, the intervening blocks are merlons. The pointed caps at the corners of a tower or parapet are called pinnacles (Latin, little feathers), and the topmost ornaments of these are finials. Carven ends of water-spouts are gargoyles – often grotesque figures of animals or diabolic faces. An outside shelter at the door is a porch or portico. Projecting stone braces against the walls are called buttresses, and if these stand apart from the wall which they support and are connected with it by cross-braces or arches, they are flying buttresses.

Let us go into the church, and find the proper names of its interior parts, not already mentioned. The nave stretches before us, bounded on each side by a row of columns and arches. A column is to be distinguished from a pillar – the latter being usually a square or several-sided pier (although a very heavy round pier may also be called a pillar), while a column is always a round shaft of more slender form, with a base and capital. A portion of a pillar or column affixed to a wall is a pilaster. Arches may vary in shape, according to the style of architecture, the Roman arch being a semicircle, the Gothic of pointed form. The central stone of an arch is the keystone; the lowest stones are the springers; the flat under-surface of an arch is the soffit; and the wall-space above the sides of the arches is a spandrel. The columns and arches divide the whole nave into bays. If there are columns but no arches, the wall-space above is the entablature, composed ordinarily of an architrave, a frieze and a cornice. If the church has a ceiling, ornaments hanging therefrom are pendants, and deep panels therein are coffers. If the roof is formed of interlacing arches, the construction is called groining.

The parts of the church beyond the rows of pillars are the aisles; and as the roofs over these are usually lower than the nave roof, the upper part of the nave, if provided with windows, is the clerestory. The part which crosses the nave and thus makes the church cross-shaped is the transept. Brackets projecting from the walls to carry pilasters, etc., are known as corbels. If the church has a dome, a turret surmounting this to admit light is called a lantern.

The part of the church containing the main altar is the sanctuary or chancel (Latin “cancellus,” a lattice, because in past ages it could be screened off from the body of the church by the “rood-screen,” so called because it supported a large “rood” or crucifix). As already mentioned, the further end of the sanctuary, if of semicircular or polygonal form, is the apse. Over the altar there may be a “baldacchino” or “ciborium,” a canopy supported on columns. A reredos is the carved screen or ornamental work behind an altar. Around the sanctuary there may be “stalls” or seats for the clergy; and near by is the sacristy or vestry – the room for keeping the vestments and sacred vessels. This is usually provided with a basin for receiving ablutions – the water in which the sacred linens, eta, are washed; this is a “sacrarium” or “piscina” (Latin, fish-pool). An underground vaulted room, such as is sometimes used for burial, is a crypt. An enclosed square outside the church, with a colonnaded shelter-roof around it, is a cloister.