Pastoral Reflection


Did You Know?

(a collection of the main points from the “I Didn’t Know That” reflections)

Every church has to be consecrated, or at least blessed, before it can be used.  If you look around the walls of a church, you often see twelve[1] crosses (or sometimes just four unless it’s a large church with lots of wall space) painted on or fixed to the walls with candles below them.  These mark the places where the walls were anointed with chrism when the bishop dedicated or consecrated the church.  Traditionally the candles are lit when the anniversary of the dedication is celebrated.  I think it’s also the case that a church can only be blessed but not consecrated until it has been fully paid for. 

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The altar is reverenced at the beginning of Mass because it is the central symbol of Christ until he becomes really present on the altar at the Consecration.  This is why the tabernacle is better located away from the altar itself[2] so that there isn’t, in that sense, a conflict in terms of the focus for signs of reverence – which during the first part of the Mass should be the altar itself, not the tabernacle.  It is also why the altar is stripped after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, a symbol of the stripped and dead body of Christ in the tomb.  The altar usually also contains relics of the saints sealed into it. 

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For the Liturgy of the Eucharist the action of the Mass moves to the altar which, up to this point, has been empty except perhaps for the candles[3].  The book that the priest uses at the altar is called a missal – from the Latin word “missa” meaning “Mass” – and contains the prayers of the Mass.  The white cloth placed in the centre of the altar is the corporal (literally “the body”) the body and blood of Christ being placed on it in the chalice and paten.  The vessels used at Mass are the chalice (or cup), and the paten (or dish) or ciborium (a chalice-like vessel with a lid which also holds the consecrated hosts reserved in the tabernacle).  These are plated inside with precious metal because they hold the body and blood of Christ.  The cloth used to cleanse the chalice at communion is called a purificator.  If communion is being taken to the sick or housebound at the end of Mass, the priest or minister carries the hosts in a little container called a pyx.

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Occasionally incense may be used at Mass.  It is burned in a thurible and is used as a sign of reverence: to bless the Book of Gospels and the gifts on the altar; to bless the Paschal Candle; to honour the body of the deceased at a funeral; and, of course, at Benediction to reverence the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar in the monstrance (a word which comes from the Latin “to show”).  The host is held in the monstrance in a lunette (from the Latin for “moon”) which is crescent shaped (or circular).

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There are certain initials commonly seen on vestments or incorporated into the decorations in church, which may be a puzzle.  The most common are perhaps IHS – actually JHS (the English J is an I in Latin) – which stand for Jesus Hominum Salvator – “Jesus, Saviour of mankind”.  Another very common symbol is the “Chi Rho” which looks like the English letters P and X superimposed on one another.  The Greek letters Chi and Rho (Ch and r), as the first letters of Christ’s name, were used by the early Church as a Christian symbol.  Another early symbol is the fish, in Greek “ichthus” (ΙΧΘΥΣ) and often used during times of persecution as a secret form of identification.  Another set of initials that you’ll often see are the letters AMDG, an abbreviation of the Latin Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – “to the greater glory of God”, chosen by St Ignatius as the motto of the Jesuit Order.  A little more obscure, and often seen on the front of missals, are two sets of two Greek letters, IC XC and NI KA, meaning “Jesus Christ Conquers”.  More familiar would be the Latin letters INRI, – Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”, the inscription Pilate placed on the cross.

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A stipend is the general designation for a means of support provided for the clergy.  In other words a person may make a monetary offering for the celebration of Mass, but it is offered in support of the parish and not as a direct payment to the priest in exchange for Mass being offered.  When someone asks for a Mass to be celebrated for a specific intention, it is important to remember that they are not paying for that Mass by the stipend they offer.  Every Mass is offered for everyone and therefore no Mass “belongs” to anyone in particular.  An individual may be specially remembered at a Mass, but it is not offered exclusively for them.  My practice has always been to pause at the appropriate point in the eucharistic prayer and privately call to mind that person’s name, or the requested intention.  A Parish Priest must celebrate one Mass a week for the people of his parish free of a stipend, which means that each week he can only celebrate six Masses with stipends attached and that each Mass can only have one intention allocated to it for which an offering has been made.

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Historically the Church has found itself in troubled waters from time to time over the issue of simony – “the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, pardons or benefices” – which is, of course, seriously sinful and subject to severe penalties in Church law, consequently what is lawful and unlawful must be clearly understood especially in the area of Mass offerings.   As we just said above, a person may make a monetary offering for the celebration of Mass, but it is paid directly into parish funds to pay for the running of the parish (including the support of the priest) and not as a direct payment to him in exchange for Mass being offered or other sacraments celebrated.  Transparency relies on strict book-keeping methods – preferably that all monies received from Mass stipends, stole fees (for baptisms, weddings and funerals), the weekly collection and so on, are all recorded as money received and for what purpose, so too all outgoings from parish funds – a process overseen by an independent parish financial secretary.   

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Why do we bless ourselves with holy water?  When a priest blesses water, he is actually asking God’s blessing on it by making the Sign of the Cross over it.  Its purpose thereafter is explained in this prayer of blessing:Grant that, when we are sprinkled with this water or make use of it, we will be refreshed inwardly by the power of the Holy Spirit and continue to walk in the new life we received at baptism.”[4]And so blessing ourselves with holy water as we come in or out of church, or being sprinkled with it at Mass, is a symbolic act of spiritual cleansing and a reminder of our baptism.[5]

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Why do we genuflect in church?  In St Paul’s letter to the Romans it says, quoting what God said through Isaiah:  Every knee shall bend before me (Rm 14 v 11)(Is 45 v 23).  Genuflecting (literally: “bending the knee”[6]) is a sign of reverence in the presence of God and so we genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament when we come into church and when we leave, and also whenever we pass in front of the tabernacle.  We don’t seem to be teaching this practice to our children.

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The word “tabernacle” means “tent” and in the Old Testament wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, whenever they stopped they constructed a fenced compound surrounding a “tent of meeting” which contained the Ark of the Covenant where the stone tablets God had given to Moses were kept.  Therefore the tent – the tabernacle – was considered a sacred place, the “Holy of Holies”, where God dwelt with his people.  That is the sense in which we use the word “tabernacle” for the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved – God’s presence with us.    

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Why do we call priests “Father”? – after all Our Lord said: “You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one father, and he is in heaven.” (Mt 23 v 9)   We all have earthly fathers and we call them that, but Jesus was referring to honorary titles, titles without substance.  Priests are called “Father” as an official title of their office within the Church and an acknowledgement of their responsibilities as the spiritual father of the Christian community in their charge.  All the more reason, therefore, for priests to ensure that they live up to the title they are given and that it doesn’t become simply honorary in the sense that Jesus meant. 

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Why do we celebrate Christmas and Easter when we do?  There is no evidence that December 25th was the date of Our Lord’s birth – indeed the date of Christmas was only established by the Church in AD440.  It is another example of Christianity taking over something previously pagan, as we mentioned above.  December 25th was the date of the pagan feast celebrating the winter solstice and the return of increasing daylight.  Indeed the Romans celebrated the “birth” of the “Sun of Righteousness” – a feast of light.  It was an obvious date and occasion to be “Christianised” as the birth of Christ, the Son of Righteousness.  Easter is a more movable feast in the sense that the Church doesn’t assign a specific date to it.  The Last Supper was a Passover celebration, so that provides us with a framework to work with.  It wasn’t until AD664 and the Synod of Whitby that the date of Easter according to the Roman (rather than the Celtic) Church calendar was agreed as “the first Sunday after the full moon which occurs on or next after March 21st” (which will therefore be sometime from March 21st until April 25th).  At least the cycles of the moon are consistent even if we aren’t!

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Why are we called Roman Catholics?  We weren’t always.  At one time we were all simply Christians – followers of Christ – an identity we were first given at Antioch (Acts 11 v 26).  Following the Reformation, it was a term used to refer to members of the Western Church, Catholic (“universal”) as opposed to Protestant, who acknowledged the authority of the Pope in Rome.

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Why don’t we ring the bells at Mass anymore?  Part of the explanation is in the name – we used to call them “Sanctus bells” because they were rung at the “Sanctus”, the “Holy, Holy”, to draw people’s attention to the fact that we were approaching the Consecration.  Historically this warning was needed because people weren’t always paying attention, also they couldn’t really see or hear very well (especially in a large church or a cathedral) because the priest celebrated Mass facing the altar which was against the rear wall of the sanctuary and therefore he had his back to the people.  The bells were rung once as the Consecration began, then three times at the elevation of the host and three times at the elevation of the chalice to call the attention of the people to what was happening.  After he reforms of Vatican II, when altars were turned around and brought forward in the sanctuary and microphones came into use, people could now clearly see and hear what was happening and so there was no longer any need to ring the bells and so most parishes stopped using them.  They certainly weren’t essential to the Consecration, though many people may have thought they were.

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Why does the priest stand with his arms outstretched during Mass?  It’s an ancient prayer posture, a symbol of the priest gathering the prayers of the people.  Whenever he is joining in with the prayers of the people (for example during the Penitential Rite, the “Gloria”, and the “Creed”) his hands will be joined, but whenever he is praying on behalf of the people (for example during the Opening Prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Prayer after Communion) he will stand with his arms outstretched.

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What happened to pulpits?  In an age before microphones and sound systems, the purpose of the pulpit was to provide somewhere for the priest to stand to read the epistle and gospel and from where he delivered his sermon.  In most churches in the re-ordering post-Vatican II, pulpits were replaced by ambos, a slightly raised platform and reading stand from which the word of God is proclaimed and the homily delivered.

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Is there a difference between nuns and sisters?  In Canon Law the word Order is reserved for a religious institute whose members, moniales, take solemn vows.  Female members of those orders are regarded as nuns in the strict canonical sense of the word.  Congregations of women take simple vows and their members are referred to as sorores or sisters. [7]

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What is Canon Law?  The on-lineWikipedia website offers this very succinct definition:  The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church is “the system of laws and legal principles made and enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Church to regulate its external organization and government and to order and direct the activities of Catholics toward the mission of the Church”.  The current Code is a 1983 revision of the 1917 Code.

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In Canon Law it states that priests “have a special obligation to seek holiness in their lives, because they are consecrated to God through the reception of Holy Orders, and are stewards of the mysteries of God in the service of his people”.  They are therefore “earnestly invited” to celebrate Mass daily.  The decree of Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, repeats that directive when it says the daily celebration of Mass is “earnestly recommended”.  One might ask why a priest, given the privileged position he is in by virtue of his ordination, wouldn’t choose to celebrate Mass every day.  At the same time (and perhaps in order to guard against the danger of fanaticism – it could happen) Canon Law also states that a priest may not celebrate more than one Mass a day unless the bishop, for good pastoral reasons, permits him to celebrate two or, if need requires it, three Masses on Sundays and holydays of obligation.

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Dioceses are divided into parishes and each parish has a boundary which defines the limits of the geographical area within which the parish priest has  authority (from his bishop) to exercises his spiritual and pastoral ministry.  The best and most comprehensive definition of a parish is to be found in Canon Law – the law of the Church: “A parish is a certain community of Christ’s faithful stably established… whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor.  As a general rule, a parish is to be territorial, that is, it is to embrace all Christ’s faithful of a given territory.” (CC515 & 518)

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Candidates for the priesthood must normally undergo six years of academic study and spiritual and pastoral training at a seminary.  Sometimes, if a candidate is older or has some previous relevant academic study or pastoral experience, the time may be reduced accordingly.  In the case of our diocese the study time has actually been increased to seven years by the introduction of a compulsory propaedeutic year – “an introductory year of study” at the English College in Valladolid in Spain, a time of testing and discernment and an introduction to the spiritual regime of the seminary.  Under normal circumstances a candidate must be at least twenty-five years of age before he can be ordained.  Canon Law requires that when a priest reaches his 75th birthday he must offer his resignation to his bishop.  He may ask the priest to consider continuing in active ministry if there is a real pastoral need and if he is able to health-wise.

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I’ve always wondered about halos.  Making an appearance in Christian art from about the 5th or 6th century, a halo is a symbol of holiness – a gold circle of light around or above the head of a holy figure.  At first only Jesus was depicted with a halo, often also incorporating a cross, but then plain round halos (sometimes just the outline) began to be used in paintings of Our Lady and saints and angels also.  The halo signified the light of divine grace, a sort of circular glow of holiness.  That’s the official explanation anyway, but I have long had a theory of my own – at least I thought it was just mine but one website I was looking at recently suggested the same thing.  Basically my idea was that a halo helped to identify a holy person in a crowd – like drawing a ring round someone in a photo, except halos became a very stylised ring.

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The Wikipedia website explains that:

          Christianity has used symbolism from its very beginning.  Each saint has a story and symbols have been used to tell these stories throughout the history of the Church.  A number of Christian saints are traditionally represented by a symbol or emblem associated with their life in order to identify them.

Given the place and culture in which she lived, Our Lady probably dressed in fairly subdued colours, why then is she typically portrayed wearing rich blue? The tradition began with Byzantine artists who developed the use of gold and a lapis lazuli-based “Marian blue” used only for the most important subjects. In Christian theology, blue signifies the divine, the heavenly, red the human, the earthly.  Mary is therefore often depicted wearing a blue mantel over a red inner garment, symbolizing the “heavenly” covering the “earthly”.  Statues of St Joseph show him holding the tools of his trade as a carpenter, but he is often also holding a lily – in religious art a symbol of purity and chastity.  St Peter always holds “the keys of the kingdom” – sometimes just one but usually two.  Some depictions of him include a cockerel (“Before the cock crows…”)  St Paul is usually shown holding a book of the gospels, a symbol of his mission of preaching and teaching, also a double-edged sword symbolizing the word of God (“which cuts more finely…).  St Andrew is depicted along with an “X” shaped cross – he felt unworthy to die on a cross the same shape as Our Lord’s.  St Thérèse of Lisieux carries a crucifix and a bouquet of roses.  Images of St Patrick are unmistakable, always showing him carrying a shamrock, a symbol he used in trying to teach the mystery of the Trinity.  St George is always shown slaying the dragon – a fictional symbolism of his defence of the Faith fighting in the crusades.  The story of St Francis of Assisi is one with which we are particularly familiar, and his love for God’s creatures is symbolised in typical representations of the saint.  A stranger depiction, not of a saint as such but a holy figure, is Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses who appears to have two horns. The account in Exodus (34 v 2930 & 35) of Moses coming down from the mountain after his encounter with God, in the Latin Vulgate text describes his face as being “horned”.  Saints who were founders of churches and abbeys are usually shown holding a representation of the church or abbey that they helped to found.  Martyrs are sometimes depicted along with their means of execution, but they are generally also shown holding a palm branch – a symbol of victory (of good over evil, life over death).

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The vestments worn by a priest are a far simpler “ensemble” to put on than they used to be pre-Vatican II.  The first of them that he puts on is an alb (from the Latin “albus” meaning white). He then puts on a stole which goes behind his neck and hangs down on either side in front; it is of the same colour as the chasuble – the outer garment which is basically a large oval with a hole in the centre for his head to go through and which it therefore open at either side. It may have a large cross embroidered on the front and back, or it may have some other  embroidered design, or just be plain – one of four colours: green in Ordinary Time;  white for the Easter and Christmas seasons and for saints days when they are feasts; red for Pentecost and the feast days of martyrs; and purple for Lent and Advent.  On top of their alb, deacons wear a stole the two ends of which are joined together and it is worn over the left shoulder and across the chest and back, and a dalmatic which is closer-fitting, more tunic-like, and has sleeves.  The colour will match the priest’s chasuble.

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The 1917 Code of Canon Law used to say: “Men, in a church shall be bareheaded, unless the approved mores of the people determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when approaching the table of the Lord” [i.e. when receiving communion].  However, when the revised Code was issued in 1983 neither of those requirements was mentioned.  The concept of men baring their heads, or women covering theirs, in church, mosque, synagogue or other places of worship was, and still is, a way of expressing reverence and respect before God.  We were always taught as kids that boys and men don’t wear hats in church, but it’s a lesson that doesn’t always seem to be taught these days given how often you see boys wearing baseball caps or hoodies in church and parents don’t seem to say anything to them – though they should. 

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The first commandment reads:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  You shall have no other gods before me.  The catechism then goes on to discuss some of the ways in which we may be in danger of giving other so-called “authorities” the sole place that only God should have in our lives and which are therefore forbidden by the first commandment.  The first of these is superstition which attributes an importance to certain practices which they clearly do not have.  It then says all forms of divination are to be rejected: consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all of which contradict the honour, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone. The use of tarot cards and Ouija boards[8] begins to move into the much darker and equally forbidden world of spiritualism and the occult.[9]

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[1] A reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem founded on the twelve tribes of Israel, or the New Testament image of the heavenly Jerusalem founded on the twelve apostles.

[2] Some may remember, when the priest celebrated Mass with his back to the people, that the tabernacle was actually located on the main altar with the result that for a lot of the time during Mass it became the focus of everyone’s attention. 

[3] In an age of electric lighting, clearly candles serve no practical purpose but are a reminder of more ancient times when they were a necessity. As at dinner parties and so on, they do also add a sense of “occasion” to this

[4] Book of Blessings, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.

[5] Being sprinkled with holy water at Mass – known as the asperges – usually accompanies the renewal of baptismal promises or may be part of the penitential rite.

[6] (traditionally the right knee – whether we are right or left footed, just as in the Western Church we cross ourselves with our right hand whether we are right or left handed)

[7] From the A-Z of the Catholic Church.

[8] (which we also need to warn our children about as these are often just seen as games and are often on sale in toy shops and games shops)

[9] It is the experience of priests everywhere how often they are called to bless houses where the occupants have experienced unnerving things going on and he discovers that they or people before them have been using Ouija boards or holding séances and clearly have stirred up things they should have left alone.