“If we help you to read a church, we do it with the hope that you’ll be better able to pray a church. If you want to understand a church, you need to read it as a prayer book and not as an architecture textbook.” –Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina, authors of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home
I have to admit, I loved the book before I even cracked open the cover. A few years ago, I had the privilege of fulfilling one of my lifelong desires—a pilgrimage to Rome. In the brief week I was there, my fellow pilgrims and I, along with our expert leader, Dr. Ted Sri, explored more than two dozen churches. For the first time in my life, the secrets of the place I call home — the church — as a place of worship, full of images, sacred objects, signs, symbols, art, and architecture that lifts your heart and mind to the heavens, started to unlock before me. For the 22 years of my life until that trip, I attended Mass every Sunday (and then every day starting in my teen years), never really grasping my surroundings. But now, in Rome, those surroundings started coming to life.
Within a few short pages of reading, this book brought back a flood of those Roman memories. The book teaches a truth that applies to all of our churches, from the glorious cathedrals of Rome to the humble parish church down the street from your house: “Everything we see in a Catholic church is there for a single purpose: to tell a love story” (19). That love story happens to be the greatest love story ever told — the story of how God so loved the world.
Fr. Robert Barron explains, in the preface to Cardinal Wuerl and Aquilina’s new book, how centuries ago it was the norm for believers to be able to “read” a church. They knew what the art meant, why the furnishings were there and what they stood for. Today, it can be much more challenging to find a Catholic who understands the high purpose of the domes and spires; what we are expressing when we stand, sit, and kneel in the pews; why we adorn our churches with stained glass windows that don’t look nearly as attractive from the outside. Even more unfortunate is the difficulty in finding a Catholic who can explain and defend why we bother to make our churches so elaborate in the first place, rather than giving all that money spent on ornament to the poor (as goes the common argument, one which I encounter frequently in my work with Catholics Come Home).
So, let me ask you…
When you enter the doors of the church, do you think about leaving one world and entering another, inner world?
When you cross yourself with water from the Holy Water font as you enter the church, do you recall your own baptism and all of the rich memories of water in the Bible, stretching from God’s breathing upon the waters in the creation story to the “river of the water of life” in the book of Revelation?
When you look at the celebrant’s chair, do you reflect on the authority of the priest, who can trace his priestly ministry and authority back to Jesus Christ?
When you listen to the reader standing at the ambo, does it occur to you that you are living a moment of grace, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who listened to Jesus as He “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27)?
And, when you gaze upon the tabernacle, are you always stricken by the fact that this tabernacle—the place of Christ’s presence in the church — is the “element that sets a Catholic church apart from any other place on earth” (212)?
If not, you aren’t really praying the church, or at least not like you could be. You are missing out on an incredible adventure every time you go to Mass. This book will change that. This book will help you live and relive that adventure.
Uniquely written from the lenses of both a cardinal priest behind the altar and a layman in the pews, The Church illustrates for us the divine purpose of all of our churches — to glorify God. Through the Incarnation, God shows us that stuff matters. Each chapter in this book unlocks the secrets of the glorious “stuff,” those incarnational realities in our churches — “heaven’s settlement[s] on earth” (215). The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home will change the way you pray in your church for the rest of your life. It will teach you to read a church, so you can pray a church. And what a heavenly prayer it is.
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Thank you! – The Editors