What makes a church a church?
Some will say, the people! Of course, that is very true; we are the living stones. But when we speak of the physical space in which those people worship, what is the most important object in the church?
It is not the tabernacle, despite the fact that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved there. A church can still be a church if there is no Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, or indeed if there is no tabernacle at all.
But a Catholic church cannot be a church without an altar. This is where the Holy Sacrifice takes place. This is where the host is transubstantiated into the Real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives as Christians, and it is at Mass where we see the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
What then should be the primary visual focal point in the sanctuary? The altar!
Making the altar a dignified and awe-inspiring element of the sanctuary helps us to achieve a greater sense of reverence concerning the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
How should an altar be decorated? The answer, truly, is not at all. However, an altar may and should be “vested” just as the priest is vested appropriately for Mass. A traditional way of creating a “vestment” for the altar is the antependium or frontal.
Here are some examples:
You may be thinking that's fine for a cathedral, but what about a little parish that lacks that grand atmosphere? A difference can still be made.
Here's a small "mission" parish with its standard fare:
Here is the same altar, more appropriately vested. See what a difference the proper altar paraments can make?
Here's a church that is not a cathedral, but is more than a "mission" church:
Small private chapels can also benefit from traditional paraments:
|Altar of Repose, Holy Thursday|