Sacramentals Inside the Church
Many devotional practices center on the Mass services, which are held inside the church, and several of the objects that enhance these services are considered sacramentals. Understanding the role these objects play in the Church helps bring a greater understanding of the services themselves and what they mean to those who practice them.The Altar
The altar is the centerpiece of Catholic worship. It consists of a raised, tabular surface, on which the celebration of the Eucharist is performed during a Catholic Mass. Catholic laity may have small private altars at home to be used for prayer, but the sacrifice of the Mass cannot be performed there. Church altars must be consecrated.
The altar has a number of physical attributes, but the essential one is the tabernacle (from the Latin word for “tent”). Simply put, this is where the consecrated communion bread is kept. Because of the holiness of what they contain — the Body of Christ — tabernacles are kept locked. Larger basilicas and cathedrals also have high altars, which are additional altars that are placed higher in the sanctuary.Holy Water
Holy water is an important sacramental that dates back to
The most important use of holy water is in the sacrament of Baptism. When a baby is baptized, a little holy water is sprinkled over its forehead to symbolize the washing away of original sin; the same applies during the Baptism of adult converts.
If you have ever been inside a Catholic church, you may have noticed the initials IHS inscribed on the priest's vestments or on prayer books. The monogram IHS is made up of the first three Greek letters in Jesus' name — anglicized — and it was adopted as a code during the Roman persecution. Later, it was adopted into Latin usage in the Church.
Candles and incense are both used in Catholic churches to set the somber, mystical mood appropriate for prayer and spirituality. Christian churches have burned incense since ancient times. The deep pungent smell lends an aura of solemnity to church services. The smoke drifting toward Heaven is a symbol of the direction of prayer toward God. Incense is most often used at grave occasions such as funerals and processions.
The Church also relies on candles, an important and comforting part of the Catholic's surroundings while at prayer, meditation, listening to the priest, or lost in the splendor and beauty of the building. Candles were commonly used in pagan rituals, but from very early in the history of the Catholic Church, candles have also been a part of the ceremony and celebration of Christ. The candle is an outward and visible sign that reading the Gospel brings joy to the church.
Many Catholic ceremonies involve the use of candles — indeed, the rites of all but one sacrament (Penance) require them. It is forbidden to say the Mass without the presence of burning candles. The “tabernacle light” kept lit before the presence of Christ is in honor of his being among us at Mass. It is a tradition that began in the 1200s and was made Church law in the 1600s.
Churches make use of many different candles. There are altar candles, which must be made of beeswax and should be white (in the ancient world, it was believed that bees were virginal, and using their wax would reflect the attributes of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The color of the candles changes to yellow during Holy Week.
Small votive candles are placed in front of statues of saints. These small candles provide powerful symbols of prayer. To pray for a favor or to be remembered to Mary or Jesus, parishioners pay a small token to light one of these candles and place it before the saint being petitioned.Church Bells
The tolling of bells has long been associated with churches and church service — think of the great bell towers the world over. On Sunday mornings, you can hear church bells ringing in churches, inviting people to join the congregation for Sunday Mass.
It seems that the Catholic Church adopted bells as an essential part of church services sometime during the eighth century. Churches use bells in a number of ways. The great bells in the tower are used to announce the hour of church services. In addition, a smaller bell placed on the epistle side of the altar is rung at the Sanctus, during a High Mass, to signal the adoration of the consecration of the bread and wine.Confessionals
Although confessionals are now an integral part of church furnishings, they weren't introduced until 1565. In the early days of the Church, the sacrament of Penance — asking for absolution for sins committed — was a public ritual reserved for very serious sins, such as murder, where the sinner made a public apology and received a heavy penance.
Because these confessions were public, not many people stepped forward to confess voluntarily. In the Middle Ages, Irish monks instituted the idea of private confession, between a priest and the confessor, which usually took place before the altar. Later, this idea spread through the rest of the Church. In 1565, St. Carlo Borromeo, a powerful cardinal, designed a box that held a chair to provide anonymity for the confessor. By the 1600s, the Church had mandated that all confessions be heard this way.
Today, the private confession always takes place in a confessional box. This is usually a wooden structure with a compartment for the priest and two additional compartments on either side for the confessors (so the priest can listen to one confession while the other confessor is getting ready). The compartment opening is covered with a heavy curtain, which makes it fairly dark inside. The confessor kneels, facing the priest. There is a sliding partition with latticework — called a grille — so the confessor can glimpse the priest, if not see him wholly.