I am continuing in my column a written walk-through of a typical Catholic Church. We have discussed the narthex, which is the church entrance. The nave is the place where the lay faithful sit and stand. The sanctuary, which I began discussing last week, is the special and sacred place where God comes among us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In last week’s column I spoke about how easy it is to make the sanctuary uncommon, how in the past few generations the sanctuary has become in many churches a short-cut to somewhere else on the church property.
A tendency in Catholic Churches over the past 50 years has been to remove any physical barriers marking a transition to something separate and holy. If you are able I encourage you to do a Google image search. Type in the phrase “rood screen” and see what comes up. The rood screen is from the most ancient times of Western Christianity (the Catholic Church). In the time just a few years after the death of the last Apostle St. John we have written testimony that during the Eucharistic prayer a large curtain was drawn which covered the entire sanctuary until it was time for the faithful to receive Holy Communion. As Christianity became legal and churches were being built, the large curtain turned into what we now know as the rood screen. In Europe there are still examples of churches with rood screens. The rood screen is a large wooden screen usually with three doors. During the Eucharistic prayer these doors would be closed. The understanding of the early Christians was that something so amazing was happening: the Holy Spirit was transforming the bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This was such a holy and wonderful event that human eyes should not look upon such an event taking place.
Around 500-600 years ago the rood screens began to shrink in size to what many of you will probably remember as the communion rail. Some mistakenly called it the altar rail, as if everything behind the rail was “the altar,” but this is a Protestant notion. It is better to call these shrunken rood screens the communion rail. If you’re curious what these might look like do a Google image search for “communion rail.” It was during the time of the 1970s that the communion rails began to be removed from Catholic Churches. Sadly I think this led to a desacralization of the holy place that is the church sanctuary.
Our Eastern Orthodox brethren to this day maintain not a rood screen but the iconostasis. The iconostasis is essentially a wall with three doors. On the doors facing the nave – facing the lay faithful – on this iconostasis are various icons depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. This is also where the faithful light votive candles for various intentions. If you’re curious what the iconostasis looks like, do a Google image search for “iconostasis.” Who knows how our Catholic Church will develop. One never knows, but I do believe the fact of having no boundary marking off the sanctuary will in time disappear. We will continue our church walk-through next week with the sacristy. -Fr. W.
April 29, 2018