The Ambo, the Ambry, and Mary

Although the conclave doesn’t begin until Tuesday, be sure to read Robert Royal’s Daily Conclave Report here. And watch EWTN’s coverage from Rome, featuring Bob, Raymond Arroyo, and Fathers Gerald Murray and Roger Landry.


Ever been inside a Catholic church? I thought so. But have you looked up and down, left and right? Looked in all directions? Okay, so you have, but are you able to name the things you see: every part of the church; every nook and cranny? Because every part of every church has a name – and a history – and each is a part of Catholic identity.

This is the gist of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina. I liked their previous collaboration, The Mass, which I reviewed here last year. I like The Church even more.

No need to belabor a major theme often played out here, namely how poorly catechized most Catholics are, but whereas many are ill-informed about theology and ecclesiology, you might imagine some at least are familiar with that building where they attend Mass. Because if you can “read” a church, and understand much of what’s precious in the Catholic faith. A church is like an encyclical of stone and wood and stained glass.

“Everything we see in a Catholic church,” the authors write, “is there for a single purpose: to tell a love story.”

Every church is built to dispense the life-giving water and magnify the light that shines in the darkness. Every church serves the heavenly banquet at its family table: the altar. Every church is built as a memorial of God’s sojourn among his people – and of his people’s rejection of him. Front and center we keep the crucifix.

Of course, just as a priest-chaplain with a table, a crucifix, and a compact Mass kit can confect the Eucharist on a battlefield, so too a Quonset hut with folding chairs may be a church. But there are churches and then there are churches.

A classically designed church is a thing of power and beauty. Atheists walk into a cathedral and instinctively fall silent.

As the authors write, a Catholic church is both a public and a sacred place. It is built around its altar, where hundreds of thousands of times a day across the globe God is made flesh again: the body and blood of Christ. The authors provide a fine summary of the history of the structures that have grown up around altars and of the origins of the word church.

And the word has two senses in The Church, as it does in life: it is the both the buildings in which the Catholic community gathers, and it is that community. It’s hard for most of us even to conceive of that community without the “houses” in which we worship. Whether or not our churches will again fall victim to secularist tyranny, with the community huddling in catacombs, remains to be seen. For now, it’s good to learn again why we have sanctuaries, bells, fonts, reliquaries, tabernacles, confessionals, and all the other spaces and places inside the building that is – or ought to be – a center of every Catholic life.

Here’s an example of the authors’ tidy catechetical approach:

The traditional ground plan of a Christian church traces the form of a cross – or, more specifically, a crucified man. The long part of the cross is called the nave, and this is the place for the congregation. At the head of the cross is the apse. Between the nave and the apse are two “arms” extending out at right angles from the nave; these are called transepts.

I attend a beautiful church with transepts more akin to fists than the arms of a great cathedral, and its former confessionals (in that transept space) have been moved into mini offices along a corridor connecting the church and the rectory, but they are there and priests man them Monday through Saturday.

            The authors of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home

With the altar and the baptismal font, the confessionals are “among the three main sacramental areas in an ordinary church.” Canon law requires a grille (“fixed gate”), so if your church doesn’t have one, it needs one. Likewise (at least in the United States) every church must have a setup wherein the sacrament may be done face to face.

So, back to the title of this review, what’s an ambo you ask? Essentially, it’s the pulpit: a permanent structure, or should be. It’s not a leftover music stand or a lectern on wheels, because it’s the place – and the only one – from which the scriptures are read. It should be architecturally fixed and positioned (as the congregation sees it) to the left of the altar, which is its compliment.

The ambry? That’s where the sacred oils are kept.

The word ambry has workaday origins. It comes from the same Latin word from which we derive the word armory, and that Latin word, armarium, was often used to describe a laborer’s toolbox. The oils and chrisms kept in the ambry are the tools of the Church’s trade, so to speak.

And then there is Mary, our mother. How much so many Protestants miss in banning her from their sanctuaries and their prayers. The authors quote America’s bishops: that Mary belongs in church “as a fitting tribute to her unique role in the plan of salvation.”

So, you see: as with Cardinal Wuerl’s and Mr. Aquilina’s The Mass, all about our central sacrament, The Church is everything you always wanted to know about that beautiful building but were afraid to ask. But you’re not afraid, right?


Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.