Liturgical Items You Should Know

Daniel Witham

Liturgical Items You Should Know

The liturgy, and especially the Mass, is the Catholic faith in action. It is the whole paschal mystery of Christ made present to us on the altar. Just as we should know and study our faith, we should know and study the liturgical expression of the faith. One way to do that is to learn the name and function of different items used during the liturgy. In this article, I will explore the different items Catholics use in the liturgy and the symbolic meaning of image

blog image Altar: The altar is the central feature of every Catholic church. It shaped as a table, and as a tomb. It reminds us of the last supper, and of Christ’s death and burial. The altar is the most important item in a church because it is the place where the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered, and there is no greater act of worship than the Holy Mass. In the Old Testament and in pagan religions, the altar was the place where the victim of the sacrifice was offered to God. In the New Covenant, that victim is Christ. Traditionally, relics of the saints were kept inside the altar, harkening back to the time when the Christians gathered at the tombs of martyrs for worship and also in reference to Revelation 6:9-11.

Crucifix: The crucifix adorns the altar. It is an image of Christ crucified on the cross. It is the reminder that the sacrifice we offer at Mass is exactly the same sacrifice of the cross. 

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Candles: At every mass, there must be candles lit on the altar. The candle is symbolic of Christ, who is the light of the world. Furthermore, candles have a mysterious meaning when we consider the Church’s historical insistence that they be made of beeswax. Bees are symbolic of Christ in a fascinating way. Bees reproduce through haplodiploidy—a system where the sex of an offspring is determined by the number of chromosome sets an individual receives. A fertilized egg results in a female, while an unfertilized egg results in a male bee. Here many have pointed out that the bee, which makes wax for the candles, is symbolic of the virgin birth of Christ. 

Linens and antependium: the altar is covered with white linens, which call to mind the burial cloths of Christ. They serve to keep a clean surface for offering the sacrifice. The altar also sometimes has an antependium or frontal, which hangs over the front of it and matches the color of the vestments. 

blog imageThe tabernacle: the tabernacle is the place where the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved. After Mass, any of the consecrated hosts which were not consumed are kept here. This allows Christ to be worshiped by the faithful at all times, and allows the Eucharist to be brought to the sick. The tabernacle takes its name from the tabernacle of the Old Testament, where God’s presence dwelt with the Israelites. 

Chalice: The chalice is the cup used to hold wine and water as they are offered as part of the Eucharistic sacrifice. After the consecration, the chalice contains the Precious Blood of Christ. 

Paten: A paten is a metal plate used to hold the Holy Eucharist. It is used by the priest at the altar to hold the consecrated Host. Other patens with handles are sometimes used by an altar server. They are held under the chin of communicants as a precaution so that no Hosts drop to the floor accidentally. 

Purificator: The purificator is a small white cloth used only to clean the chalice and patens. It is used only for purifying an object that has touched the Holy Eucharist. Because of the sanctity of the Eucharist, even in small particles, the purificator is treated with special care after use and only washed in a reverent manner .blog imageblog image

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blog imageCiborium: the ciborium is a large metal container. It resembles a chalice or a bowl, but with a lid. It is used to store the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle and during the distribution of holy communion. 

Pall: The pall is a sturdy square card covered with linen. It sits on top of the chalice to prevent dust or insects from falling into the Precious Blood. 

blog imageChalice veil: A small veil used to cover the chalice. It matches the color of the vestments for the day’s Mass. 

Corporal: A square linen that sits on the altar during the Eucharistic Liturgy. The corporal protects the holy Eucharist from falling or spilling onto the altar. It is called a corporal from the latin corpus, meaning body. It is the resting place of Our Lord’s Body on the altar. 

Burse: A burse is a square pouch. It is used to hold the corporal when it is folded. It protects the corporal because the corporal may have touched the consecrated image

The steps and predella: most altars are raised above the ground by a series of steps. This recalls Mount Calvary. The blog imagespace before the altar at the top of the steps where the priest stands is called the predella. 

Cruets: the cruets are small containers used to hold water and wine. They are brought to the priest to fill the chalice with wine. The are often made of glass or precious metal. 

Lavabo basin: a small dish, in which the priest at Mass will wash his hands. This part of the Mass is sometimes called the “lavabo,” referring to the former practice of reciting Psalm 26 during the hand washing. The priest prayed “Lavabo inter innocents manus meas, et circumdabo altare tuum Domine.” “I will wash my hands among the innocent, and will compass Thine altar, O Lord.”blog image

Credence table: A table at the side of the sanctuary where objects are kept before being brought to the altar. This can include the chalice, the cruets of wine and water, and the lavabo basin.

Thurible and boat: The thurible is a censer. Coals are lit inside of it and incense is poured on top. The entire thurible is held by chains and results in a tool that is used to incense the altar or other objects and people. The name comes from the latin word for incense The container used to hold incense before it is put on the hot coals is often called a boat due to its shape. 

Bells: Bells are used in Catholic worship to alert the faithful that something important is happening. There are two main types of bells. The church bells are the large bells often in a bell tower. They alert the surrounding community that Mass will soon begin. There are also small hand bells, which are rung by an altar server at the consecration of the Mass to alert them of the supreme importance of this moment. 

blog imageAmbo: A pulpit, from which the readings at Mass are proclaimed and the celebrant preaches. The word ambo comes from the Greek ambon, meaning the crest of a hill. The raised pblog imageulpit can remind us of Christ’s sermon on the mount. 

Sedilia: The seats where the priest(s), and deacon(s) celebrating Mass can sit. These seats represent that the priest presides over the congregation when he offers the Mass.

Cathedra: The bishop’s throne. The cathedra is only present in cathedral churches. It represents the bishop’s authority to teach and govern his diocese. Only the bishop of the diocese, or another bishop with his permission, can sit at the cathedra. 

blog imageSanctuary lamp: The sanctuary lamp is a candle often kept in a red glass covering. It is kept burning before the tabernacle at all times that the Blessed Sacrament is present in the tabernacle. It signifies to the faithful Christ’s true presence. blog image

Blessed Oils and Ambry: There are three kinds of blessed olive oils blessed at the Chrism Mass each year. The Sacred Chrism is used at ordinations, confirmations, and the consecration of altars and churches. The Oil of the Catechumens is used at baptisms. The Oil of the Sick is used for the sacrament of anointing of the sick. These are often kept in cruets or containers, which are labeled S.C. (sanctum chrisma, or sacred chrism) O.S. (oleum sanctum, or oil of catechumens) and O. I. (oleum infirmorum, or oil of the sick). In some churches, a box can be found built into the wall of the sanctuary where these precious oils were stored. It iblog images called an ambry. 

blog imageAspergilum: The aspergillum is a rod shaped tool used to sprinkle the congregation or other objects with holy water. The name comes from asperges, the latin word for “wash.” It reminds us the Levitical law’s instruction for making one ceremonially clean (Leviticus 14). 

Monstrance: The monstrance is an object that holds a consecrated host. It is made of precious metal and often shaped as a sunburst. In the center, Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist is on display for the adoration of the faithful and for the rite of benediction. Monstrance comes from monstrare, meaning to show or demonstrate.