Eastern Christians often refer to the area behind the iconostasis as the “Holy Place.” We Latins prefer to call it the Sanctuary. Our separated brethren in the Protestant sects typically refer to the entire meeting-house in this way, the place of prominence typically being the pulpit, or indeed the quire.

When I did my tour of duty as organist at a United Church of Christ, a denomination in the lineage of the Reformed Churches, the minister would go up into the pulpit for the proclamation of the Word, whilst their commemoration of the Supper of the Lord was celebrated on a table beneath the pulpit, on a level with the congregation and no more than a few feet in front of the foremost pews (versus Deum, oddly enough).

In the Eastern Churches, on the other hand, the highest point of the Mystery of the Eucharist is celebrated behind closed doors in the Holy Place. In the traditional liturgies of the Latin Rite, this too is the case, the gates to the rail being closed for most of the Mass, and the words of Consecration spoken behind a veil of silence.

Access to the Sanctuary, too, is limited in both of these traditions. In the East, only the priest may enter through the Royal Doors in the middle of the Sanctuary. Deacons and other lesser ministers enter through the Deacon Doors on the side. Readers do their appointed task from the midst of the nave. In the traditional Western rites, under no conceivable circumstance would an un-vested layman (that is, a layman not visibly acting as a substitute for a missing cleric) have had any reason to enter the Sanctuary during the liturgy.

The United Church of Christ, of course, has none of this, and draws no distinction between the nave and sanctuary of the church building, calling the entire house where the congregation meets a Sanctuary, under the thesis presumably that where two or three gather in His name He is present in their midst.

But what are we to make of our own traditions? Surely in these days of lay ministers of everything, of female servers who could not possibly be clerics and whose vesture makes no pretension of doing anything of the kind (that is if we believe the line about the alb as a vestment that is not specifically clerical, as opposed to the cassock and surplice, a line which I find odd, given that a surplice is nothing but an abbreviated alb), of men and women in layclothes going in and out and in and out of the Sanctuary all through the Mass, we must be puzzled by the strict exclusivity of the past.

Really, one would have a right to be puzzled about the insistence in the past on keeping up the appearance of restricting the Sanctuary to clerics when in reality laymen were darting in and out of it all the time in the form of small boys and the older, married, expert masters of ceremony, or of lay choristers vested in the quire stalls in some of the great cathedral churches.

Clearly what is at stake here is not any real and necessary restriction of the Sanctuary to clerics, or even to men, since dispensations could be, and were, granted for laity and, in some female religious houses, for women to perform their functions in the Holy Place.

So why does the tradition insist on this point? Why do we not, like the United Church of Christ, simply recognize that there is no reason why the laity cannot be allowed into the Sanctuary, insist upon ourselves as the Body of Christ, and gather round the Lord’s table as at St. Mary’s, Brisbane, Australia, the suppressed progressive parish whose many and dissenting congregants packed around a table in the middle of the nave to celebrate Eucharist?

The answer is that liturgy is in part our teacher about the relationship between God and Man, and exists in any splendor and ceremony at all to let us gain though in our bodies some experience of and participation in the heavenly realities which we celebrate. It does this by symbol, and when these symbols are compromised, when mere words, orthodox though they be, are substituted for these signs, liturgy becomes a less effective teacher of our whole persons, becoming more and more a rarefied and intellectualized experience.

The Sanctuary, the Holy Place, is Heaven, and the nave is Earth. It is to Heaven that we strive, but to which we have not yet arrived. The priest acts in the person of Christ, to Whose life he is intimately conformed by Holy Orders. The power of the symbol comes in the Eastern Rites many times. The Deacon comes forth from the Sanctuary and leads the people, like a messenger from God, in the Litanies, the Word of God in the readings is proclaimed in the midst of the Earth. The Gifts, which represent Christ, come from Heaven down to Earth at the Great Entrance before returning to Heaven, and then, at the climactic moment of the Mass, Heaven meets Earth at the communion, the ministers standing at the foot of the Holy Place, the men and women approaching from the nave and carrying Christ back with them to continue the work of the Incarnation in the world. The same thing happens in the Latin Rite, when the faithful kneel at the altar rail, a part of the altar itself.

If all is Earth, then Christ comes from Earth, and Earth remains where it is. But Heaven came down to Earth, and raises Earth up to Heaven. The Holy of Holies, Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, begin each liturgy confined to the recesses of Heaven, the sole possession of the priest and his heavenly cortege. And at each liturgy, the Holy of Holies is taken from the Holy Place and, through the assembly, finds its place upon the Earth, effecting what it signifies, the work of God’s becoming Man, so that Man might become God.

What is perceived as clericalism, then, does not diminish the laity, it exalts them. Sacrality, confined in the Jewish temple to the domain of priestcraft, is brought from the Holy Place out into the mundane by a priest who, like the High Priest he represents, in humble service bestows life upon us. We are to do the same to world we encounter after Mass has ended.

Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

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33 thoughts on “The Sanctuary”

  1. just a question based on the tone of your column: do detest pope francis? or st. francis? or thomas aquinas for his last remark–my work is straw!

    whatever your heart, brother, and I suspect it’s a good one, work on your tone. the word “prig” springs immediately to mind.

  2. Thanks for your post. Reminds me of Thomas Howard. Your tone is fine–teacherly, it seems to me. Only retract your last line, which is a bit snarky and so distracts from your argument. Or else go on to explain it, e.g. the distinctions of the liturgy are not arbitrary, not prohibitive artifacts of ceremony arbitrarily enforced by the clergy upon the the lay people–they are, rather, part of the wisdom of the tradition, per-their-form, performing the reality of God become man and come among us; taking this space and time where we’re gathering and giving it the shape of the Gospel, making this particular place into a sort sacrament within which we with all the saints commune. Basically all you’ve already said, but just spelled out in relation to the specific charge of “clericalism” which you’ve brought into the discussion at the last. Indeed, what is the connection between the distinctionless worship space of the United Church of Christ with which you began and this charge of “clericalism” with which you ended? Clarity on this might cure Mr. Bennett of his heightened sensitivity.

    1. ‘fraid not…my objection to this and 10,000 other posts from liturgy-obsessed–catholics is the sheer undisguised spiritual pride that rolls off their tongues without a hint of self-awareness, let alone Christ like-humility…well, you princes and would-be princes, there is a new pope in town….

      1. and while i’m thinking of it, if you write an article that could have been written 200 years ago (allowing rhetorical variance) , exactly where is the “new” in the evangelization?

      2. I’m not sure “sheer undisguised spiritual pride . . . without a hint of self-awareness, let alone Christ-like humility” is a criticism applicable to Mr. Connolly. Can you justify it merely on the basis of this post of his? Or are you just shadowboxing?
        You’ve clearly got a sore spot for haughty traditionalists, and perhaps your soreness is entirely warranted. But not all traditionalists are haughty, certainly not Mr. Connolly in this particular post. Please engage with him and what he has said, not with your own bogeymen, or “princes” as you call them. Do you disagree with Mr. Connolly on the nature of the liturgy? If so, state your disagreement and its reasons that he might consider them and respond to you, to the benefit of all readers.

        The new evangelization is new in that it uses new technologies to preach the same old evangel to the world without end.

      3. fair point…I just re-read Connelly’s article and it was not nearly the worst of what you rightly call haughty traditionalists… the princes I referred to are the careerist bishops and priests (and by association those catholics with the same attitudes) pope francis recently told to stand down, using the word princes (surely with biblical intent)…and among whose ranks he would not be looking for future cardinals…as for “sheer spiritual pride..” I yield the point on Connelly–I credited him with good heart if you’ll recall–I yield on Connelly but double down on the vast self-referent whole of catholic spiritual pride…as for new evangelization here’s what the usccb says “… The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. “…

      4. Thanks for this response, and for conceding on Mr. Connolly’s innocence here. However, I think this article is an instance of exactly what you’re looking for: the new evangelization. It’s calling people (back) to the Mass by showing them how its distinctions of space and such are actually there to preach the gospel in its fullness. Submission to the liturgy as our teacher is the stuff of humility not pride, and liturgy is important because we’re bodies and creatures of habit who are shaped over time, so that we need to receive the gospel as a drama, and to participate in that drama again and again. The table must first be the altar, and then become the table. It’s the difference between the Marriage Supper of the Lamb and mere supper.

        And you’re right to oppose careerism in the clergy, but certainly Papa Francesco speaks to it because he knows it up close, and because it pertains directly to his own ministry, and because he wants to call the bishops and all the faithful to love humility. But beyond his proper concern there are quite enough huffing posts about bad bishops. I don’t say that they aren’t bad and that there shouldn’t be huffing posts written about them and more. I only say that it has nothing to do with Connolly’s own post here on the Mass.

        As for the 16%, perhaps that would rise is more Americans learned about liturgy, some Catholics perhaps for the first time, and right here on the Internet. What’s the alternative?

      5. Well, let’s talk about that. You mentioned new technology as a component of the N.E…where’s the creativity here?

        How about “prayer flash mobs”…See an incident on the street that requires a Christian response, send out a tweet to available brothers and sisters…

        How about wearing a crucifix on the outside of our clothing? Identify yourself visibly as a Christian.

        Pope Francis calls for us to be “in the streets”, and he means, based on his behavioral model, literally. The Vicar of Christ is calling us to live a Christian life as if every camera in the world is pointed at us.

        Are we going pretend we haven’t heard him, brother? Evangelize always, and no long faces!

        Or should we just hang out and write clever essays for each other?

      6. It’s late and I’m tired, and don’t want to say things I’ll regret later. So, a disclaimer: I’m sure there are many faithful catholics pursing holy lives who post and comment on these blogs. Many will be service-minded, responsible men and women of faith who are good practicing catholics. They’ll have friends and family and be good folks generally. But he is calling us to do more.

      7. “I’m sure there are many faithful catholics pursing holy lives who post and comment on these blogs. Many will be service-minded, responsible men and women of faith who are good practicing catholics. They’ll have friends and family and be good folks generally. But he is calling us to do more.”

        You have commented on this blog. And you have already said things you should regret.

        I don’t know what is Christ-like, humble, or even worthwhile for a Christian who perceives himself as called “to do more” about calling someone you’ve never met a prig, or assuming that they despise the reigning Pontiff, a great Founder and Saint (he is my confirmation saint), and a Doctor of the Church (a personal patron and intellectual guide).

        I do work (professionally) in sacred music (in a New-Rite parish that is as normal as they come, and wonderful, too, I might add)–so you must forgive me for having a primarily liturgical spirituality. I think I have a reasonable excuse to think a lot about these things and how they fit together, as it bears daily on how I do my work and whether I do it well. When it comes time to write for IT, which I hardly see as the most important thing on my plate as far as my life in Christ goes, having no ambitions to be an Internet guru (too many of those), I draw on what I’ve been thinking about, praying about, reflecting upon, and trying to understand for my own benefit, rather than trying to excogitate something “relevant”.

        And I don’t think that articles like this are without use. Based on the tenor of many of the discussions I have read about the EF/OF/Traddy/RotR jumble of causes and ideologies, I get the sense that not many people have been able to see past their own exclusion from different parts of the rite, or the language barrier, to appreciate what the Holy Fathers who composed the liturgies, the generations of faithful who handed them down to us, and the Church who promoted and guarded them, were trying to teach us about the Incarnation and its effect on the world. They see as clericalism and exclusivity the very symbols and signs that were supposed to teach them about their own importance.

        The priest in the Jewish Temple entered the Holy of Holies, and only the priest came out. But our priest, Christ, in whose person each priest acts, enters the Holy of Holies, God’s Sanctuary in Heaven, and at the Communion bestows its most priceless contents on us. Thus, having received from the Heavenly Sanctuary Christ the Bread of Life, we are to bear Him into the world in humble service to God and neighbour. Enter Pope Francis.

      8. Nice to have you respond, sean, and I guess watson and I did hijack your post for another topic; BUT all of the charges I leveled against hypocritical catholics come right from Francis– although they are available to discerning minds anywhere…and you and every other self righteous catholic responds in the same way…I did not call you a prig, if you reread my post–again, I intuited a good heart–but the tone of your writing as priggish……and neither you nor watson addressed my objections–POPE FRANCIS’S OBJECTIONS–but let that go…

        Sean, the world is desperate for the Gospel. Period.

        How many words have been written, ballpark, about the significance of the liturgy (which keeps changing subtly to what purpose?)

        When is the last time you stood up for Christ in a social situation that was awkward? Called out a liar? Confronted a bully? Feel good about yourself afterwards? Comfortable life, stable relationships, economic stability–all figure into your place in the world, sean? Well, and I hope this isn’t news to you–that world is coming to an end. Soon. The Devil has control of the world. Do you use the word Devil in public, Sean? Francis does.

      9. Disclaimer #2: Perhaps I should have started with this. Currently absorbed in Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You”.
        Please check it out, if you haven’t read it. As I write this I realize my response to your post–and every post come to that—should be, Please read tolstoys “the kingdom of god is within you”.
        Because that, my new evangelical friends, is a dangerous book. And Francis would approve.

      10. All I’m saying is this:

        I’ve met your type before, a lot. A lot a lot. I draw them like flypaper. Apparently Christian life is supposed to glean no fruit from its “source and summit,” nor reflect upon it, nor write about it, nor do anything other that “preaching the Gospel to the streets,” as if this task were not helped by helping others appreciate and return more nourished from our prayer in common.

        Which, by the way, leads me to ask: how many words have been spilt on evangelization, on preaching, on teaching, on fraternal correction, &c. People have written copiously on all aspects of our life in Christ. Liturgy is hardly exceptional. All of the things on which you choose to focus are likewise not exceptional, and have been covered in detail by auctores probati and Saints alike across the centuries.

        Saints, too, have seen to the cult of the Church. Francis used to send his followers to recover inappropriately reserved Hosts and place them in more suitable places.

        What’s more, anything traditional-minded or sympathetic to it draws your ire as unevangelical. That’s absurd. What’s unevangelical is drawing divisions in the Body of Christ, as you do, on the basis and solely judging upon liturgical prefence. We are One Body.

        If I choose to reflect on the Sacrament of Unity at length, and the way in which it points us to our place in the Body of Christ, and you choose to make this a point of contention, what does that say about each of us?

      1. My pleasure! Pick up his “If your mind wanders at Mass.” The first chapter, if I remember rightly, is worth the whole book. Many years of thinking about the wisdom of liturgy qua liturgy, not about any particular form–rest easy, Mr. Bennett–distilled into a few sparkling pages. Converts to Catholicism tend to have a special enthusiasm and attentive appreciation for the Mass because it is so very different from their prior years of worship around the table at the United Church of Christ, so to speak. Howard helps to show why posts like yours here are entirely worth the time, and not to be pitted against “taking to the streets” in the style of Mr. Bennett.

  3. Sean Connolly,
    Thank you for this post. I have to admit, after returning to the Catholic Church after 30 years, I find myself drawn to the older more reverent forms of the liturgy. Your post reminds me why I love it so much. It reminds me of when I was six years old and my first experience of heaven and earth meeting in the Sanctuary. I was too young to understand all that was going on but I did understand an experience that I haven’t had again until thirty years later. Some wonder why Latin mass Catholic arrive at mass 10 to 30 minutes early and stay 10 to 20 minutes after mass? Once a Catholic experiences that sensation of heaven and earth coming together during the mass visibly, they enjoy the continued communion with God, thanking him for this wonderful blessing.

  4. Truly amazing.
    Not a single response to Tolstoy. No engagement with the core of Pope Francis’s message. Something about vinegar…
    Well, thank you all for your responses.
    Good Luck.

    1. Mr. Bennett, I take your point, which is to say the Pope’s point: about the need for hands-on in-the-streets service and witness.

      However, it’s not fair for you to comment-bomb Mr. Connolly’s post, and especially not fair for you to question his character and his witness for Christ on the basis of one out of a total of two measly blog posts that he has up on the Internet. Mr. Connolly has done you no wrong, and the simple fact is that you don’t know his life well enough to speak a word of rebuke into it. Furthermore, as he points out, he’s writing and reflecting upon what he knows best, and upon what is most pertinent to his own ministry in his parish. There are many members of the Church, with varying gifts. Perhaps you scorn a mouth because it is not a foot. Perhaps you should seek his forgiveness. Perhaps Tolstoy will give you his blessing.

      Speaking of which, I’m not a stranger to Tolstoy, and I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I only disagree with your setting the work of evangelization over against the work of the Mass. To gather and to scatter is the rhythm of the Church, the pulse by which its members draw in and are filled, to then rush out of the Sacred Heart to “oxygenate” the world. Apologies for pushing the metaphor, but it gets across the point that the health of the Church is a kind of breathing, not a breathlessness. The Mass is named precisely for its “sending out” of the faith-ful into the streets. To set the call of Pope Francis against the Mass is misbegotten.

      All Catholics need to take the Pope’s challenge seriously, with a bit of zest and zeal to be sure, but still within the context of their own lives and ministry. Indeed, go ahead and be a herald for the Pope’s call, but it’s not a herald’s job to judge who’s answering it and how well they’re answering it. For some the answer may be radical, and for others it may be gradual (many radical changes are gradual). Be open to that, and encouraging of it, and patient with it.

      Say a prayer for your brother, Sean, if you will. If he’s truly off the mark, then he needs your prayer. And that’s certainly better than bullying him with a club called Tolstoy and thinking yourself better because you don’t bother blogging about liturgy.

      There are many a night that I share the groanings of creation and feel acutely the urgency of the call and the need to redeem the times with the love and courage of Christ. Precisely the sort of thing you’re rightly insisting upon. Yes: you’re right. You’re just wrong that an appreciation for and attention towards the Mass is incompatible with or antithetical to evangelization. Catholics go out from the Mass as from the pasture, to reach the sheep out on the rocks, to love them there at the edge, and in time to nudge them back, so that they too can come to pasture and feed, and to likewise go forth in the drama of the Gospel.

      1. Wow. I do appreciate the time and thought that went into that post. I especially admire your instinct to protect sean from what you think of as bullying. But Sean seems to defend himself just fine. And if poor writing skills have kept me from making this clear, let me try again. I never questioned anyone’s sincerity. I made ample, to my mind, statements to that effect. If you reread the posts, you’ll see I’ve admitted–though anything but apologized for–hijacking his post with another topic for this reason. Real conversation, real engagement, is the goal of the new evangelization. If this post were on a blog called Joys of Liturgy I would never have found it, because I wouldn’t have been looking for it.

      2. And I would hardly characterize “please read Tolstoy’s KGWY” as hitting someone with a club.

      3. Mr. Bennett,

        A few things Google may not have told you:

        1) This blog is not a blog “of the New Evangelization.” It was taglined as the “Social Network of the JP2 and B16 Generations” (admittedly not a tagline I understood) when I joined it. The tagline you read is new, since the “F” generation would not have sounded so hot. I’m sorry I didn’t deliver the in-the-trenches front-line hard-hitting conscience-melting condemnations that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted you were looking for (although I certainly have elsewhere!).

        Prayer and Sacraments are not categories I invented; they are subjects on which columnists to this blog are encouraged to write. Behold, I have written upon them.

        2) I appreciate the fact that you appreciate Tolstoy. I began looking at the work you recommended. Did you really want me to reply to it based upon my immediate impressions of a work I’ve never touched or dealt with in depth, or would you prefer me to sit down with it? That being said, this sentence troubles me,

        “In precisely the same way the Christian doctrine is presented to men of the social or heathen theory of life to-day, in the guise of a supernatural religion, though there is in reality nothing mysterious, mystic, or supernatural about it. It is simply the theory of life which is appropriate to the present degree of material development, the present stage of growth of humanity, and which must therefore inevitably be accepted.”

        Would Tolstoy use the word Devil in public?

        Not that I find my judgment on this point definitive. I have never read the book as a whole. Lambaste me as you will for failing to understand the Count, but you seemed to want an instant response, so there you have it.

        3) The “core of Francis’ Message” has not yet become clear to me. The message of the last Holy Father was very clear: renewal at the heart of the Church and the Church’s life, and Her Worship, was key to real engagement with the world. The weaker our sense of identity and unity, the less effective evangelizers we will be.

        There’s a lot of bad blood between warring liturgical camps in the Church. This disunity is evident. This article was an attempt to show how one of things most often objected to about the older rites, that they are clericalist and exclusionary, is actually a misunderstanding of the symbolic language of the rites, and that the rites are, according to the language of cult that we have inherited from the Jewish Temple, inclusive and ennobling for the faithful “in the pews,” the symbolism existing to continually remind them of that fact.

        It was a poor attempt to try to heal one of the divisions in the Church. Which has been a prerequisite to any real, effective, convincing, lasting evangelization since century one.

      4. Thank you. ­čÖé Nothing’s worth writing that doesn’t piss somebody off.

        Ah, I have to ask, are you responsible for…

        churchhistorysurprise.blogspot.com?

        Your style, and age, remind me of its mystery author, as well as the points you choose to make. I have been on a quest to discover its author since I first discovered it.

      5. Just looked at the blog you sent because you mentioned style, and i’ll look at it at bit later, but no, not mine.

        I’m really not interested in catholic bashing, if that is the topic. I was baptized and confirmed, but army-brat dysfunction and an atheist father (“enough of this catholic crap!”) kept me from the church.

        My age indicates my urgency as you might expect and will come to experience yourself. God willing. It also accounts for my abbreviated writing style.

      6. Just looked at that church history blog again; boy, is that not mine. My brain doesn’t seek or retain historical facts; thank God for google.

      7. Perhaps there’s been a disconnect at some point here…do you identify yourself as a Catholic?

      8. I identify as Christian. Since I’ve been baptized, confirmed and don’t have an un-confessed mortal sin on my soul, I think of myself as retaining membership. I take the Eucharist, go to Mass fairly regularly, participate in a men’s group bible study, and for awhile was saying the rosary with a few other folks at a planned parenthood clinic near by.
        I also attend protestant evangelical services and events if they seem interesting. But as you and Watson (is it mr. or just Watson?) commented on, we all feel the pain of separation from brothers. That’s why Pope Francis has really awakened hope in a lot of us.

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  6. Sean, I want to thank you, and Watson, for the conversation. It may have spurred an interesting work of the Holy Spirit.
    I told my men’s bible study group–seniors and geezers all–about our online exchange, and long story short we may start a blog! Or something. We will ask some of our younger brothers in the Parish for the technical guidelines, but the guys seemed pumped. (insert disrespectful geezer pun–we’re both thinking it)
    We have some pretty accomplished guys in the group. One was a homicide police detective for 20 years. He has stories folks will want to hear.
    The idea of generational witness.is a wonderful. gift. Thank you again.
    God bless you, brother.

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