The Parish Church


Our parish churches are (or should be) our parish family home. Here we gather to celebrate the central events in our faith life. Here we are initiated into the family of God, we are nourished by God’s word, and sacraments, by the risen life of Christ.

Whether the building is cathedral-like or a modest building it is filled with all kinds of opportunities for catechesis at all levels. Our churches stand as an expression of the faith of past generations who founded them and worked together to build them and pay for them. They are also the places where new generations continue to live out that tradition and commitment, and where they continue to build the Body of Christ.

In each church there are many artifacts that lend themselves to excellent symbolic catechesis for students at whatever level – its history, architecture, decorations, furnishings, sacred vessels, art… These are all wonderful starting points for deepening an understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ, the way that we celebrate the Liturgy and how we participate in the sacramental life of the Church.

Many parishes begin their RCIA programmes with a guided tour of the Church, the catechist pointing out the main features and the participants asking questions. This is an excellent idea and it can also be an exercise that is repeated at different stages during the Liturgical Year. This means that the participants will gradually take on board the catechises offered, rather than having to digest huge amounts at the beginning. For example, during Advent we have advent Wreaths, different Liturgical colours and the build up to the Crib, while during Lent there are the Stations of the Cross and the crucifix to explore – hence deepening our understanding of Christ and the Paschal Mystery.

For both adults and children it may be useful to produce worksheets and guides so that they can look closely for themselves at the artifacts provided for them. Through the careful use of questioning and giving clear and appropriate information participants will deepen both faith and understanding.


Ask the participants to look at the objects and symbols in order to discover more about who Jesus is: e.g. the altar, the crucifix, the chalice, the ciborium, the Alpha and the Omega on the Paschal Candle, the Stations of the Cross, the statue of the Sacred Heart.

Look at the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist – what do these tell us about how Mass is celebrated? (Don’t forget to introduce the names of these items – and with children it may be appropriate to have labels ready!) In this context the Lectionary and the Missal can be explored and people can discover something about the Liturgical Cycle and what is contained in the Missal. (Adults can also be introduced to the General Instruction to the Roman Missal contained at the front of the big Missal. It may inspire them to look at the notes included in the Sunday/Weekday Missals that they might have).

Look at the special places in the Church set apart for specific Sacramental celebrations – the baptistery (the font) the confessional and the Sanctuary. Again labelling is useful, and through the use of questioning and explanation both adults and children can, explore their experience, discuss what happens and be informed as to why the font is in a particular place, for example.

Why are there statues, pictures, or stained glass windows of saints in the Church? Who are these people? What is known about them? Who is the patron of this parish? Why do parishes have patron saints? Participants can be encouraged to make the link to the Liturgy (specifically the Eucharistic Prayer) which we pray with all the angels and saints. (This is a particularly appropriate activity for Confirmation candidates choosing their Confirmation patron saints.)

It may be possible to look at stories from the Scriptures and the lives of the saints through the use of the stained glass windows, the art works, and the Stations of the Cross. What do these stories say to us about Christ and the Church?

Looking at the items needed to celebrate Mass show us something about the nature of the Eucharist – the ciborium, paten, chalice, cruets, the various cloths, and candles, including the Paschal Candle. The Tabernacle is an important feature that needs to be discussed. With children and young people it may be an idea to ask them for designs for the Paschal Candle, or the door of the Tabernacle, or even to design a chalice. In this way they can explore appropriate symbols.

What about the entrance to the Church? The Holy Water stoop – why do we dip our hands in the Holy Water and make the Sign of the Cross?
Ask students to look for the symbols of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the Resurrection. Why are these important for our faith? What truths do they reveal?

In exploring the church participants become aware of the gestures (genuflection, bowing...) and also of the significance of ritual (the offertory Procession, the Procession of the Word and so on) and therefore their participation hopefully will be more meaningful.

I could continue, but I’m sure that by now you have the idea! One thing that I have found that works well for children (e.g. in Children’s Liturgy) is to ask them from time to time to notice things – like the colour of the priest’s vestments or when he washes his fingers, or what he does in front of the Tabernacle. More than once, I’ve seen children nudge their parents to pass on their insights.

Sr Gillian Murphy is a Sister of Providence and a member of the Department for Parish and Family Catechesis at Maryvale Institute.