The altar is a focal point of the Roman Catholic Mass.
The altar is a focal point of the Roman Catholic Mass.

The interior of a Roman Catholic church is designed to make members of the congregation feel like participants in the Mass rather than just observers. Each part of the church has a symbolic meaning for Catholics and most furnishings in a Catholic church serve a specific purpose. Although Roman Catholic churches may have different architectural styles such as Gothic, Victorian, traditional and modern, certain elements are present in all Catholic churches.

The Vestibule

Just inside the entrance to a Catholic church is the vestibule. A large, standing font or pool used to perform the sacrament of Baptism is typically located to one side. The paschal candle stands next to the baptismal pool. It is lit at Easter and immersed in the pool as a sign of Christ come to life. Holy oil used in Catholic sacraments also is kept in this area. Smaller, wall-mounted holy water fonts are found near the interior church doors. Catholics bless themselves with holy water when entering and leaving the church to renew their baptismal promises.

The Nave

The interior church doors open up to the nave, or main room of a Catholic church. Members of the congregation are seated in this area, typically in rows of pews. Each row of pews has a kneeler so congregants may kneel at specific times during the Mass. In most churches, the walls of the nave feature 14 pictures or plaques, known as the Stations of the Cross, illustrating the story of Christ's crucifixion.

The Sanctuary

The sanctuary is at the front of a Roman Catholic church. It is separated from the nave by an altar rail at which congregants may receive Holy Communion. A crucifix is given prominence in the sanctuary so it may be visible to all. On the left side of the sanctuary is the pulpit, from which the Gospel, or teachings of Jesus Christ, is read. On the right side is the lectern, from which the Epistle, or the word of the Apostles, is read. Chairs also are provided in the sanctuary for the member of the clergy celebrating the Mass, lay assistants and altar servers.

The Altar and Tabernacle

The church's main altar is in the center of the sanctuary. It is typically constructed of natural stone. During Mass, it is covered with an altar cloth and traditionally lit with candles. The bread and wine symbolizing The Last Supper are consecrated on the altar during Mass using a chalice and paten, or bread plate. The Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is housed may be found on or behind the altar. The sanctuary lamp, which symbolizes the presence of Jesus, is suspended above the Tabernacle. It is illuminated at all times except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the two days preceding Easter.

Stained Glass and Statues

Catholic churches are often distinguished by their stained glass windows and statues honoring religious figures. These elements of a Catholic church reflect a time when the Mass was conducted in Latin and not all followers could understand the readings. Stained glass windows and statues helped illustrate the Bible's words and drew the faithful into the experience of the Mass. Votive candles are often kept in front of the larger statues. Churchgoers with a special request or petition may light one of the candles and offer prayers for a saint's intercession.