Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
The church and its chapels
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Nov. 11, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
One might think of the parish church as simply a single large room where people come to worship. There would also be auxiliary rooms (cloakroom, restroom, closets, etc.) that would not be places of worship. Actually, the ideal is that churches would have at least two chapels, smaller rooms for more private worship. These chapels are described in both the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and in Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, the guidelines published by the U.S. bishops in 2000. When any parish or other community is renovating, or building a new place of worship, the planners must seriously consider the norms describing these chapels.
One chapel is the place where the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved here to provide Communion to the sick, and for private devotional prayer. If a chapel is not possible, due to construction or financial constrictions, the tabernacle may be located in the sanctuary of the church, as was the case in all our older churches. But a chapel, distinct from the main body of the church, remains the preference. In referring to this chapel, the recent edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal cites the Vatican’s 1967 Instruction on Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery: “It is therefore recommended that, as far as possible, the tabernacle be placed in a chapel distinct from the middle or central part of the church...” The Eucharistic chapel is described in the liturgical documents as “integrally connected with the church and conspicuous to the faithful,” a chapel “that can foster reverence and can provide the quiet and focus needed for personal prayer,” a chapel “designed so that the attention of one praying there is drawn to the tabernacle that houses the presence of the Lord.”
Another chapel is the reconciliation chapel, or what is called in some places “the penance room.” The ideal here is that the place for the celebration of the sacrament of penance should “be visible and accessible, that it contain a fixed grille, and that it allow for confession face-to-face for those who wish to do so.” This special room (rightfully called a chapel, since it is a place for worship) would be used for nothing other than for the celebration of reconciliation. It would also contain a chair for the priest and a kneeler and chair for the penitent. There might also be a table with a Bible. “Appropriate artwork, a crucifix symbolic of Christ’s victory over sin and death, icons or images reflective of baptism and the Eucharist, or Scriptural images of God’s reconciling love help enhance the atmosphere of prayer.” Indeed, “by its design, furnishings, and location within the church building, the place for reconciliation can assist penitents on the path to contrition and sorrow for sin and to proclaim their reconciliation with God and the community of faith.”
Churches might also have a “daily Mass chapel,” a room considerably smaller than the main body of the church. Here the daily celebration of the Eucharist can be celebrated, as well as morning or evening prayer, or any liturgy or devotion that would not need the use of the main body of the church. This chapel could also be used for children’s liturgies or even for weddings or funerals where only a few people might be present. This chapel is not the same as the Eucharistic chapel, for the former is designed for the active participation and movement demanded by the liturgy, and the later is designed and dedicated for quiet, personal and private prayer.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)