Catholic Church is the house of God and a gate of heaven

Father John A. Kiley

Precious Blood Sister Joyce Ann Zimmerman, in her succinct publication “The Ministry of Liturgical Environment” rightly notes that the contrast of the church building as the Domus Dei (House of God) versus the church building as the Domus Ecclesiae (House of the people of God) is a false opposition. The two notions are not mutually exclusive; in fact, the two traditions enhance one another.?

The church building as the house of God is actually a pre-Christian idea dating back to patriarchal times and maybe even to pagan times. God was thought to be present more in one space than in another. Recall the famous words of Jacob after his celebrated dream: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.”?

Consider Moses, who had to remove his shoes when approaching the burning bush because the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. Remember the temple with its holy place and inner sanctum and mercy seat — all evoking a real presence of God.? Although the God of Judaism did indeed fill the universe with His wonders and his presence, for the ancients the temple was a place where God especially dwelt.

The early Christians soon became aware that they themselves were indeed temples of the Holy Spirit. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit made their home in the heart of every baptized Christian.? What later theologians would call the “indwelling” became the bond that would draw all believers together, truly constituting them as a veritable temple, a true church, a house of God. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” spoke Jesus, guaranteeing his presence to every assembly of the faithful — even when Mass was not being celebrated.

As the early Christian community grew in the awareness of its own dignity as the dwelling place of God, Christian belief in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine matured as well.

Originally kept in a special niche in the home or the place of assembly for the benefit of the sick, the body of Christ took on a life of its own, so to speak, as believers understood the reserved Eucharist to be a continuation of the same mystery, the same grace, the same action, that they perceived at Mass.?

Just as the church is the prolongation of the Incarnation, continuing the saving activity of Jesus Christ down through the ages, so the reserved Eucharist is the prolongation of the Mass, celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ each hour in the tabernacles of the Catholic world.

The Eucharist, both at Mass and in the tabernacle, is Christ truly present to his people. It is certainly no overstatement, then, to describe a Catholic Church as the House of God.?

Christ genuinely lives in his people through the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Christ genuinely dwells in our churches through the real presence of the Eucharist.? Certainly Christ is not in competition with himself.

The twin presences of Christ, while different, are nonetheless complementary.? The reserved Eucharist reminds the believer who kneels in its presence of the saving action of Jesus Christ, the paschal mystery, his dying and rising, made available through the Mass and perpetuated in the sacrament. The Indwelling Spirit guides the whole community in their own personal paschal pilgrimages by which they die to sin and come alive to God.

So every Catholic church and chapel is indeed a “house of God and a gate of heaven.” God is sacramentally present there through the reserved Eucharist, celebrating the original paschal event and encouraging every believer to persevere through his own personal paschal event.

Likewise, every Catholic church and chapel is the house of the people of God who truly draw down the saving presence of Christ at every assembly in which they gather in his name: morning prayer, May devotions, Stations of the Cross, Tenebrae, the validation of a marriage. The Eucharist and the indwelling celebrate the same Christ. They doubly and mutually affirm the richness which God lavishes on his people.?