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How to explore a cathedral with your kids

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York

Sergii Figurnyl | Shutterstock

Cecilia Pigg - published on 04/23/24

Entering and exploring a cathedral can be an awesome experience for the whole family. Here are some tips to help make your visit holy and educational.

“Wow, Mom!” my five-year-old whispered in awe. “This is amazing!” I looked up at the high arches, and the glowing stained glass and whispered back “Yes!”

One of our favorite parts of visiting a new city is visiting the Catholic churches there. It might seem intimidating to bring children, especially small children, into a church just to look around. But with a little preparation and explanation, it can be a wonderful experience for the whole family. I asked my husband, who works in sacred architecture, to help me write the following guide to exploring cathedrals with kids. He helps bring our sons through the churches we visit in a similar way.

Give a little introduction

Before you enter the cathedral, you can prepare yourself and your kids for the experience with a few words of introduction. “Remember, this is God’s house — Jesus is here truly present in the tabernacle. The people who built this church wanted to help us remember how awesome God is, and so we are going to see all the ways they made this a special place.” Remind them that we walk – never run – in churches, and we talk in whispers so as not to disturb anyone who is praying.

Make a loop

After genuflecting to remember that God is present, start with a slow loop walking around the whole church. This way you can get a sense of the space, and stretch your legs if you’ve just traveled in the car to get there. Pay attention to the art as you walk around. Notice the stained glass, the stations of the cross, and any side altars and statues. Point out ones that strike you to your child, and ask him or her to show you the ones they notice.

The stained glass usually depicts saints or scenes from the life of Christ. You can try to identify the scenes or saints together. You might pass the baptismal font and look out for symbols that decorate it. There may be shells or a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Often, fonts have eight sides to represent the eighth day — a way of showing that Baptism makes us a new creation.

View from the pew

After you’ve gotten a sense of the space you can sit in a pew and look at the sanctuary together. Notice what symbols are on the altar, the tabernacle, and the ambo (where the readings are proclaimed). You might see symbols of the four evangelists or Eucharistic symbols (like pelicans or wheat). There might be a special throne or chair for the bishop near the altar. And you may see the bishop’s crest ornamenting different parts of the church. As you look around, keep an eye out for a statue or painting of the patron saint of the church.

Trace the shape

While you are looking at the sanctuary, you can notice the overall shape of the building. Cathedrals are usually built in the form of a cross. Crosses have a horizontal and vertical dimension—similar to the way we must love both God and our neighbor. The arms of the cross that extend to the left and the right are called the transepts of the church. A church is where we come first and foremost to love God through worship, so the vertical aspect of the church is most important and emphasized through the architecture of the building.

Eyes upward

Look up! Notice all the ways the shape and design of the church pull your eyes toward the altar, and upwards, toward heaven. Look out for high ceilings, arches, columns, and a dome. These forms all help to raise your eyes and heart upward and out of yourself. If you see columns, note how they both help you look up, but also help you feel grounded and safe. Sometimes there will be twelve columns to signify the twelve apostles. As you are looking up, notice any art or designs and patterns on the ceiling. You might see Marian symbols, like the fleur-de-lys or flowers or the letter M.

Don’t miss the floor!

Look down! The floors usually have interesting patterns and symbols too. See if you can guess the meaning or note the pattern to look up the symbolism later.

In general, try to go on a nice, bright day so that you can see the sunlight through the stained glass. Or go in the evening so you can see all the art well with the lights on. If you go on a gray, rainy day, and the lights aren’t on inside because they don’t turn them on until evening, it might be hard to see all of the details. Don’t forget to pray with your kids while in the church before you go. Something short and sweet like, “Jesus, thank you for this beautiful cathedral, and for being present here for us!”

For additional reading that is good for the whole family before or after your trip, consider the book Cathedral. And for some extra insight into what you might see, check out How to Read Churches. If you’re planning a vacation this summer, try to include the cathedral of the city you are planning to visit!

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