Body and City – Two Paradigms for the Church Building

Our church buildings show forth the reality of the Church – and indeed they should – both physically, and symbolically.  The buildings that we construct are a visible sign to the world that the Body of Christ is actually present in this very place and time.  As such they carry, so to speak, a burden of responsibility for conveying this astounding reality to the broader secular culture.

Given this unavoidable condition, this responsibility, we ought to be very familiar with the most prevalent symbolic meanings that have been ascribed to our church buildings throughout the centuries by the great teachers of the Faith, builders, and architects.  We should understand what our buildings ought to convey to the surrounding culture, and why those meanings are important to us as the People of God.

Unfortunately, we as Catholics we have largely cast aside the abundant theological meaning embedded and available within each and every church building.  Which is, to state it quite briefly;  the church building stands for Us.  Our church buildings have always provided a meaningful visible structure with which we can associate the invisible reality of the Church that is in fact built up of its members as living stones.

And over the past two millennia the two most important symbolic understandings of our sacred buildings have been:

  • The church building symbolizing the Body of Christ, and
  • The church building symbolizing the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God.

These two paradigms are so incredibly rich in their theological implications that it would take more than a lifetime of work for the architect, artist, or artisan to even come close to exhausting their symbolic potential.  Here are just a few points for reflection.

The Church, in her members, is identified by Jesus himself with his own Body – the same Body that Jesus identifies with the Temple – which was the singular place of the priestly sacrifice, the mercy seat, the place of atonement, and God’s own dwelling with his people on earth.  And so when we speak of the church building as signifying the Body of Christ we are drawing upon the entire Temple tradition of the Old Testament, and our understanding of the Church in the New.  The “locus” of sacrificial offering has been transformed from the Temple to the very Body of Christ.  This Body is now identified with the Church itself, the assembly of God’s chosen people, the royal baptismal priesthood that we all share.  Our churches then should strive to make visible this condition of the ordered harmony of parts and the concept of mutual dependence and support that runs through all of St. Paul’s teaching on the ecclesial “body” of believers.

The Church is also identified as the living stones of the New Jerusalem.  This is fundamentally an eschatological vision, proposing the fullness of glory that has been ushered in during this Age of the Church, though not yet completed.  The reality of this City of God has come to us through the Paschal event of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.  In scripture we are given several wonderful visions of the New Jerusalem, and they all are described as the dwelling place of God among his People, fully redeemed.  This is what our sacred architecture should strive to convey to us as participants in the Liturgy – during which the entire Church, visible and invisible, participates in the kenosis, the self-outpouring offering, of Christ to the Father in heaven always-forever.  In our churches, in the interior spaces and in the sanctuary in particular, we should convey a sense of the glory of the Lord, and our hope for his return in glory.  Saint Peter describes it as “wonderful light.”

Listen again to his beautiful exhortation from the 2nd Reading of the 5th Sunday of Easter:

Beloved:  Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it says in Scripture:
Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone, chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.
Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone, and
A stone that will make people stumble,
and a rock that will make them fall.
They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.

You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises” of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.


Both of these paradigms, the Sacrificial Body and the Glorified City of God, should be part of the ongoing conversation between every ecclesiastical architect and every parish building committee.  These theological concepts call us to understand a) the abundant symbolic value of our buildings both inside and out, and b) the responsibility that every church has to express the amazing reality of our God who continues to make himself present in time and space – through the Sacraments, the ministerial priesthood, the Word, and in the assembly of the People he has made his own.

Let us endeavor to recapture this symbolic worldview that grasps the beauty and authentic meaning imbued by the Creator in the material world around us, that we would indeed be “brought into his wonderful light” as we are built up into a “spiritual house.”   Our sacred buildings should always remind us that we, the Church as the Body of Christ and by his great mercy, have become the new place within which a worthy offering can be made to the Father – for God’s glory and our own sanctification.

To Bear the Weight of Mystery

In the context of the sacred liturgy, what should beautiful buildings and artwork “do” for us?  How can we understand their “success” or “effectiveness?”  Ultimately, our church buildings and sacred art can only be “successful” insofar as they lead each of us, as part of a worshipping community beyond of our own time and place, and toward the Lord.  They should offer a sense of transcendence.

Eleven years ago, the USCCB published a document entitled Built of Living Stones  (BLS) to provide parishes with some theological background and practical guidelines for their building or renovation projects.  The document is specifically focused on the integration of art, architecture and liturgy, and it includes a wonderful section on Sacred Art called “Components of True and Worthy Art.”  This section emphasizes the importance of this transcendent dimension for everything that is placed in service to the Liturgy.  The appropriateness of a work of art or architecture is thus “demonstrated by the work’s ability to bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder that the liturgical action expresses.”  The section continues: “Art that is used in worship therefore must evoke wonder at its beauty but lead beyond itself to the invisible God.”

I think this is a fair question to ask of our contemporary church buildings and the artwork within – do they bear the weight of the mystery?  Or are they too simple, too thin, too abstracted, or too rudimentary?  In BLS the Bishops Conference states that the patrimony of Catholic sacred art and architecture should be the criterion for judging new and contemporary works.  Asking in short, whether our new work in fact bears the weight of the mystery as well as our works from the past?  This is not a question of nostalgia; not at all.  Rather it is a question of excellence.

Here is the section in its entirety from BLS.  It certainly deserves our reading.  Note that I’ve underlined a few key phrases that are particularly meaningful.

Components of True and Worthy Art

  • 146 §    Authentic art is integral to the Church at prayer because these objects and actions are “signs and symbols of the supernatural world” and expressions of the divine presence. While personal tastes will differ, parish committees should utilize the criteria of quality and appropriateness in evaluating art for worship. Quality is perceived only by contemplation, by standing back from things and really trying to see them, trying to let them speak to the beholder. Quality is evident in the honesty and genuineness of the materials that are used, the nobility of the form embodied in them, the love and care that goes into the creation of a work of art, and the personal stamp of the artist whose special gift produces a harmonious whole, a well crafted work
  • 147 §    Quality art draws the beholder to the Creator, who stands behind the artist sharing his own creative power, for the “divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom.”  This is true of music, architecture, sculpture, painting, pottery making, textiles, and furniture making, as well as other art forms that serve the liturgical environment. The integrity and energy of a piece of art, produced individually by the labor of an artist, is always to be preferred above objects that are mass-produced. Similarly, in the construction of new church buildings, there is no standard pattern for church art nor should art and architectural styles from any particular time or culture be imposed arbitrarily upon another community. Nonetheless, the patrimony of sacred art and architecture provides a standard by which a parish can judge the worthiness of contemporary forms and styles.
  • 148 §    Appropriateness for liturgical action is the other criterion for choosing a work of art for church. The quality of appropriateness is demonstrated by the work’s ability to bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder that the liturgical action expresses and by the way it serves and does not interrupt the ritual actions which have their own structure, rhythm and movement. Since art is revelatory, a gift from God, a truly beautiful object stretches “beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.” Nonetheless, there is always the chasm between “the work of [the artist's] hands” and the “dazzling perfection” glimpsed in God’s creative moment. Art that is used in worship must therefore evoke wonder at its beauty but lead beyond itself to the invisible God.  Beautiful, compelling artworks draw the People of God into a deeper awareness of their lives and of their common goals as a Christian community as well as of their roles
    and responsibilities in the wider world.  Art that fulfills these qualities is art worthy of the Christian assembly.
  • 149 §    Worthy art is an essential, integral element in the sacred beauty of a church building. Through skilled use of proportion, shape, color, and design, art unifies and helps to integrate the place of worship with the actions of worship. Artistic creations in the place of worship inspire contemplation and devotion.  Sculpture, furnishings, artglass, vesture, paintings, bells, organs, and other musical instruments as well as windows, doors, and every visible and tactile detail of architecture possess the potential to express the wholeness, harmony, and radiance of profound beauty.

The Artist Within the Christian Community

  • 150 §    When artists are called upon to serve the Christian community, there is an “ethic,” a “spirituality of artistic service.”  Breadth of imagination enables artists to communicate deep meaning and powerful religious sentiment with grace and sensitivity. This gift from God is combined with refined educated talents that execute elegantly crafted objects for the good of the community and the glory of God. Like the gift of prophecy, religious imagination is a power through which the Holy Spirit can move and speak. As a result, artists do not always confirm comfortable piety but, like the prophets of old, they may confront God’s People with their faults and sins and they challenge the community’s injustice and lack of love. “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” 
  • 151 §    Artists respond to the demands of art, actualizing in aesthetic form their ideas, feelings, and intentions so that when artists activate their imagination, their intentions and inner life are expressed in their work. In working with a parish, artists will also express the intentions, faith, and life of that community. A truly worthy and beautiful artwork can transform the artist and the community for which it is intended.  The dialogue with God that an artwork mediates can persuade and invite; however, it does not force its meanings upon individuals or communities.
  • 152 §    Artists willing to accept commissions destined for a place of worship must be respectful and supportive of the doctrines, beliefs, and liturgical practices of the Church. They also should be knowledgeable about the traditional iconography and symbolism of Christian art. Artists who are genuinely in search of meaning in their work and in their lives will find a homeland for their souls since, in the realm of Christianity, the most vital personal and social questions are posed. Not only does the Bible provide a rich inventory of themes and ideas, but also artists who have envisioned these stories and images have offered unique perspectives on the heart of
    revelation itself and “this partnership has been a source of mutual spiritual enrichment.”
  • 153 §    A commission for a church or for worship affords artists an opportunity to join their creative gifts to those in a long history of artists who have placed their talents at the service of God and who have enriched the Church’s treasury of sacred art and architecture. “All artists who, in view of their talents, desire to serve God’s glory in holy Church should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined for use in Catholic worship and for the edification, devotion, and religious instruction of the faithful.”
  • 154 §    The Church needs art and artists to communicate Christ’s message, and artists need the Church to inspire their investigations of the material world, their own inner lives, and the fabric of the community. …

Building Culture

If we desire to know the values of any particular culture, we ought to consider carefully its buildings.  And special attention must be paid to those buildings that embody the greatest expenditure of resources; those buildings which were built to last.  We can learn much about past civilizations in this manner – think of the Athenians, the Romans, the Mayans, the Egyptians - and in a similar way, we can recognize certain truths about our own contemporary culture.  For where we place our treasure, there also shall our hearts be found.

One of the most influential means of embodying, displaying, and thereby communicating the great traditions of civilization has been the built environment.  For the past seventeen centuries Christian communities – where they were not thwarted by persecution, as the Catechism notes – have been building structures that well fit this description of celebrated buildings intended to long outlast the life of their patrons.  Examples of Christian ecclesiastical architecture are now common in almost every part of the world; and it seems fitting that our enduring sacred buildings should serve as evidence of the longstanding and pervasive importance of communal ritual worship within the broader culture.

Indeed, considering the very word culture, Pope Benedict XVI, following the wonderful work of the German Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper, has shown that without the cult of religious belief and practice, there is no real ground or content from which a culture can develop.  Without religious belief and practice there is, ultimately, very little to hand on or confer upon future generations.

Religious faith is a generative thing.  It always seeks to propagate itself through the establishment and development of a living tradition.  The very word itself, from the Latin traditio, means “to hand on.”  And because (and only when) our religious faith is handed on it remains a “living” tradition.  It must pass from one person to another, from one generation to another, and from one place to another.  Heart speaks to heart…

The liturgical calendar is a notable example of the generative and formative nature of religious belief and practice acting as leaven within the secular culture.  Our great Christian feasts and festivals have largely been adopted and incorporated into the general secular cultures of the entire English, French, and Spanish speaking world.  These holy-days now provide the social cadence and rhythm for each year, from Easter, to Christmas, to Mardi Gras, and even All Hallows Eve.

So too our Christian ecclesiastical architecture has been a leaven in our towns and cities – particularly throughout the Western world.  Who is not struck with a sense of propriety, of “rightness” as one approaches a small town whose church steeple or bell tower rises above the neighboring rooftops?  This is a silent proclamation of the Gospel!  It is a statement of belief and a record of history.  It is a presentation of the values that undergird the culture - the living tradition – in that place and time.  And we clearly understand it as such – so much so that it is often taken for granted.

What we hope for in this day and age is that if we were to worship in that church, below that noble steeple or bell tower, that we would find among our fellow worshippers a vibrant faith, that has been handed down to them, and is being communicated, literally handed on, to those who will grow and flourish even after the lives of those present have run their earthly course.

Likewise, the church buildings we build today serve as a mirror of our own culture and values.  They show back to us – inside and outside the Church – the relative importance that we place upon the things that will endure, and those that will pass away.  Our church buildings fall somewhere in between the ends of this spectrum.

Architecture has a quasi-permanent character.  It usually outlasts its patrons, designers, and builders.  Many of the buildings through which we pass each day were here before we were and will remain standing after we are gone.  As such our buildings serve as repositories for our own values – or better, as manifestations of that which we value.  Our buildings cannot be only for our own good.  They must be for the good of all – now and on into the future.  That is why for us today the question of what we will build is a matter of faith, tradition, and responsibility.  The question is, “What will we hand on to those who will come after us?”

With regard to Catholic sacred architecture and sacred art, the answer to this question – regarding the legacy of our lives – ought to be the fullness of the faith, whose hallmarks are those of the Lord himself – Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

Our churches should be Good insofar as they enable and encourage the faithful to fulfill our duties toward God in right worship, and toward our fellow brothers and sisters through Christian charity.

Our churches should be True insofar as they present to us in symbol, art, ornament, arrangement, and architecture the revealed and developed truths of the faith handed down to us in this Age of the Church, as we await Christ’s return in Glory.

Our churches should be Beautiful insofar as they show forth the Glory of the Lord and the presence of the Living God, through the work of human hands, as they prefigure for us the redemption of all of Creation which we so eagerly anticipate in each liturgical celebration.

If fact, each of these aspects presumes the presence of other two.  We might say that Goodness is not fulfilled without Truth and Beauty; nor is Truth fulfilled when Beauty and Goodness are lacking.

Therefore we can rightly claim that Beautiful buildings for Christian worship and the common life of the faithful ought to be considered an essential aspect for the handing on of our vibrant faith tradition and for the renewal of our culture.