So pleased to share this talk from last summer – Architecture & Beauty – given at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School in Denver, Colorado.
Thanks to Fr. Brian Larkin for the invitation, and to Paco de Rosa for video editing expertise.
A wonderful event took place at the end of April last year; a conference on the development of the living tradition within Catholic sacred architecture. It was wonderful for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was sponsored by the academy and held in one of the few Catholic schools of Architecture in the United States.
I’ll admit to a bit of pride in the fact that my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, was one of the sponsoring institutions, along with the University of Notre Dame. You can find out more about the conference here.
Suffice it to say that training in the historical development, the style and symbolism, and the sacramental theology that undergirds authentic sacred architecture, be it traditional or contemporary, has long been forgotten in almost every design school. Perhaps not surprisingly, Modernism, post-Modernism, and all measure of contemporary design trends tend to dominate architectural education in our age. All of which deepens our appreciation for this effort by the Partnership for Catholic Sacred Architecture to bring this conference to life.
Thankfully videos of the conference main presentations have been made available and can be found here.
I bring up this bit of ‘news,’ now almost ten months hence because I recently came across Cardinal Justin Rigali’s wonderful keynote address from this conference reprinted in The Adoremus Bulletin. (Note that the video of the address is available at the page linked above.)
Sometimes of course it is very worthwhile to read or hear a presentation a second time in a different medium. For though I had listened to the address several weeks ago, when I read the lecture in printed form recently I was particularly struck by his concluding remarks – some of which are excerpted here.
Beauty, in its inextricable connection to the true and the good, is the center of gravity of all the liturgical sciences. And this is because the liturgy is foremost the work of the Most Holy Trinity, in which we participate.52 Beauty changes us. It disposes us to the transforming action of God and thus is one of the principal protagonists of advancing the universal call to holiness.53 Fascination with the sacred frees us from fixation on the secular.
. . .
Authentic beauty is immune to age, it is always young, and it can never be contained by a mere title. Beauty attracts us as it charismatically aligns itself in symmetry and proportion, congruent with its primary characteristics of authentic truth and goodness. The durability and permanence of the structures that mark our solemn celebrations draw the eye to hope and lead the heart to reflection.
. . .
Our conversation today serves, in the words of Pope Paul VI, to render “accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God Himself. And in this activity, you are masters. It is your task, your mission; and your art consists in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colors, forms — making them accessible.”71 Together we seek to cultivate a sense of wonder and anticipation and to pursue a strategy of recovery and renewal.
Artists and architects are composers who play a unique and irreplaceable role as the narrative of salvation history unfolds. Their talents usher the senses into an experience of the mystery of God. Through maximizing extraordinary gifts of their God-given genius, artists and architects are called to construct and restore an avenue into the luminous depth of God’s revelation and convey the continuing presence of the sacred in buildings meant for worship.
We ought to dwell for a moment on his quote from the Address to Artists by Pope Paul VI in which he describes the task of the artist and architect as “grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colors, forms — making them accessible… and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people.” What a beautiful mission statement for all those involved in the design, craft, and construction of sacred art and architecture.
Sometimes all that is necessary is to point our readers in the direction of some wonderful resource or document, and strongly encourage its reading. Such is the case with Sacramentum Caritatis; the Post-Synodal Exhortation On the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission offered by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
Every Catholic should read this document, and more than once. Were that the case, the Church, and the lay faithful in particular, would have taken a dramatic leap forward in renewing our appreciation for the celebration of the Mass, and our full, conscious, and fruitful participation in the Liturgy. [more on that below...]
As Architects we hope and trust that our efforts will truly assist in deepening the liturgical life of the faithful in the parishes that we serve. However we are acutely aware of any building’s limitations – brick and mortar do not themselves offer worship to the Triune God, persons do. Only the living stones can sing.
Or to take the musical metaphor a bit further, the sacramental building that is the church resembles a noble instrument; an instrument nonetheless, that must await our presence and prayer; which is the ritual action that brings forth its true beauty as it is placed into the service of liturgical worship.
In fact, architectural theorists have often likened architecture to ‘frozen music’ since it incorporates proportion, harmony, and rhythm, not to mention creativity, artistry, whimsy, scale, balance, etc. But from a more personalist view, I rather prefer the metaphor of a musical instrument awaiting the breath of life – for our buildings only ‘come alive’ when they are receptive to our presence.
This dynamic is clearly at work in the Liturgy, and the more prepared we are to fully enter into our liturgical celebrations, the more our buildings can speak to us of the things of heaven. For our liturgical celebrations to touch us, and transform our hearts, we must be open, receptive, to the Sacred Mysteries that we celebrate. Which is why I would point us back to Sacramentum Caritatis - which might be particularly fruitful reading during this Lenten season in which we prepare to celebrate the great memorial of the institution of the Eucharist and then Christ’s Paschal Sacrifice in the highest liturgical form at the Easter Vigil.
Considering the document we see a call to “enter into the mystery” and to be formed in such a way that will lead to deeper participation in the celebration. Here is an excerpt from the section on Interior Participation.
Interior Participation in the Celebration
- The Church’s great liturgical tradition teaches us that fruitful participation in the liturgy requires that one be personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated, offering one’s life to God in unity with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world. For this reason, the Synod of Bishops asked that the faithful be helped to make their interior dispositions correspond to their gestures and words. Otherwise, however carefully planned and executed our liturgies may be, they would risk falling into a certain ritualism. Hence the need to provide an education in eucharistic faith capable of enabling the faithful to live personally what they celebrate. Given the vital importance of this personal and conscious participatio, what methods of formation are needed? The Synod Fathers unanimously indicated, in this regard, a mystagogical approach to catechesis, which would lead the faithful to understand more deeply the mysteries being celebrated.
I’ll offer three brief but important points, which can be drawn from this passage. The first is that we are called to be “personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated.” What is meant by this? No less than we are to be brought up with Christ and share in the eternal offering of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. And we are then called to receive the Holy Spirit as we go out into the world as the Church – which is described in the Catechism as the mystical Kingdom of God among men. This is certainly a profound Trinitarian mystery – the self-offering of the Son to the Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit flowing from that offering.
Second is the correspondence of our interior dispositions to our gestures and words. We must avoid empty ritualism, the liturgy must be ‘real’ for us. A great deal has been written about active participation in the post-conciliar years, but it now seems that we are finally beginning to pursue a fuller understanding of this, to include the interior participation that is more contemplative in nature. (Another post forthcoming in that regard!)
Immediately preceding the section quoted above is this section on authentic participation.
- The Second Vatican Council rightly emphasized the active, full and fruitful participation of the entire People of God in the eucharistic celebration (155). Certainly, the renewal carried out in these past decades has made considerable progress towards fulfilling the wishes of the Council Fathers. Yet we must not overlook the fact that some misunderstanding has occasionally arisen concerning the precise meaning of this participation. It should be made clear that the word “participation” does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration. In fact, the active participation called for by the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life. The conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium encouraged the faithful to take part in the eucharistic liturgy not “as strangers or silent spectators,” but as participants “in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, actively and devoutly” (156). This exhortation has lost none of its force. . . .
Personal conditions for an “active participation”
- In their consideration of the ‘actuosa participatio’ of the faithful in the liturgy, the Synod Fathers also discussed the personal conditions required for fruitful participation on the part of individuals. One of these is certainly the spirit of constant conversion which must mark the lives of all the faithful. Active participation in the eucharistic liturgy can hardly be expected if one approaches it superficially, without an examination of his or her life. This inner disposition can be fostered, for example, by recollection and silence for at least a few moments before the beginning of the liturgy, by fasting and, when necessary, by sacramental confession. A heart reconciled to God makes genuine participation possible. The faithful need to be reminded that there can be no actuosa participatio in the sacred mysteries without an accompanying effort to participate actively in the life of the Church as a whole, including a missionary commitment to bring Christ’s love into the life of society.
Lastly is the emphasis on “mytagogical catechesis” – a phrase to which most Catholics would reply with a quizzical look. But mystagogy is simply learning to love the mystery behind the truth, behind the knowledge, behind the doctrine. It is leading those who have been initiated into a mystery into its deeper meaning and significance for their lives. In the history of the Church it is the term used to refer to the period of continued formation for the new Catechumens, the neophytes newly accepted into the Body of Christ. But is not only for the ‘newcomers,’ particularly in this time of the New Evangelization – we all need to grow in our appreciation for how the Liturgy changes our lives. In the term “mystagogy” we should understand a call to lifelong learning, or rather lifelong formation in the very life of the Trinity through the liturgical life of the Church and her Sacraments.
We should read this document carefully, and bring the weight of its message with us the next time we celebrate Holy Mass!
In a recent post, I noted that we should all read more about the depth of the meaning in the Liturgy. But of course there are limits as to how much our lives and hearts can truly be transformed through such ‘studying,’ vs. participation in the sacred mysteries themselves. And the transformation of our hearts, along with the glorification of God are the two interrelated ends of the liturgical celebration. See Sacrosanctum Concilium Par. 10.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, Par. 10.
The liturgy [is] the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man [and] draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way.
The encounter with Christ in the Mass is personal and communal and must be lived and embraced – above and beyond our study of the content. Not in the absence of such study; to the contrary, such study and formation in the meaning of the sacred mysteries serves to deepen our lived experience of them. And I believe that as Catholics we are desperately in need of a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the meaning, beauty, and power of the Mass. But whenever we are reading what someone else has written about an experiential reality, we are clearly a few steps removed from that reality itself. At the same time we hope that such reading will draw us nearer.
All that being said, I do remain a great lover of books, particularly those which open up for us new meaning with regard to the Faith. And along these lines, the richest work I know of that seeks to unfold the mystical reality of the Liturgy is The Wellspring of Worship by Fr. Jean Corbon, OP.
The book is a penetrating reflection on the font of grace – the life of the Holy Trinity – that resides at the center of every liturgical celebration. Here is the publisher’s summary:
The Sacred Liturgy, declares Vatican II, is the font from which all the Church’s spiritual power flows. In his modern classic work The Wellspring of Worship, Fr. Jean Corbon explores the meaning of the Liturgy as the “wellspring” or source of the Church’s life and worship of God.
The Liturgy itself is a sharing in the mystery of the Triune God and in the Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Corbon writes that it is “the mystery of the river of life that streams from the Father and the Lamb”, into which believers are to be drawn. In this way, the divine river waters their entire lives, renewing and transforming them.
The Wellspring of Worship is a masterful reflection on the mystery of God’s Trinitarian life and how the Church’s members participate in that life through the Liturgy.
I cannot recommend it highly enough – particularly if you are seeking to enter into the Mass in a deeper way, and to live the fruits of the Mass in your daily life.
I bring the book to your attention in order to share an excerpt about the Transfiguration – that being the Gospel read at Mass this past weekend. Fr. Corbon stresses the unity of the Body of Christ.
Some people imagine that Christ, as a sacrament of human salvation, is “up there”; that the Church is another sacrament, “down here”; and, finally, that there are the sacraments of the Church, which are celebrated from time to time. This schema, I suspect, is one of the reasons for the divorce of liturgy from life. No, there is but a single body of Christ that is a great and unique sacrament. The wonderful truth that we must constantly rediscover is that the same Lord who allowed his three disciples to participate in his divinizing light, at a time when his body was still mortal, continues now, with an infinitely greater exercise of power, to divinize men in his very body, which is the Church.
… Since his Ascension the Lord has been pouring out the river of life – the Liturgy – on men in his body, which is the Church. That is the transfiguration continuing today. … It is thanks to the kenosis [the outpouring self-gift] of the Holy Spirit in the Church that faith can spring to life in our very weakness, and our eyes can be opened so that we may recognize the Lord, and be transformed into him. …The Liturgy creates in the Church the transfiguration of the “whole body.” (pp 96-97)
At my home parish – Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, Colorado - Father Peter Mussett offered a beautiful homily on Sunday in which he drew upon this strong connection between the Transfiguration and the mystery made manifest at each and every Mass. One phrase worth repeating: “When you pass through those doors, you are climbing Mt. Tabor.” Indeed.
We are called to truly experience God in his glory, to offer him praise and right worship, and to be conformed more closely to his own image and likeness as Christ’s Body here on earth.
22 March 2011 – Feast of St. Basil, Priest and Martyr
Today we glorify the Lord as we remember the “Yes” of the Blessed Mother, and the tremendous redemption of Man and all of Creation, that began with the Incarnation within her very body. Mary, the new Eve has become for us the Ark of the New Covenant – carrying within her the life-giving Word, the eternal high Priest, the promised son of David the King, and the measure of the Law and the Prophets of old. Today all the promises of the redemption of Israel begin to be fulfilled in the person and mission of the Redeemer.
There is perhaps no more appropriate day to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this supremely generous inbreaking of grace. Toward that end, here is a beautiful version of the Angelus.
This day we celebrate the incredible moment – and the ongoing reality – of the Incarnation, the fullness of time, when the second person of the Holy Trinity condescends to veil himself in the form of our humanity, uniting himself with our limitations and our suffering so as to lift us up to become sons and daughters of his Heavenly Father, brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. He became like us, that we might become like him.
With regard to how we offer worship to the Lord in this present age, we know that the redemption of the world is indeed ongoing, and our church buildings, our sacred artwork, our music, all of our offerings, should show forth a vision of Creation redeemed.
We should aspire to make manifest, especially in all things associated with the Liturgy, that anticipated time when the Lord will be all in all. Our sacred art and architecture should prefigure the redeemed goods of this world and allow us a glimpse forward, into the time when the mission of the Redeemer is indeed fulfilled.
…for the worship and glory of the Lord God, and the continued sanctification of the Church on earth.
Our church buildings, and the Holy Mass itself, are filled with signs and symbols of great meaning and value. They gather up the goods of creation and “through the work of human hands” they show back to us important truths of the faith.
“A sacramental celebration is woven from signs and symbols. In keeping with the divine pedagogy of salvation their meaning is rooted in the work of creation and in human culture, specified in the events of the Old Covenant and fully revealed in the person and the work of Christ” Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1145
Since Pentecost, it is through the sacramental signs of his Church that the Holy Spirit carries on the work of sanctification. The sacraments of the Church to not abolish but purify and integrate all the richness of the signs and symbols of the cosmos and of social life. Further, the fulfill the types and figures of the Old Covenant, signify and make actively present the salvation wrought by Christ, and prefigure and anticipate the glory of Heaven.” CCC 1152
With regard to these signs in the Liturgy, let’s focus on just one example, the tabernacle. Now granted, it is a conspicuous example – that golden focal point in each Catholic church. But with regard to the form of the tabernacle, here is a question you might have asked at one time or another: Why is the tabernacle so often designed to look like a miniature church building?
Of course we know that tabernacles in our Catholic churches take their very name from the Tabernacle of the Israelites – fashioned painstakingly at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the wilderness. An exceeding amount of care was taken in the design and construction of not only the Tabernacle itself, but also the precinct around it, and especially the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat within. The Tabernacle was referred to as the Tent of Meeting; the place at which the Lord came to dwell among his people; beginning the journey towards the fullness of Redemption that we are offered in Christ.
In fact many Eucharistic tabernacles in our churches take their form from the Ark itself and the Mercy Seat, with Cherubim seated as guardians, their wings outstretched above. However, there is another tradition that connects the form of the church building – which is our new place of encounter with the Lord – with the form of the tabernacle – which is the place where the Lord’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist is reposed. And this connection speaks to the way in which the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery have gathered up, transformed, and transcended the Tabernacle and Temple worship of the Israelite people.
Some of you can recall churches in which the form of the tabernacle was designed to be closely related to the form of the building itself. In fact, the roles performed by the two different structures are analogous. These roles are layered and interconnected, and so perhaps they can be better understood by considering them separately.
1) To house, protect, and hold (to reserve) the Body of Christ; and they both do this for the glorification of God and the sanctification of men – the dual ends toward which the Liturgy is oriented.
2) Show forth and signify (make manifest) the inestimable worth and beauty of the Body of Christ.
3) Await the outward mission (sending forth) of the Body of Christ for the good of the world.
4) To inspire confidence that the Lord is indeed faithful to his promises, and he has truly come to dwell with and among his people.
This analogy between tabernacle and church is not merely interesting. Rather, like all liturgical symbolism it is meant to convey to the Faithful to a deep theological reality, to reveal something of the nature of God and our relationship to him. In this case we see very clearly that the connection drawn between these two structures is meant to confirm us in the fact that we are the Body of Christ; and when we gather for worship Christ himself becomes truly present in the assembly of the people of God, housed within the church building, just as Christ present in the Eucharist is reserved within the tabernacle.
But also we should consider this relationship in another way – from the perspective of the secular world. Consider that the importance, beauty, and attractiveness of the tabernacle for Catholics is (or most certainly should be) similar to the importance, beauty, and attractiveness of the church building for those outside the Church. The church building serves as a sign and symbol of the People of God in a given place.
“These visible churches are not simply gathering places but they signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.” CCC 1180
So the analogy holds here also. It is a simple step, and the paraphrase stands to reason, that the tabernacle, like the church building “signifies and makes visible Christ living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Himself.”
As we come to understand that we truly are being built up into Christ’s own Body, and that our communal worship makes him truly present in our liturgical celebrations, then it should be abundantly clear as to why our tabernacles would look like our churches. They both serve to house and make manifest the Body of our Lord.
And one final point with regard to how we might better understand our church buildings in light of the tabernacle. It would be difficult to find a Catholic who did not believe that the tabernacle should be made of the best materials and be truly beautiful. And why? Of course because it receives the very Body of Christ veiled in the Eucharistic Host. Why then do we fail to apply the same logic of beauty and nobility to our churches themselves? These buildings do truly receive the one and the very same Body of our Lord, veiled as it were in our own communal assembly.
If our tabernacles should be noble beautiful and signs of God’s presence with us on earth – and indeed they should! – so then must our church buildings aim toward the very same goals, for the very same reasons.
To a greater or lesser degree, one fundamental quality is lacking in every Parish Building Committee: and that is Confidence. And not without good reason.
Considering the importance and relative complexity of the task - whether the project is a renovation, an addition, an expansion, or a new building – it can be difficult to muster any great measure of confidence that a church construction project will avoid some potentially serious obstacles between conception and completion. The questions and concerns abound…
Fundraising – Will our parishioners themselves have enough confidence in the project to financially support it? What should we do if they don’t? Do they see and feel the need for this project? How long will it take to raise the funds?
Project Costs – Do we have an adequate cost estimate? Do we have enough of a contingency allowance for unforeseen conditions? Are we considering the right level of investment? What are the opportunity costs involved with doing more/less at this time vs. later? What about the new Altar, beautiful sacred art, and the stained glass windows?
The Project Schedule – How long will the Planning process take? And Design? And Construction? Can we count on the project to be complete by Easter? by the Patronal Feast Day? by Christmas? etc. What if the City approval process holds us up? What about weather delays? How can we phase the construction appropriately? Can we remain in our current church while expansion/addition work is ongoing? Can we find temporary space in which to worship for ten months?
The Design Team – Do we have a qualified Architect who knows and loves the Church, the structure and beauty of the holy Liturgy, our different ministries, and the specific needs of this particular Parish? Can we trust them as a true partner, instead of simply as a consultant? Have they earned that trust, i.e. are we confident that they have listened well and truly desire what is best for our Parish? Or even, When should we decide on the carpet?
The Construction Team - How should we select a General Contractor? How can we know what is a fair cost for the work? Does the builder need to be ‘on board’ with the mission of the Parish and the Church, or just well qualified in executing successful projects? What if they under- perform? How are their subcontractors selected? Who is observing and inspecting their work? What kinds of warranties should we be asking for?
Parish Responsibilities – For what types of things is the Parish responsible, outside of the contract with the builder? What is the role of the Parish in working with an Architect? How much design input should be sought from the Parish at large, outside of the Building Committee? Who will represent the Parish during the course of construction? How much of the total project cost is ’up front,’ prior to breaking ground? What is the role of the Diocese, and how can they assist? Have we performed adequate needs assessment and master planning for the future?
…The list goes on and on.
It is understandable that most building committees, faced with such a daunting number of questions and unknowns would be less than completely confident in their ability to navigate successfully from start to finish – a time period which could last anywhere from two to six years or longer.
At times however, this crisis of confidence might be indicative of a less than complete trust in the ways and means of Providence. Scripture is very clear about the fact that the task of building up the Church is the work of the Lord carried out through the action of the Holy Spirit.
“If the LORD does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.” Psalm 127:1
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22
For any church construction project to be successful it must be understood first and foremost as the work of God – and as the work of men only in the second order. As anyone can attest, confidence in knowing and carrying out the will of the Father can only come through prayer and much discernment from the mind and heart of the Church. And in an apparent paradox such confidence only comes when the project is entrusted (one might even say surrendered) to the Father as an offering, essentially as an act of worship in its own right.
If the Parish and the Architect and the Builder can maintain this understanding – striving under grace, to craft the noble human labor and the material goods of Creation into a worthy offering in the eyes of the Lord – then our projects are placed into hands far more trustworthy than our own. Our confidence in their success and ultimate benefit is then well founded.
For with the eyes of faith, we can comprehend the act of church building not only as a momentous undertaking in the life of a Parish, but also as one of many interwoven movements of the Holy Spirit in building up the People of God into the Holy Temple of Christ’s own Body – a process that continues in our own time. And rarely in the life of a Parish is the multitude of charisms, skills, and abilities in the Body so immediately necessary and so readily visible as in the process of construction.
And the result? Perhaps it could be described as a Parish, and the Design Team, and the Construction Team working in the model of our Blessed Mother and through our Baptismal Priesthood. For such a project would be conceived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, nurtured and developed within the heart of the Church, and brought forth through the work of human hands to be humbly offered back to the Father.
* * * Lord we are not worthy to receive you under our roof, and yet you continue to come and make your dwelling among us. Accept our work that it might draw others closer to your life-giving love, which you pour out for all men in the eternal heavenly liturgy.
In previous posts, I have called to our readers’ attention the laudable work of Dr. Denis McNamara, who serves as the assistant director of the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. Dr. McNamara is an architectural historian whose work on the recovery of sacred architecture in service to the Liturgy is a great benefit to the Church.
I was very pleased to receive in the mail yesterday, as a gift from a new acquaintance, Dr. McNamara’s 2005 book Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago. Simply stated, the book, with lavish photography by James Morris, is an architectural delight. It will no doubt be well used as part of our reference library for the ecclesiastical design work that we assist with at Integration Design Group. It will take its place alongside Dr. McNamara’s other highly acclaimed work, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy from 2009.
In reviewing the pages of Heavenly City - each bearing beautiful images and engaging historical, theological and liturgical text – I was struck by an all too familiar set of mixed emotions. For when one encounters such examples of truly beautiful sacred architecture a sense of gratitude and joy is the first and most natural response. However the joy one feels is colored, if not at times surpassed by the sense of loss. And here is where we must guard against slipping into nostalgia.
For the examples presented in Heavenly City are of course not recent or new. Rather they span more than a century and a half of wonderful church building up until the crescendo of high modernism in the postwar years. These years were of course also marked by the reform of liturgical ritual, devotional practices, and decorative sensibilities that was ushered in following the Second Vatican Council. In fact the latest churches noted in the book were completed in 1950 and 1962, and are themselves worthy examples of this transitional period – prior to the Council – when the manner of stylistic expression showed evidence of simplification and streamlining, while the symbolic content and theological richness – which is to say the ‘sacramental nature’ – of the church building remained very much intact and legible.
And so in Heavenly City we are presented with a great testimony to the confidence, trust, hope and faith of the many many Catholics – lay, clergy, and religious – who committed themselves and their treasures to building up the House of God on earth. For this we cannot but give joyful thanks. Their legacy stands as a witness to the power of our buildings to edify us, to build us up as the Body of Christ on earth, to represent to the world the People of God gathered together in a particular place, and to convey in some limited way the Glory of the Lord in his dwelling.
But quickly upon the heels of this great appreciation come the uncomfortable questions: What about now, in our own time? What do we lack – both personally and communally – that would make possible the construction of such noble buildings for our own communities of faith? Why are such and similar church buildings deemed beyond reach for us? – though we are only two and three generations removed from these venerable examples? Why do we, the lay faithful, who are more prosperous than in generations past, continue to settle for less-than-beautiful churches?
It is easier of course to simply raise such questions than it is to answer them. But the examples gathered up by Dr. McNamara, when set beside our contemporary church buildings, they themselves call out for some response. And so I’ll offer a few, albeit too-brief, suggestions.
SACRAMENTAL WORLDVIEW: We have lost, or forgotten, or not been instructed in a full and rich sacramental theology. We do not believe (or we act as though we do not believe) that “matter truly matters!” The material of creation conveys truths about the Creator; truths we long to know, for they reveal to us a great deal about ourselves and or relationship with the Lord. In fact, God has given to man the goods of this world, and intends that they become a way for us to make a return to Him. This is especially true in this Age of the Church, between Pentecost and the Coming of Christ in glory. Creation is in the process of constantly being redeemed in Christ, and our church buildings should offer us some foretaste of the fullness of this redemption – a fullness toward which we are indeed journeying.
Dr. McNamara has much to offer in this regard in Catholic Church Architecture; in which he encourages the Church to recover the profound sense of “anticipatory eschatology” as the proper function of the structure, ornament, and decoration of our sacred buildings.
BEAUTY: In a closely related aspect, we are no longer comfortable, or perhaps no longer capable of speaking about Beauty, except in the most mundane and relativistic manner related to ‘taste’ or personal opinion. In fact Beauty is one of the three transcendental aspects of the Triune God – the aspect that shows forth the Splendor of Truth and the Goodness of the created order. But we have fallen into the materialist trap; believing that the things of this world are merely things, and have no real metaphysical importance or value to our own spiritual life, to our conversation with God. It is a self-entangled, nihilistic and utilitarian argument – that matter is all there is, so ultimately matter does not really matter, thus do with it whatever you will.
ROOTS: We are a transient people – especially we suburbanites. We no longer expect that our daughters will enter into marriage in the same church in which they are raised. They might have relocated to another city, and we might have well. (As an aside - indeed we might not want them to marry in our suburban parish church… Send them downtown to the beautiful old cathedral instead!)
The point being that our roots are not very deep, and so our desire to pour out our blessings into a longstanding legacy of built theology has been truncated. We now need to be cajoled into a once-per-decade Capital Campaign just to consider giving a bit more.
A WORTHY OFFERING: Speaking of giving, we are terribly deficient. To put it succinctly, we fear much. We lack trust in Providence. Adding this to the much looser ties to our parishes mentioned above, and it is easy to see how those immigrant Catholic communities in 1880s Chicago – made up most often of simple laborers - built buildings far more beautiful and enduring than those of our own day and time. We need to recover an ethic of stewardship that recognizes our belongings as properly belonging to the Lord. And every time that we offer those blessings back to the giver of all good gifts He does wonderful things with them; far surpassing those things we could achieve on our own.
But let us take heart, for as we grow in love and appreciation for the Church and the Liturgy, we will grow in our desire to clothe the Sacred Mysteries in the most beautiful of garments, the signs and symbols of Heavenly realities, signaling to the world the tremendous gift of God who himself is present within.
* Saturday 30 April 2011 - Eve of Divine Mercy Sunday *
Here’s a brief news story I came across recently – regarding the endangered status of traditional church steeples. Certainly it is a sad state, that the more traditional aspects of our ecclesiastical architecture – which are certainly meant to lift our eyes heavenward – are too often seen as burdensome financial liabilities.
A few interesting excerpts from the article:
…Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.
Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don’t scan the horizon, they search the Internet. Google reports searches for “churches” soar before Easter each year. …
Regarding the financial justification for steeples and bell towers, the need for cellular communications antennas has been a large part of the conversation with religious communities in the past fifteen years or so. Judging from our recent experience it is likely to remain so.
One church in the McLean, VA area reportedly leveraged this need for cellular antennas to their advantage.
Church leaders located a (cellular communications) company ready to deal, negotiated the design and “now we have a steeple, hiding two cell antennas, that gives us a really big profile on the horizon. It’s elegant and majestic and a win-win for us,” Floyd says. It’s also a visual contrast to a massive, modern megachurch across the street that boasts no steeple.
No surprise, says architect Gary Landhauser, a partner with Novak Design Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who worked on nearly 30 churches in past 15 years. “We have done a lot of church designs, but we haven’t done a steeple design in 15 years,” Landhauser says. Today, he says, people want their church to look comfortable and inviting, “more like a mall.”
Much could be said of a general Christian public that seeks comfort and a consumerist-based building type such as “the mall” as a deciding factor in their church selection.
There is a line in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer that calls out to the faithful, “Lift up your hearts!” or in Latin, “Sursum corda!” It easy to see that the traditional church steeple or bell tower serves as a physical symbol of this fundamental movement of our hearts, and the bells so often housed within supply the aural complement to the visual call.
However setting that larger conversation aside for another day, I was struck by an interesting overlap – although it is not noted specifically in the article. Considering how people “search” to find their churches these days, if an internet search is performed on your smart phone, your signal and the website content might in fact be beaming to you direct from a church steeple.
There are of course many important documents pertaining to the form and meaning of our celebration of the Holy Liturgy; including Conciliar documents, Encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations, Motu Proprio, and even the Sacramentary and Lectionary. I’ve found it interesting that perhaps the one document most important to the ritual structure is the one least likely to have been read and studied by the faithful; the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). (PDF format available here)
I can claim no particular scholarly knowledge of the General Instruction. However as a Catholic architect assisting the Church through the design of buildings that serve, shelter, and support the Liturgy, I have as a matter of necessity become familiar with its contents. And so I thought it would be of some value to share a few passages with our readers who might not yet have been introduced to the document.
First, just a few words regarding the purpose and goal of the document. The GIRM is meant to provide a clear and common understanding of the third edition of the Missale Romanum authorized and promulgated by Blessed John Paul II in 2001. Much of the content of the GIRM is given over to description of the form and structure of how the liturgical celebration of the Holy Mass is to be celebrated in the Latin Church. The importance of this task is taken up as the subject of the very first lines of the Preamble:
- When he was about the celebrate with his disciples the Passover meal in which he instituted the sacrifice of his Body and Blood, Christ the Lord gave instructions that a large, furnished upper room should be prepared (Lk 22:12). The Church has always regarded this command as applying also to herself when she gives directions about the preparation of people’s hearts and minds and of the places, rites, and texts for the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist.
As is to be expected, the GIRM is heavily footnoted with passages from the Documents of Vatican II – including this sentence which picks up the theme above, and is taken from Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium, and Prebyterorum Ordinis:
At the Last Supper our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Body and Blood, by which he would perpetuate the Sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until he should come again, thus entrusting to the Church, his beloved Bride, the memorial of his death and resurrection.
A longer, but wonderful passage that encapsulates a great deal of liturgical theology is offered for our consideration (and indeed for our prayerful contemplation) in the first several sections of the first chapter:
The Importance and Dignity of the Eucharistic Celebration
- The General Structure of the Mass
- The celebration of the Mass, as the action of Christ and the People of God arrayed hierarchically, is the center of the whole Christian life for the Church both universal and local, as well as for each of the faithful individually. In it is found the high point both of the action by which God sanctifies the world in Christ and of the worship that the human race offers to the Father, adoring him through Christ, the Son of God, in the Holy Spirit. In it, moreover, during the course of the year, the mysteries of redemption are recalled so as in some way to be made present. Furthermore, the other sacred actions and all the activities of the Christian life are bound up with it, flow from it, and are ordered to it.
- It is therefore of the greatest importance that the celebration of the Mass—that is, the Lord’s Supper—be so arranged that the sacred ministers and the faithful taking part in it, according to the proper state of each, may derive from it more abundantly26 those fruits for the sake of which Christ the Lord instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Body and Blood and entrusted it to the Church, his beloved Bride, as the memorial of his Passion and Resurrection.27
- This will best be accomplished if, with due regard for the nature and the particular circumstances of each liturgical assembly, the entire celebration is planned in such a way that it leads to a conscious, active, and full participation of the faithful both in body and in mind, a participation burning with faith, hope, and charity, of the sort which is desired by the Church and demanded by the very nature of the celebration, and to which the Christian people have a right and duty by reason of their Baptism.28
. . .
- Because, however, the celebration of the Eucharist, like the entire Liturgy, is carried out through perceptible signs that nourish, strengthen, and express faith,31 the utmost care must be taken to choose and to arrange those forms and elements set forth by the Church that, in view of the circumstances of the people and the place, will more effectively foster active and full participation and more properly respond to the spiritual needs of the faithful.
- This Instruction aims both to offer general guidelines for properly arranging the Celebration of the Eucharist and to set forth rules for ordering the various forms of celebration.32
- The celebration of the Eucharist in a particular Church is of utmost importance.
For the diocesan Bishop, the chief steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church entrusted to his care, is the moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole of its liturgical life.33 . . .
The Bishop should therefore be determined that the priests, the deacons, and the lay Christian faithful grasp ever more deeply the genuine meaning of the rites and liturgical texts and thereby be led to an active and fruitful celebration of the Eucharist. To the same end, he should also be vigilant that the dignity of these celebrations be enhanced. In promoting this dignity, the beauty of the sacred place, of music, and of art should contribute as greatly as possible.
Much more could be drawn from the GIRM for our review and consideration. Perhaps I will take this up as a regular topic. In fact, this type of liturgical catechesis – this mystagogy – should be ongoing for us all. Developing a more complete understanding of the ritual action in the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries will allow us each and all to participate “both in body and mind, a participation burning with faith, hope, and charity,” as we are caught up with the entire mystical Body of Christ offering worship to the Father in spirit and truth until Christ is all in all.