HE LORD’S DAY this week presents us with the unusual opportunity to celebrate a very special feast—the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. The Lateran Basilica is the cathedral church of the pope and the Diocese of Rome, and, as such, it is considered the mother church of the universal Church. Just as Saint Patrick Cathedral is the mother church of the Archdiocese of New York, so the Lateran Basilica is the mother church of the universal Church. This distinctive feast is always a good opportunity to reflect a bit on the value of church buildings & the importance of sacred architecture.
I’ve attended Mass in many different locations: in high school auditoriums, at scout camps, even in St. Peter’s Basilica. I, myself, have celebrated Mass in some unique places: on the top of a mountain, on Copacabana Beach (during World Youth Day), and on the hood of a Humvee. So, who needs a church building?
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of the Masses I just mentioned. Each of them, in context, made sense. But their locations are nevertheless exceptional—that is, meant to be exceptions to the norm. In normal circumstances, the Holy Sacrifice ought to be offered in a consecrated church. Why?
Because a church building that is well designed contributes important aspects to our public worship and helps to nourish our faith.
A well-designed church will have a sanctuary that is stunningly beautiful. The sanctuary is meant to symbolize the heavenly realm, which is why it should be separated from the rest of the building by a communion rail and elevated by several steps. For this reason, also, the sanctuary is usually adorned with statues or other images of angels and saints. It is usually decorated with flowers, and sometimes it will have floral patterns built into the walls or painted on them as symbols of the great fullness of life to be found in heaven.
A well-designed church will have windows made from stained glass. This isn’t just something the Church made up one day. It comes from Sacred Scripture, in the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, where we find a description of heaven. Heaven is described there as having high walls, “decorated with every kind of precious stone.” So, the Church over time developed stained glass to give us a foretaste of what life in heaven will be like.
In a well-designed church, the central feature will always be the altar of sacrifice. A Catholic church is not simply a meetinghouse, so the central focus of our sacred space is not the pews. A Catholic church is not a concert hall, so the central focus is not the pipe organ or the choir area. The central features, rather, are the ambo, from which the Word of God is proclaimed, and the altar, where the sacrifice of Christ is renewed.
A building that has these characteristics is a truly sacred space—an environment that physically assists us in our efforts to experience God’s Presence and to communicate with Him. When we come to church, there should be no question whether we are in a church or in a coffeehouse or in a multipurpose gym.
T THIS YEAR’S Sacred Music Colloquium, we heard a keynote talk on sacred architecture given by Denis R. McNamara, Ph.D. As I noted HERE, his presentation was one of the best received addresses I have witnessed during a Colloquium. Dr. McNamara is an architectural historian who specializes in American church architecture, and he also serves as the Assistant Director of the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake (Mundelein Seminary).
Among other things, Dr. McNamara’s lecture made the point that the various liturgical disciplines overlap and intersect in many ways. Thus, we who are invested in the world of sacred music might stand to benefit from paying attention to what’s going on in the world of sacred architecture.
A great way to do that is to peruse the field’s recently established journal, aptly titled Sacred Architecture. Published by The Institute for Sacred Architecture at Notre Dame and edited by Duncan Stroik, the journal describes itself as “dedicated to a renewal of beauty in contemporary church design.” In addition his articles in the journal, Stroik’s has a 2012 book that is worth a careful read: The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal.
Finally, check out this awesome post from Msgr. Charles Pope over at the blog of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
HE HIGH SCHOOL CYO group at my parish recently made a trip to the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. As we walked through the neighborhood, we passed by St. Francis Xavier Church at 24th & Green Streets. (This church is also home to the Secular Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Philadelphia.) When we stopped at the corner to take a look at the front of the church, I heard a number of the young people in our group remark how beautiful that church building is (and it certainly is). A church that is well suited to its purpose will always be beautiful.
Essential to every aspect of a church building is beauty. Why? Because the church building is a reflection of God, Himself, Who is utterly beautiful. Pope Benedict XVI once said that beauty “is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God, Himself” (Sacramentum Caritatis, #35). He went on to explain that the sacred liturgy is meant to be “a glimpse of heaven on earth” (SC #35). Our faith is not abstract, utilitarian, or pragmatic. Christian faith is Incarnational. The experience of truly sacred architecture in this world should be a foretaste of the beauty we hope to experience in the life to come.
Prisons should look like prisons; subway stations should look like subway stations; and churches should look like heaven.