There is one word everybody says about the new church we are building in Greenville, South Carolina. The word is “beautiful.” Adults and grandparents, students and school kids, men and women of every race and educational background simply say, “It’s beautiful!”
From the beginning of the project I explained that we were not going to build a big auditorium and fill it with pretty things. Instead, we were going to build a church building which was, itself, beautiful. I was inspired by the dignified and timeless quality of Romanesque architecture and motivated by the ancient monastic church of San Antimo in Tuscany. Together we worked to raise the funds and build a modern church in a traditional style.
One of the first things we did was look for, and then purchase, a set of 42 antique stained-glass windows from the shuttered church of St. Mary Morning Star in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. As our parish is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, what sealed the deal was a beautiful rose window with stained-glass depictions of the mysteries of the Holy Rosary. We moved forward with a design, always keeping in mind the ideal of simplicity. Working with a small budget in a small and poor parish, I kept reminding our team that “beautiful” does not have to mean extravagant or expensive.
“Form follows function” is a much-debated maxim in discussions about architecture. If this is true, every building should be purely functional. Such a utilitarian approach has brought us many efficient steel boxes. Human nature abhors such a solution, however, and thus we keep trying to make those steel boxes pretty, either by dressing them up after they are erected or by adding superficial decorations.
However, if form does follow function we should ask what the function of a church really is. If a church is simply a meeting hall for people to gather and hear a sermon, then an auditorium will do. The architect and building committee are correct then, to simply insure that the seats are comfortable, the toilets work, the air conditioning is effective and the sound system is top notch. However, if a church’s function is more than simply to be a meeting place, then the form of the church should be more than a simple auditorium.
From the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition the “worship space” was more than functional. It was beautiful. It was beautiful because it was not simply a place for the people to meet to hear a pep talk about being nicer human beings. It was also the throne room of God — the place where his glory dwelled. Because God is a being of beauty, glory and majesty, glory, beauty, honor and majesty should be part of its function, and if form follows function, then the church, through its materials and craftsmanship, ought to speak of glory, beauty, majesty and honor.
In the Old Testament God gave Moses instructions on how to build the portable tent-based tabernacle. It was to have gold-plated furniture and fittings. The fabric partitions were to have angels embroidered on them, and the priest’s vestments were to be of the finest fabrics embroiled and adorned with all the skill possible. When King Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, the same principles informed him so that the temple in Jerusalem was one of the wonders of the world. Down through history, until the modern age of brutalism, Catholics have done the same.
One of the reasons modern Catholics have turned away from building beautiful churches is because they have forgotten that beauty is the language of worship, and they have forgotten that beauty is the language of worship because they have forgotten that worship is the primary reason for religion at all. If religion is simply about getting together to hear a pep talk about being good people, or simply about gathering to sing songs about how were are going to change the world, then of course all you need is a big room with a good sound system. But if religion is about worshipping the Almighty, the King of Creation, then the language of that worship is beauty because the King of Creation is himself not only beautiful but the source of all beauty, goodness and truth.
If beauty is the language of worship, then everything we do in our worship should aim to be beautiful. This does not mean everything should be flashy, superficially pretty, expensive or ostentatious. Instead, the beauty of worship is dignified, simple, majestic and humble at the same time. The beauty of worship is expressed in the building, but it is also expressed in the beautiful language of the liturgy, the simple and exquisite beauty of music, the strange dignity of the ancient stories, the solemn service of well-trained altar servers and the rich beauty of vestments, incense, sacred vessels, art and architecture.
After the brutal and ignorant iconoclasm of the last 50 years, the people of our small parish in the poor part of town are regarding their new church with awesome pride and wonder, and as they exclaim, “Its beautiful!,” they are also affirming that God is beautiful, his creation is beautiful and the Catholic faith is beautiful, good and true.
To learn more about the new church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, South Carolina, please go.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a former Evangelical, then an Anglican and now a Catholic priest. Visit his website at dwightlongenecker.com to browse his books and be in touch.