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5 Qualities Catholics look for in our church building designs

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The history of sacred art offers a few guiding principles worth remembering as Catholics debate over architecture.

Church decoration has excited Christian debate almost as long as has doctrine. Origen defended the lack of “scented altars” against pagan detractors who viewed the simplicity of Christian worship spaces as the “mark of a secret society,” yet a century later St Jerome was lamenting that “our walls shine with gold … yet Christ dies before our doors naked and hungry in the persons of His poor.”

The Protestant Reformation’s bid for bare worship structures was fueled by its critique of lavish Catholic churches and the indulgences sold to finance them, but St. Charles Borromeo responded with his own resounding defense of majestic sacred architecture.

With Solomon’s temple on one side and the hidden house churches on the other, Christians have been caught in the endless tug-of-war of how much is too much and when is it not enough.

Today the clashes continues as modern multimillion dollar churches appear, from the renovation of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange county to the new church planned for South Summerlin, Nevada. Except for a few cases, there is very little right or wrong here, but the history of sacred art offers a few guiding principles which might give some structure to the debate. Looking to history and tradition, there are five qualities sought in a church building.

  1. Stability: Vitruvius, Emperor Augustus’ celebrated architect, wrote a treatise that would influence much of Christian church building. He lauded three things in buildings— firmitas, venustas and utilitas –– stability, beauty (by which he meant proportion and use of handsome materials) and usefulness. The quality of stability lasted throughout the next two millennia of church construction, whether in the first stolid brick warehouses of the early Christians, or the meticulous stonework of the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, or the broad heavy facades of counter reform basilicas. Stability meant endurance, the security of a building that appears as if the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. It is the promise to remain for future generations that draws faithful and non-faithful even today, admiring a structure that intends to exist as long as the world. While a tree house church might illustrate Christ’s command to let “the little ones to come unto me,” it doesn’t underscore the permanence of the truth contained within its walls.
  2. Location: The early Christians developed their architecture in the wake of the Roman Empire, which had always had an acute sense of the importance of location. The placement of a triumphal arch or the site of a temple very often held meaning for the Romans. That site specificity continued among the Christians, who bore in mind where the church would be built as part of its style. St. John Lateran, the first legally built Christian church, stood apart from the Forum on the outskirts of the city and was decorated with a simple brick exterior almost as a rebuke to lavish display of marble affixed to the pagan temples. St. Mary Major, however, built a century later on the Esquiline Hill, was nestled into one of Rome’s most upscale neighborhoods. In that first Western church dedicated to Mary, Pope Sixtus III bestowed every luxury from matching marble columns to gold mosaics. Building at the crest of hill where the senators lived, he needed beauty to instruct the “influencer class” of Mary’s role as God-Bearer, and knew that opulent architecture would go a long way to helping them understand.
  3. Axiality: Christians looked at many church design options over the years—from Greek crosses to sailing ships, but, as architect Duncan Stroik has noted, churches always need to be seen from the liturgical standpoint. Ecclesia, the Latin word for church, means assembly, but Christians gathered to go. The terms pilgrim church or church militant both evoke a congregation in motion, traveling through history to its ultimate destination –God. Christians used terms like nave (Latin for boat) and symbols like anchors to illustrate the journey of faith and goal of safe harbor. Two thousand years of images remind generations that the Church is not about right now, this moment, this exact set of problems for this precise geographic location or time, but the Church is past, present and future on a path that many have taken before us and many will take after us. Direction is a valuable part of Church architectural language, meant to lead the faithful to Christ at the altar, and to his Real Presence in the tabernacle.
  4. Accessibility – on the heels of that consideration comes the very modern problem of access to the church. Not in the form of parking lots or wheelchair ramps, which of course have their place, but actually being open to the public. Beautiful churches that are open only a couple hours a day or stylish confessionals that remain unmanned except for 15 minutes on Saturdays destroy the evangelizing potential of the space. Constantinian churches were huge. Charles Borromeo insisted that churches be made large enough to welcome the home congregation as well as visiting pilgrimages – no one should ever feel that the church is too small to welcome more people or that the doors are barred — that is how people perceive that the beauty of the church is for the few instead of a gift to the many.
  5. Sacredness: This is the most subjective and yet the most important consideration of all. How can a church present the sacred? While nature can often project the sacred, God is something greater than nature. God humbled Himself to become man in the incarnation; born in a stable, He rendered a manger sacred, yet angels came to fill the space with supernatural light and song. How to adorn the space where Christ is present – how to awaken in the sleepy souls of Sunday morning’ s congregation the notion that this is not just a ritual, but the actual presence of the Lord among us? Preciousness is part of the sacred. Human beings understand the value of gold and silver; they take the Academy Awards seriously because movie stars in thousand-dollar hairdos and gowns obviously do. Even St. Bernard, while railing against excesses, admitted that “Bishops have a duty toward both wise and foolish. They have to make use of material ornamentation to rouse devotion in a carnal people …” Painters used lapis lazuli and gold leaf to accentuate the majesty of Christ’s image – a means of impressing upon people that the bread, wine, oil and water of the sacraments become precious beyond any earthly price. The danger of excessive simplicity in churches is that the mystery and majesty of the sacraments might become debased in the minds and hearts of the faithful.

Ironically, many who bemoan with St. Jerome-like hyperbole the millions spent on a new churches often swoon in paroxysms of praise for celebrity do-gooders, like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, for  their very public charities, never questioning their multiple multi-million dollar residences meant to accommodate families of few and staffs of many. A welcoming and beautiful church is a spiritual home open to every human being who hopes for a glimpse of the divine in the midst of our gritty, messy journey through this life.

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