What Makes A Church Beautiful?

When I saw the plans released yesterday for the new Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, I was put in mind of the so-called “graduation ceremony” in “Star Wars”.  You’ll recall that’s when Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca received medals from Princess Leia for their services to the Rebel Alliance, inside a grand, but colorless ceremonial hall, like the one about to be foisted upon the good people of the Diocese of Orange County.  While seeing this animation of the completed building might make Seymour Skinner give out an award for best diorama, when it comes to ecclesiastical architecture, such an association is not an enviable one.  For it seems that, once again, the Church is not practicing what it preaches, when it comes to encouraging the beautiful in our contemporary society.

The most important question to ask in entering any Catholic church is, “Where’s Jesus?” The answer in this case is, “Somewhere over there.” In this absolutely vast sanctuary, which seats about 2700 people at present, there was apparently no room for the Son of God, at least not in the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  Instead, the Tabernacle sits like a gilded Tardis, surrounded on four sides by asymmetrical pews, in a side chapel.

There are other curious details, as one might expect given the commentary of the liturgists in the film linked to above. Nearby, one can see what is termed the baptismal “font”, really a pool in the shape of a cross, where I imagine the celebrant will be tossing in the infants and crying, “Swim for it, little pagans!” The narthex of the Cathedral will feature a giant, decapitated head of Jesus, copied from the 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Hagia Sophia.  Without the symbolism of the original, showing Jesus seated as the judge and ruler of the whole world flanked by His Blessed Mother and St. John the Baptist pleading on our behalf for mercy, the image is thereby stripped of its purpose and theological meaning, to become little more than a massive decorative accessory.  This is not Jesus as Holy Icon, but Jesus as Andy Warhol icon.

It seems that the diocese completely missed the lessons to be learned from the construction of the present Los Angeles Cathedral, a.k.a. the “Taj Mahoney”.  Spending an estimated $52 million on a project which will result in something that looks like an airport concourse rather than a church is a colossal waste of funds.  If buying the former Crystal Cathedral was a mistake to begin with, which I believe it was, then we are about to witness a very expensive attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

What is irritating beyond anything else however, is not really the building itself.  One can hardly blame the late Philip Johnson, himself a former Nazi sympathizer and an atheist of the Nietzschean variety, for not having built a structure designed for Catholic liturgical use, when it was originally commissioned by a Protestant televangelist.  Rather, this entire project is a prime example of the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy espoused by some in leadership positions of the Church.

We are constantly being told by popes, prelates, theologians, and Catholic commentators that we are supposed to be encouraging “beauty” in the world, because beauty brings people closer in contemplation to the Divine.  Every time we are told this, in books and articles, in television programs, interviews, retreats, and addresses, the people in the pews nod and agree, thinking that at last, things are finally going to get better.  We hear and read their words, and fully expect that those with the authority to make decisions about things such as church buildings will be presenting us with beautiful reminders of the Faith.

Except more often than not, they don’t.

We keep shoving the Blessed Sacrament off to the side, as if we’re embarrassed by it.  We keep commissioning religious art that belongs in a 7th grade religion textbook, if anywhere at all.  We keep printing cheap missalettes full of hymns with theologically unsound lyrics, and Mass settings that sound like themes to Saturday morning cartoon shows.  And it’s all terribly, horribly, ugly.

This artistic ugliness is all of a piece, of course, along with trite homilies about recycling or how our pets will go to Heaven, being told in the confessional that it’s almost impossible for anyone to commit a mortal sin, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink attitudes toward cohabitation and contraception at virtually every Pre-Cana weekend I’ve ever heard of.  For some, unknown reason, when decision-makers are presented with the opportunity to do something beautifully and uniquely Catholic – like building a new cathedral – they fantasize that they are presenting an alternative to the present culture.  When really, as we can all see plain as day, they are just aping the ugly externals of that very culture, albeit in a dreary fashion.

In his book “The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas à Kempis notes the popularity of pilgrimage to the architectural wonders of his time, back when architecture was indeed very beautiful.  Yet even then, he was not deceived by vast spaces or sumptuous materials.  “When visiting such places,” he comments, “men are often moved by curiosity and the urge for sight-seeing, and one seldom hears that any amendment of life results, especially as their conversation is trivial and lacks true contrition. But here, in the Sacrament of the Altar, You are wholly present, my God, the Man Christ Jesus; here we freely partake of the fruit of eternal salvation. as often as we receive You worthily and devoutly.”

That is what makes any church, whether a humble parish or a grand cathedral, truly beautiful.  It isn’t grand designs, or spectacular architecture, or lavish decorations. It is His Presence.  Otherwise, it’s just a building where “stuff” happens, not to use another “s” word.  Perhaps it’s time that those in positions of authority in the Church did a better job of remembering this, when they are presented with the opportunity to practice what they preach concerning what is beautiful about our Catholic Faith.

"Christ Pantocrator" by Unknown Artist (XIIIth Century) Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

“Christ Pantocrator” by Unknown Artist (13th Century)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Celebrating “The Feasts” with Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

[I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina's new book, "The Feasts". Thanks to the generosity of Image Books, you can register for a chance to win a free copy for yourself! Check for details at the conclusion of the review, and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour as well.]

In their new book The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and well-known Catholic author Mike Aquilina examine not only the major and minor feasts of the Church, but the history and theological significance of these significant days throughout the Church year.  Many Christians may never have stopped to think much about why we have these commemorations, when we pause to remember particular persons, events, or truths.  With great clarity, the authors explain the language of feast days, and how they draw us back to honoring and reflecting upon our relationship with God.  Feasts are an opportunity, above all, for expressing our gratitude.

In the early chapters of “The Feasts”, the authors take the time to provide a concise, helpful background on how and why these occasions came to be.  Jesus Himself, after all, celebrated feasts such as Passover and Yom Kippur, which are still marked today by the Jewish people.  In turn the early Christian community, as it began to emerge into a full-fledged faith, adopted its own annual religious events.  Within the first five hundred years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, there were already hundreds of feasts, some celebrated locally such as in the memorial of a particular saint, and others commemorated throughout the Universal Church.

Probably everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, even for many non-Christians, is the Solemnity of Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ.  Today that meaning is often lost in the glitz and glitter of commercialism, when the point of why people give each other gifts at Christmas often seems to be lost.  Indeed, as the authors point out later in the book, the Puritans in this country attempted unsuccessfully to wipe Christmas celebrations from the calendar.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina do not deny the secular aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated in many parts of the world, since civilization and Christianity are tied together. They acknowledge the hard fact that for many people, Christmas can be an excuse for excessive materialism.  Many, including some Christians, would rather just take Christ out of “Christ Mass” altogether.

Yet the authors then remind us of something which we heard at Mass just this past weekend, in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  St. Paul notes that the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form which we celebrate at Christmas, was not a manifestation of an overpowering being.  Rather, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  That gift of the Divine Self through birth is, of course, the “reason for the season”, as the expression goes.  His servitude is what we ourselves are called to follow, in imitation of Him.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina also remind us how very ancient the celebration of Christmas is.  Unlike what you may have heard from some quarters, i.e. that Christmas is simply an appropriation of a pagan sun festival, the authors go far back into Church history.  They point out for example that as early as the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria was already arguing that the Birth of Jesus should be celebrated on December 25th, based on his survey of what the Church communities he knew of were already doing locally.  This means such commemorations were taking place long before the legalization of Christianity, let along its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

For me, the date of December 25th is less of a point of interest than understanding the historical time period of the Incarnation, something which the authors also explore in their chapter on Christmas.  Although God exists outside of time, He chose to enter into our timeline. The willingness to self-limit in such a way out of love for us is, in and of itself, something which should give us pause to consider, anytime we take the celebration of Christmas as being merely for children and merchants.

Christ was born into the world of the Roman Empire, the physical remnants of which are still with us, in ruins, archaeological sites, and museums throughout the world.  At the same time, many of the ideas and principles which laid the foundations of republics such as ours here in the United States, as well as concepts in science, engineering, literature, and so on that were the building blocks of Western civilization, were being taught, debated, and written about.  To look at a Roman column from the 1st century, and reflect on the fact that it stood at the same time Jesus was being born in the little town of Bethlehem, is to become aware of God’s Presence in our own history, not just as some sort of unintelligible entity or divine watchmaker existing independently of it.

Thus Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina refer to Christmas as being the other magnetic pole to the Christian year, with Easter being the other.  Salvation history was not something vaguely understood, but rather marked by a most singular event: God humbling Himself into becoming Man.  Without the Resurrection at Easter, there is no hope for us, but if there is no Incarnation at Christmas, then there will be no Easter.  In coming into the world, we understand Christ not a concept, but as a Person, and one who promised to remain with us, particularly in the Eucharist.  Because of this, even when the Christmas season ends, “in a sense it never ends,” as the authors rightly make clear. For “at every Mass we experience the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.”

As human beings, we mark the passage of the hours from day to night, or the year from summer to winter, because we understand the world in this way.  “The Feasts” allows us to step back and see the broad spectrum of the days set aside by the Church, and the how and why we have these special occasions.  They remind us, when we are so often distracted by the things of this world, of the world beyond this one, the one to come, and of Him who is waiting to embrace us.

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For a chance to win a free copy of “The Feasts”, register with your name and email address by following this link. Only one entry per reader, please. Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, September 18th. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 19th.

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Flying the Banner

Last evening at the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., Father James Bradley gave a wonderful talk on “The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness”, as part of the TOT (Theology On Tap) Talks organized by the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington.  Pointing to examples from areas such as art, music, and architecture, Father Bradley challenged his listeners to consider the impact of beauty in our lives, and how it points us to the transcendent.  He asked the deeply important question of whether contemporary acceptance of what was formally considered ugly or demeaning, as being equal or superior to what was formally considered beautiful, is leading us away from God.  You can listen to the audio of Father Bradley’s presentation when it is archived on the TOT page later today.

While the reader may, with good reason, assume that I would have quite a bit to say on this question, I instead want to focus on a comment which Father Bradley made in the course of his presentation.  He noted that when engaging with those who do not accept the Christian worldview on topics such as beauty, we often find ourselves getting nowhere by making apologetic arguments based on doctrines and principles which have been rejected by those who disagree with us.  To put it another way, if I might, when your neighbor absolutely insists that your cat is not a cat, but rather a dog, then all of your insistence to the contrary is not going to make much of a difference.

Father Bradley asserted that when discussion proves impossible, it is through example that we can make said difference.  How we as Christians live our lives can draw people to reconsider their entrenched positions about those very important subjects on which we disagree.  If we are seen as people of joy and love, engaging in acts of kindness and charity, and surrounding ourselves with beauty in all things, we are more likely to be able to engage with those who refuse to meet us on common intellectual or philosophical grounds.  In other words, it is time for us to recover not only the thought, but the actual practice of being a Christian in a time which increasingly rejects Christianity.

An early document written roughly a century after Christ’s Resurrection, known to historians as The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetesmay give us some idea of the sort of thing I mean.  In this letter, the unknown author writing in about 130 A.D. describes how Christians are both a part of the world, yet at the same time set themselves apart from that world by the manner in which they choose to live.  Note how the distinctions which the author draws between the practices of the wider of society of his day, and the Christians of his time, seem eerily reminiscent of some of the practices and ideas of the present age:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.

I wonder how many of us who today call ourselves Christians, could consider this early assessment of what our ancestors in the Faith were like, and still recognize ourselves in such a description. We have forgotten that ours is not simply another philosophy among many competing philosophies, but rather a complete way of life, one which is supposed to be manifest to the world, not donned and doffed like a pair of favorite socks.  One sees this type of Christianity throughout Western Europe for example, where apart from christenings, weddings, and funerals, the vast majority of Europeans never darken the doorstep of their local church; this phenomenon is sadly becoming all the more apparent in this country, as well.

As Christians are paid increasingly less attention in the marketplace of ideas, we see that simply the removal of our voices from the din has not been enough for those opposed to Christianity.  We must be made to conform to the zeitgeist, whenever possible; when this is not possible, then we must be silenced.  Given this, and if we consider the historical roots of Christianity such as in the passage given above, then Father Bradley’s reasoning that our lives must themselves be the argument for Christianity at all times, but particularly when words fail us, makes perfect sense.

Certainly, it would be far easier to simply take down the blood-stained banner of the Resurrection, and fly instead the white, surrendering flag of relativism.  Yet to do so would be to deny Christ, something which no Christian wants to do.  The Early Church understood, despite the difficulties which they faced in getting themselves heard, that when our words are ignored, a living Faith through our actions can speak volumes, especially in a highly mutable society.  It’s high time that we recall and re-embrace this lesson for ourselves.

Easter Banner at Golgotha Monastery Orkney, Scotland

Easter Banner at Golgotha Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery
Orkney, Scotland