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

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9 thoughts on “What Makes A Church Beautiful?

  1. Love the piece.

    I had high hopes for the former Crystal Cathedral being taken over for Catholic liturgical worship, having watched the Hour of Power when I was young, and having sung in their services on a couple of occasions with my alma mater Chorale. The organ is truly great. But I knew this would be the end product. :/

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  2. Is the entrance behind the altar? Is there a “behind” the altar at all? This is truly awful. Perhaps more upsetting is the fact that the leadership in the Diocese (specifically the Dir. of Comm.) prioritizes this being a “center point for many faiths to come together and engage” over it being a decidedly Catholic space, with, you know, a place of honor in the worship space for the Tabernacle.

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  3. Good comments, Billy. I noted in the video how often they spoke about the importance of respecting the original use and vision of the buildings of what “came before.” I’m not a raving anti-Protestant RadTrad by any means, but why must they go out of their way to do this? The whole orientation of the cathedral is awkward. At no point in the readings, the homily or the liturgy of the Eucharist will anyone actually be facing the congregation. The bishop will get a crick in his neck swinging his head each way to address the people sitting on either side of him.

    You said they’re trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I think they’re trying to make a pigskin purse with no intention of imitating silk. They have set their sights low to begin with.

    Not to mention the architects who sound like they know nothing of Catholic worship and liturgy.

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  4. And that, in a few well-chosen words, explains why I started going to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (aka the Traditional Latin Mass according to the 1962 Missal and authorized by Summorum pontificum) on a regular basis. I was sick to death of trite, banal liturgical music that sounded as if it would be more at home in a Celine Dion concert than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I was equally sick to death of ugly, modernist churches that felt more like “a K-Mart with pews,” in my mother’s words, than a consecrated space for the offering of that Holy Sacrifice. The parish where I go to Mass looks, feels, and sounds like what I think a Catholic church ought to look, feel, and sound like. I feel extraordinarily blessed because I know my experience is not typical, but I pray for the day that it is.

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  5. Hi Billy! I haven’t had a chance to take a good look at the proposed design (busy week here). I would say that I’ve been in a church that was set up antiphonally (and wasn’t a monastery), and it was tres awkward for liturgy.

    I also wanted to make a quick comment about church teaching re: placement of the tabernacle in a cathedral church. From the Ceremonial of Bishops #49:
    “It is recommended that the tabernacle, in accordance with a very ancient tradition in cathedral churches, should be located in a chapel separate from the main body of the church.”

    So that part of the design is not necessarily off base with tradition; indeed many of the old cathedrals and basilicas that I’ve seen in Italy have the tabernacle in a separate chapel, which are generally nicely done, obvious in purpose, and very conducive to prayer.

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  6. Great post, Billy. A retreat master from my teen years called the liturgical age we’re living in “The age of the ugly.” So you’re not shocking me by saying it. While eucharistic chapels may be the norm in Europe, as I’ve heard, I’ll say from my life experience that they have no place in Catholic “parish church” America. Why? Because reverence for Our Lord in the Eucharist is abysmal over here, with only small enclaves of parishes making a new push for it. I could go into how Eucharistic ministers should set the tone for it, beginning with getting rid of ear-to-ear smiles while doing their sacred work, but suffice it to say that the tabenacle in a promenent place in church would go a long way to foster this reverence. Someone may see a child genuflect at mid-sactuary and think, “Oh, yeah. He’s here!”

    Yes, the mass is the mass, no matter where it’s celebrated. But we could include some aspects of beauty in church architecture and appointments that echo the buliders of the gothic churches that literally “reached” to heaven. Like the enclaves of Eucharistic reverence and adoration, I don’t think it’s too late.

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  7. The link you gave to Dan Schutte’s “Missa” and the “My Little Pony” theme was disturbing in their similarities. Henceforth, it will be very difficult to not envision a prancing pony when our choir sings this on Sunday 😦

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