Still Higher: A Brief Sagrada Familia Update

Being a project that I’ve been fascinated with my entire life, I wanted to update you on a few developments at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The work of the late Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) the Basilica of the Holy Family (“Sagrada Familia”) has been under construction since the late 19th century, and is undoubtedly the most unique church in the world. Millions of people visit each year to marvel at it, and there is always something new and exciting going on with regard to its architectural progress.

The latest addition to the building is a massive, 18-ton stone cross, nearly 25 feet tall and about 14 feet wide. The construction team described its installation on Monday as “a real challenge”, not only because of its size, but because of its placement. There was no room for error in swinging it about into position, which could have damaged the statuary and architectural elements beneath it.

You can see a short video of it being raised here, and its final placement here.

The cross is located on the pinnacle of the porch attached to the façade of the church that represents scenes from Christ’s Passion. There will be three sculptures of angels placed around the cross, each engaged in a different action: the first will be venerating the cross, the second will be embracing the cross, and the third will be kneeling and holding aloft a chalice. You can see a model for the group below:

Model

While the giant cross may seem like just another decorative element on an already highly-decorated building, it ties in to the overall sculptural program. Just below the cross is a platform, reached by two staircases that will eventually be accessible to visitors, depicting the scene in the Bible in which the women come to the tomb on Easter morning and find it empty. An angel appears to them to inform them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and points to both the empty tomb and to Heaven as the women react with astonishment:

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Most of the sculpture on the Passion Façade is by the late Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014), whose work straddles the lines between Expressionism, Cubism, and Brutalism. To be honest, for the most part his work is not to my taste, although I do confess to liking some of it. Subirachs died before all of the sculptural groups on the Passion Façade could be finished, and two other Catalan sculptors have been working to complete the programme on this side of the building.

The cross and the angels surrounding it are the work of contemporary Catalan sculptor Lau Feliu (born 1957) whose style is, while not exactly the same as that of Subirachs, certainly related to it and perhaps a bit more pleasing to the eye. In addition to the cross and angels, Feliu has also completed two animal sculptures which stand on either end of the porch: the Lion of Judah, and the sacrificial ram caught in a thicket which was sacrificed by Abraham in place of Isaac:

Ram

The empty tomb scene on the other hand, is the work of another contemporary Catalan sculptor, Francesc Fajula (born 1945). Like Feliu, Fajula’s style is not the same as that of Subirachs, but shares some of the same visual influences, particularly from Expressionism. The faces of the Marys, in particular, had to be carved with great thought, since they would need to be seen from the sidewalk down below. Fajula also sculpted the crucifix which is suspended over the main altar in the Basilica, based on Gaudí’s designs for the piece.

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As to overall progress, by the end of this year it is expected that the six main towers of the Basilica will all be as tall as the currently existing towers on the Nativity and Passion Facades, which are about 295 feet tall. Of the six, the tower located over the apse will be dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and will eventually be 459 feet tall, crowned with a giant illuminated star representing the Star of Bethlehem. Over the crossing at the center of the church are a central spire surrounded by four supporting spires. The supporting spires will be dedicated to the Four Evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and each of these will be 443 feet tall. The central spire rising from the midst of these will be dedicated to Jesus and stand 566 feet tall, making the Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world when it is completed.

Construction on the Sagrada Familia is still on pace to be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death, and I must confess that every time I go back to Barcelona I’m astonished by how quickly things have been moving. While the final decoration of the building will be completed long after 2026, to have it structurally complete in my own lifetime is something that, as a child, I never thought that I would see happen. It’s already a structure which makes you gasp when you stand in front of it because of its sheer size and height, and I can’t imagine what the final effect will be when it’s nearly two times as tall as it already is right now.

To keep up with the progress on the Basilica, be sure to follow the Sagrada Familia’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Images are posted every day, with accompanying text in English, Catalan, and Spanish, and there’s always some new detail to be featured, or a new achievement in the construction process to note. Unlike many other buildings, the construction of the Sagrada Familia is being funded entirely by private donations and tickets – no government or diocesan money is going toward its completion – and it’s been that way from the beginning. So if you’re interested in helping to complete construction on this astonishing project, you can visit the official website and learn how you can participate.

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Denver Diary: Darkness and Light

Concluding my brief series of posts on my recent trip to Denver, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to two very different, but very beautiful buildings there, which told me a great deal about the people of that city.

The reader will recall that I was out in Colorado for a wedding, which took place at Holy Ghost Church in downtown Denver on Saturday night.  Because it was an evening event and I was serving as an usher, there was not a great deal of time nor any daylight available for me to wander around the church and pick up on the subtle details of the architecture, which this building has in spades.  I was told by those who had been there during the day that because the windows are not very large, there was not much more I could have seen, but nevertheless any building looks different depending on when you visit.  The play of darkness and light changes as the hours progress.

The present Holy Ghost Church was built between 1923-1943, with the long period of construction explained by the bane of many large and sumptuously decorated churches, insufficient funding.  It is an idiosyncratic mixture of both early Italian Renaissance and Spanish Plateresque elements, though the net effect put me more in mind of something Tolkien might have imagined, rather than the hill towns of Tuscany or the plains of Castile.  The mixture of different shades of beige and pink marble is very pleasing, and particularly for an evening wedding there was a glimmer and shine about the sanctuary which added to the formality of the occasion.

If I was to pick a single notable feature of the building to draw the visitor’s attention to however, it would be the arcade located in the narthex.  Two rows of short columns flank the main doors which give entrance to the nave, so that even before one enters and has to bless oneself, the high altar with its huge monstrance can be seen.  The arcade itself is very beautifully proportioned, but what I found particularly unusual was a series of geometrically carved oak panels between them, which are set into a kind of soffit hidden above the arcade.

These panels can be pulled down almost like overhead garage doors, to close the spaces between the columns.  Presumably these were designed for the environmental purpose of helping to keep out the chill of winter from the nave.  However for the wedding they worked perfectly as a kind of screen, to let people know that the bride and her attendants had arrived, since the panels were pulled down to keep the ladies of the wedding party hidden until that moment when the doors into the nave were opened and the procession began.

If Holy Ghost is a somewhat dark building referencing the 15th-16th centuries in Italy and Spain, Denver’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a structure completely flooded with light, recalling the glories of 13th-14th century architecture in France.  Built between 1902-1911 and just a block away from the Colorado State Capitol, this is a very grand church, tall and wide but not particularly deep, put up in a remarkably speedy period of time for a prosperous and growing city.  Unlike Holy Ghost, the Cathedral obviously suffered a bit at the hands of the tambourine and felt banner crowd after Vatican II,  but the damage is not completely horrid nor ultimately irreparable.

The visitor is struck by two distinct yet related elements of the Cathedral upon entering the nave.  The first is the sense of height, particularly at the crossing, which is only accentuated by the many, enormously tall stained-glass windows from Munich that surround the space.  Second, the interior is almost blindingly white stone and marble, with very little color employed in either the architecture itself or in the furnishings and statuary.  Even the aforementioned windows, while featuring the rich colors typical of the Neo-Gothic movement in the figures themselves, are dominated by white stained glass forming the framework for the scenes.  It is surely appropriate for the Cathedral of the Mile High City to be not only a lofty structure, but one which calls to mind the snow-covered Rockies.

I attended Sunday mass at the Cathedral the morning after the wedding with several friends, both fellow wedding guests and some Denver tweeps (i.e. Twitter followers, for those of you not using Twitter) whom I had known for years but was finally able to meet for the first time.  Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the celebrant and yes, I got to kiss his ring and chat with him briefly after mass.  However the thing I will remember most about this church was something rather simple.

In a corner over to the right of the sanctuary in the Cathedral hangs a reproduction of the famous Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so dear to the late Blessed Pope John Paul II.  The reader may recall that JPII came to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, and during his stay celebrated mass at the Cathedral.  Hence the presence of a rather attractive and dynamic statue of him in the grounds of the Cathedral, and also of this icon inside the church itself.  The unexpected success of the Denver WYD had a tremendous impact on many young Catholics, particularly in this country, and one cannot underestimate its lasting influence on those collectively known as the “JPII Generation“, i.e., those of us who grew up knowing no other pope than John Paul II due to the length of his pontificate.

I left some flowers before the icon of the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son, and took a moment to pray for a couple of special intentions, as well as to reflect briefly on my trip to Denver – a place which in all honesty I had never planned to visit in my life.  Certainly now, following this experience, I would not say no to a return visit sometime, so that I could hang out with Greg and Jennifer Willits a bit longer, for example.  And a repeat stay at the Brown Palace Hotel would certainly be most welcome.

On a spiritual level, it was good to be able to visit these two very different, but very beautiful churches in the Mile High City, and see how much the Catholic community there cares about the Real Presence of Our Lord.  Both in the darkness of Holy Ghost Church, with its enormous gilded monstrance above the high altar, and in the light of Denver’s Cathedral, its high altar surrounded by gleaming white marble, candles, and flowers, the Divine was there, waiting for us to visit Him.  That Presence remains regardless of the contrast between darkness and light paralleled in our own lives, where just as in these two buildings, Christ is there in our dark moments and in our bright ones as well.

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Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa,
Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

Freedom, Faith, and the Future

As many of my readers know the Fortnight For Freedom wrapped up on July 4th, Independence Day here in the United States, in a mass held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C.  The usual teeny-tiny group of the shrill, formed by the heretical, bitter, and wrinkly, was apparently there, but to be honest I was not even aware of their presence until I saw the news reports later.  This was partially due to the fact that an estimated 4,000+ people attended, which was particularly noteworthy for a scorchingly hot July day, not to mention the mass falling on a mid-week National holiday.  In fact on the way to the event, I fell in with a group of people from Kentucky who were in town for the fireworks, but who wanted to come add their support to the bishops’ efforts.

Of the four bishops who spoke, each had a different role to play.   Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, as the host, was a welcoming figure, thanking everyone for their help in bringing about the event.  He noted the presence of an overflow crowd, with all of the side aisles at standing room only, as well as the piazza and grounds outside the Basilica, and took particular time to thank the priests in attendance.  And well he might, for I have not seen that many priests gathered together in one place here in the Nation’s Capital since the Papal Visit in 2008: the processions alone were so long that we ran out of verses to sing for both the opening and the closing hymns.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Papal Nuncio and therefore the personal representative of the Pope in Washington, brought a letter from the Vatican expressing Pope Benedict’s support for the Fortnight For Freedom as well as his bestowing Apostolic Blessing on those participating in it.  In the letter, the Pope noted that the Fortnight had been a “symphony of prayer for the nation and its leaders,” reminding us that “freedom is not only a gift, but a summons to personal responsibility.”  The Holy Father closed his letter by expressing his hope that those hearing his words would continue to bring the wisdom and insight of the Faith to the work of pursuing America’s highest moral principles.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was the homilist, and what an excellent, sobering, yet inspirational homily he gave us.  Rather than reproduce the text of it – which you can read here – in piecemeal fashion in this post, I would recommend you read the entire thing yourself, even if you are not a Christian, taking careful note of the delicate thread of reason running through it.  Truthfully, I had been expecting something perhaps a bit more strident, particularly since the Gospel reading chosen for the day was the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel about payment of the census tax to Caesar.  This same passage provided both the touchstone and the title to Archbishop Chaput’s book “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life”, which I had the privilege to discuss with him when I met and got to hang out with him a few years ago.

Instead, it became clear as I listened to his sermon that Archbishop Chaput was setting exactly the right tone by calling us to look elsewhere than human ends for our purpose.  For Chaput’s role in this celebration, it seems to me, was to be one of reminding all of us of the big picture.  Freedom comes from God, not from man, and no Caesar has the power to give it or take it away. The reason we must stand up for our religious freedom was not to score political points, but rather to defend our ability as Christians to individually and collectively deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ, as His disciples.  As the Archbishop stated in his homily, we cannot share with others what we do not live joyfully ourselves.

I suspect that like many other people I was simply stunned into silence by the sermon, delivered in a gentle, pastoral way, and yet containing such wisdom and perspective on why we were all there in the first place.  It took a good minute or so after Archbishop Chaput had finished speaking and began to return to his seat that a slow ripple, then a tidal wave, of applause and a standing ovation followed in the wake of what he had said.  In his homily he had reminded us that our goal was eternal, and far more important than political parties or power.  Normally I do not like hearing applause at mass, but in this case I must confess that I got caught up in it, for it was both a moment of witness to the truth, and also a teaching moment for all of us gathered there as to how we must look at our relationship to the world we live in.

At the conclusion of mass, it fell to Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to provide what some might call the “red meat” of the day.  He noted that he had recently returned from a visit to Rome for the inauguration of a non-partisan organization known as the Observatory on Religious Liberty, founded by the Italian government to look at the state of religious freedom around the world.  And as it turns out, the Observatory has selected the United States as their first case study, noting that if religious liberty can be threatened here, it can be threatened anywhere.

Archbishop Lori pointed out that the preservation of religious liberty needed the assistance of the laity.  “We bishops are prepared to lead,” he affirmed, “but this is much bigger than the bishops.”  He called for those present to carry on their advocacy for the preservation of our right to worship in a spirit of reason and charity.  “The Fortnight For Freedom may be over, but the rigorous and unapologetic defense of our God-given right to our religious liberty is not.”

Of all that was said at this mass, clearly Archbishop Chaput’s words will have the longest and deepest impact on those who heard or read them.  Yet once again what really impressed me, as has been the case with many large-scale Catholic events such as this one over the past decade,  was the large number of people in attendance who grew up during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.  These future leaders of the Church, whether as clergy, laity, or religious, are active, engaged, and all on the same page.  From where I was sitting, the future of the Catholic Church in the United States at least is a younger, more exciting thing than what most pundits in the alleged mainstream media would like you to believe.

My American readers are well-aware of what a great blessing it is not to have our government directly entangled with the running of our religious institutions, as it is in many places of the world, from Saudi Arabia to Great Britain.  That freedom, to practice a faith (or not) as we choose, is one of the foundation stones of our republic.  The U.S. bishops, with the support of many religious leaders of other faiths and denominations, courageously decided to stand up together and draw the nation’s attention to this fact.  In so doing they have not only reminded us where freedom actually comes from, and what the Christian Faith teaches us about our place in the world, but they have also provided an opportunity for us to once again see the future of the Catholic Church: a future which, whatever challenges lie ahead, is marked by the active participation of faith-filled young people, devoted to Christ.


At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
for the “Fortnight For Freedom” mass on July 4th