Why Church Buildings Matter

This past Sunday, November 9, was the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, which for the last 1700 years has been the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – and therefore the mother church of the entire Roman Catholic Church. I had the pleasure and privilege of attending Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the seat of the Archbishop of Denver, Colorado. It was one of the most beautiful Masses I have attended in quite some time (beautiful Masses should easily be a more frequent occurrence – but more on that at a later date), and it was helped in no small way by the beauty of the cathedral itself, which is a slightly scaled down version of the great French Gothic masterpieces that inspired the priest who had it built. Every layer of the art and architecture is impressive, and very much a throwback to the days when churches used art – statues, murals, stained-glass – to educate and inspire communities of believers who could not read. I’d like to share an example.

In each of the two transepts (think “side wings” if you don’t know the term) is a very large stained-glass window depicting the Virgin Mary and her relationship to the Church, appropriate for a church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Simply to look at these scenes in their vibrant color and light is an inspiration. But going further you can discover that each window depicts a different event in the Church’s history, using similar style and layout. In the east transept window is a representation of the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431, in which the Church rejected the teaching that Jesus was merely a human vessel of the Second Person of God and confirmed that He was both fully God and fully man, two natures co-existing in one Incarnation. It also, as a result, reconfirmed the ancient title of Mary as Mother of God (in Greek theotokos, “God-bearer”) a title which had come under fire with the spread of the now-rejected teaching. In the representation the Council’s presiding bishop, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, declares the conclusions of the Council to the assembled bishops while Mary looks on from above, holding the Child Jesus in her role as Mother of God. Just opposite in the west transept window is represented the Proclamation of Ineffabilis Deus in A.D. 1854, the papal bull that formally declared as a divinely-revealed truth, and thereby a universal dogma of the Church, the ancient belief that Mary was preserved by God from the stain of the original sin at the moment of her conception in order to enable her to make the completely free choice to become the Mother of God. In this representation Pope Blessed Pius IX reads the proclamation to the assembled bishops while Mary looks on, styled in Murillo’s iconic image of the Immaculate Conception.

Denver Cathedral Transept Windows

As beautiful and as detailed as each window is on its own, even more amazing is how the artist expressed parallelism and continuity by orienting Mary and the bishops in the same spatial relationship to each other, as well as the the preaching bishop. Both events may as well be the same event, in the grand scheme of things, each reinforcing the other in the fullness of time and both an expression of the finally unfathomable glory and power of God. And the parallelism doesn’t end there, for surrounding each of these large windows are five smaller windows depicting the Mysteries of the Rosary. Around the “Mother of God” window are the Glorious Mysteries: the Resurrection of Jesus, His Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption of Mary, and her Crowning as Queen of Heaven and Earth. In these mysteries Mary glories in the merits of her divine Son, which culminated in a way at Ephesus with the definitive confirmation of her exalted place as God’s own Mother. Around the “Immaculate Conception” window are the Joyful Mysteries: the Annunciation to Mary, her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth, the Nativity of her Son, His Presentation in the Temple, and her Finding Him in the Temple when He was 12 years old. In these mysteries she rejoices in her accepted role as the Mother of God, the vocation God prepared for her by means of the grace of her Immaculate Conception. You could keep going further up and further in and the elements of each side will keep reinforcing the other and bring the continuous whole into deep shining clarity: the Mother of God is the Mother of the Church. She who loved and was loved by the Head also loves and is loved by the Body, that all may be one in the love of God. This is our faith, this is the faith of the Church, and we are proud to profess it.

Sitting there amidst the manifold beauty of that sacred space got me thinking about the purpose of church buildings – why we have them, and why we (are supposed to) build them. That feastday itself was the celebration of a church building, one given to the Church ages ago by the greatest of the worldly powers in order to serve as a home for the Church throughout the world. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, director of the Crossroads Initiative, has written a wonderful article on church buildings, why they matter, and why we need them. I’d like to share the beginning with you here; you can read the rest here.

“As a rebellious teenager, I thought that Catholics should stop wasting their money on expensive churches. We ought to sell them all and buy food for the poor, I argued. Funny thing. Jesus, who cared much for the poor, did not have this attitude. As an adolescent he yearned to spend time in Herod’s sumptuous Temple (Luke 2). As an adult, he defended its integrity against the moneychangers (John 2). Francis of Assisi, who gave away all his possessions, begged for money to buy materials to restore ruined churches which he rebuilt with his own hands. Why this high regard for church buildings?”

I remember being a teenager and constantly marveling and all the time and energy and thought and material and resources creating these grand and impressive structures, for a God who has no need of it. Congregation and communion are important elements of Christian life, but a gathering space does not need to be as grand or impressive. Likewise the central element of Catholic life – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – requires a suitable space, but suitability does not require the dizzying architecture and art on display in Denver and other places, including Boston my home. And while kings and emperors throughout Europe would commission monumental churches and cathedrals to show off their wealth and power, they did come rather late to the game as far as creating spaces of inspiration and beauty to serve as the Christian locus. And as I said before the almighty Lord of creation has no need of such structures, even going all the way back to the Jerusalem Temple, conceived by David and erected by Solomon but also immediately challenged by God through His prophet Nathan. So…why? Why waste the time and thought and energy and material and resources to create these basically useless buildings?

Aristotle said that the best activities are the most useless. This is because such things are not simply means to a further end but are done entirely for their own sake.

Father Barron’s statement above holds the key to the answer. There is more to life than being useful – much more. While God did challenge David idea for a Temple as His dwelling place, he cherished the idea all the same, to the point that he Himself provided the very design of the Temple, based upon the tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, He not only allowed a house for His Name but established a house for David’s name in return, which in the fullness of time would produce the One Who was the Presence of God in Himself. That Presence He passed on to us on the night He gave bread to His Apostles saying, “This is my Body,” and three nights later when He breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The successors of the Apostles continue to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit, and to administer that same bread of life to those who believe.

Like the Temple, a church building serves as the dwelling place of the Presence of God, since we of the Catholic persuasion believe that the Eucharist housed within the tabernacle is the very Body of Christ. Therefore, the ultimate purpose of a church building is to glorify God in His House, to orient the faithful towards the honor and worship of God. Whether it is the intricate art of the Denver cathedral, or the soaring columns and vaults of Boston’s own Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the ancient majesty of the Lateran Basilica, or even my own three collaborating churches in Hyde Park, these buildings matter. They matter for all the reasons Dr. D’Ambrosio recounted in his article. They matter because they remind the world of things beyond itself. They matter because the Temple mattered to God, because we mattered to God. They matter because that’s where God has chosen to dwell in physical form, and to recognize that gracious gift is to spend the rest of our lives and all that is in it striving to return the favor. We do this primarily in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where Christ’s time-spanning Sacrifice on the Cross is both memorialized and tapped into. But the building within which this occurs is meant to distract us from the world, to subvert the usefulness of physicality just as the Eucharist itself does, and to focus us towards this great work of celebration and thanksgiving.

If we lose that focus, we will lose the faith. As we head towards the Solemn Feast of Christ the King and then slouch towards Bethlehem, let’s not wait to be born. Let’s rejoice in the useless, just as God does; for those are the things that really matter.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston

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