Today’s Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple brings me to ponder temples.
The catastrophe that is modern church architecture reveals a basic ignorance of most architects about the history of church architecture.
Unfortunately, it also reveals an appalling ignorance among our Catholic priests and a lamentable lack of foresight among those who plan our seminary training.
Whenever I have the opportunity to meet our seminarians I ask, “Tell me, in all of your training in seminary do you have any education at all in art and architecture?”
The answer is usually “No. None at all.” One fellow said, “Hang on a minute. Yes. A woman who is a modern artist came in once to discuss her work.”
“Uh huh.” So these are the guys who will remodel our old churches, build new churches and maintain the churches we already have. And they are given no education in the history of Catholic architecture? No understanding of the theory of Catholic art? No explanation of the importance of architecture to liturgy and no knowledge of the history of iconography and the sacred image?
So what do they do? They have the job to build a new church so they go out to hire an architect, but do they hire an expert in church design and architecture? No. They’re expensive. So more often they hire a reputable firm that builds other (cheap) civic buildings–schools, courthouses, concert halls and art galleries.
This architect then comes along and designs a perfectly functional auditorium and because it’s a Catholic Church maybe he throws in a few pointed arches here and a couple of decorative columns there. There is little thought as to the liturgy or the true function of a church.
For them “beauty” means decoration. In other words, putting lipstick on a pig.
And what is the true function of a Catholic Church? The seating of 500 people and the effectiveness of the sound system is secondary. The primary function of a Catholic Church is that it is a temple not an auditorium.
An auditorium is just fine for a Protestant Church because their worship consists of a long Bible sermon. Increasingly Protestant worship isn’t even that. It is a sound and light show with big screens, a stage for the rock band and a super duper sound system because the whole thing is based on the rock concert entertainment model. For this a former supermarket or warehouse will do very nicely and is actually preferred.
A Catholic Church, on the other hand, is a temple. A temple is the dwelling place of God. This is why Christ comes to the temple–to validate the temple as God’s House. That we come there to offer the sacrifice of praise and to worship God is a fundamentally different action than coming to sing songs and hear a long pep talk about Jesus and the Bible.
The liturgy is most suitably offered in the language of beauty and beauty is therefore a determinant factor in the building in which the liturgy take place.
One of the most moving aspects in our experience of building a beautiful new church building is how everyone–everyone enters the church and is silent, then whispers, “It’s beautiful!”
The apprehension of beauty is universal and transcendent. That means everyone no matter what their educational level, social background, culture or age–experiences the beauty. It is transcendent in that it transcends words and opens the mind and heart immediately to apprehend not only the beautiful building, but also the One who is the eternal Source of All Beauty.
This is what a temple IS. This is what a temple DOES. We need to build more temples!
Go here for an online tour of the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, SC.
Go here for my book Letters on Liturgy in which I discuss these matters in more depth.