I recently returned from Turkey, part of the crew participating in the filming of Word On Fire’s documentary series,
Our visit to Turkey was for the most part to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul and to present the visual splendor of the land, which is the cradle of the Church. One highlight of the trip was Hagia Sofia, once the most magnificent church in the world. The building is now a museum, the prayers of the faithful now silenced and replaced by the voices of tourists and their guides. Hagia Sofia still inspires, even though only vestiges of its former glory remain. However, for the Christian, the experience can be wrought with profound sadness.
The believer familiar with sacred spaces which still resonate with the prayers of our sacred liturgies immediately knows that Hagia Sofia is now a building bereft of its true purpose. It was built, not simply as a monument to human culture, but as a temple in which the Eucharist of the Lord would be celebrated and shared. Despite the removal of its sacred Christian art and the evacuated spaces which once were filled by the altar and sanctuary, one still knows that the building is a church. Why? Because despite all the efforts to de-Christianize, Islam-asize, and secularize, it still looks like a church.
This answer might infuriate those of a more modern sensibility in the field of church architecture. Can’t a church look like practically anything? This is the ethos which has largely been prevalent for the past several decades, an ethos that has given rise to many of the churches which currently serve as shelters for Catholic worship. Most of these buildings are more pragmatic than theological constructs, and if there is a theological paradigm at play, it is a theology accommodated to the presuppositions of modernity. Since theology and the Christian narrative of salvation has largely been removed from the public spaces of secular culture, it has followed that modern church builders can barely bring themselves to represent the forms and styles of art and architecture that have been non-negotiable essentials for Catholic worship. We have been told that the essentials are there, if only we would look more carefully. Besides, the church is really about the assembly, and it is in their presence that the building has its meaning. Right? Not so fast!
Dr. Denis McNamara in his new book, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, presents a vision in which the church building can still announce the Christian narrative of salvation and teach theology. His vision is one in which even the stones can cry out, and he demonstrates in his lucid prose and through carefully chosen pictures and illustrations how this has been possible in the past and can be possible again in the future. For Dr. McNamara, church buildings are conceived of properly as sacramental representations of eternal realities. These eternal realities are expressed in the liturgy of heaven, and inasmuch as the liturgy of earth participates and receives its salvific efficacy from the liturgy of heaven, the church building, in its design and decoration, is meant to demonstrate the relationship between the two. In fact, beautiful churches do precisely this, and it is our apprehension of this form in which the earthly design and the heavenly meaning co-inhere that we can perceive when a building is a church, or if somehow something has gone wrong and what we have is a building that just can’t decide what it is meant to be.
McNamara asserts quite rightly that church buildings have what he calls an “ontological secret” which reveals the meaning for its existence. The challenge for our time, especially in terms of many churches of modern design, is that the secret revealed is not the Christian narrative of salvation as it is expressed in the liturgy, but modernity’s ambiguous, if not at times hostile relationship with the particularities of Christian faith. Why the lack of vigorous Christian theology in the design and decoration of modern churches? We might not want to blame the architects, but ourselves. Did we forget how to tell the story? Or worse, did we know it, and somehow think it wasn’t worth the effort to display, not only to believers, but to the rest of the world as well? These are my questions. McNamara’s book is not about blaming anyone but a presentation of how theology should inform the creation of the sacred spaces for our worship. In this regard the book is of inestimable value, not only for those who have as their task the design and building of churches but also the faithful who wish to understand the sacramental character of the spaces which grounds and gives rise to their spiritual identities.
The book is an exercise of the great “resourcement” approach that gave rise to not only the liturgical movement of the twentieth century, but also the theological creativity of that the same period. McNamara is generous in his sources, moving us through the Church’s great tradition and demonstrating how this tradition can become incarnate in the forms and styles of church architecture. It is in this regard that the reader can appreciate the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” that is frequently advocated by Pope Benedict as the appropriate interpretive key to unlocking the treasures of the Church’s unique perspectives concerning its identity and mission. Like the parable of the steward who draws out things old and new, McNamara develops his thesis by demonstrating the relationship of forms and styles ancient and modern, carefully explaining how each can promote or inhibit the ends towards which Christian worship are to be directed.
There has been a prejudice that somehow “modern” people find the dense particularity of Christian ritual and symbolism as off-putting and unintelligible. This may be true in some cases, especially for those enamored by modernity’s skepticism of religious faith. However, our churches should not be built to placate skeptics or make a culture captivated by secularism feel secure in their doubts. Whatever it is that the Church creates, be it literature, painting, sculpture, or the buildings in which we worship or within which the work of the Church takes place, should be expressive of what we believe and why. The strategy of secularization and the evacuation of Christian particularity from the Church itself has taken its toll, not only on our buildings, but on the faithful. It also hasn’t paid off in converts, and why would it, as it seems to indicate an admission of defeat. Too many modern churches, even ones that can generate aesthetic arrest, seem to present to the world a Church that is uncertain, if not in a crisis of doubt, rather than a Church that believes.
Dr. McNamara’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy shows us that there is an alternative that is well worth our consideration.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.