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A Spiritual Reflection on Church and Architecture

When guests come to visit St. Monica, quite often they are taken by the beauty of the church especially the juxtaposition of the warmth of the woodwork and the brilliant colors of the stained glass windows.  This movement of the human spirit through beauty has been a part of our Catholic tradition almost from its inception.

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As reflected in the website of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, “monks were among the first builders to realize that architecture could reflect a lifestyle. They consciously formed their environment to further their way of life.”  At the monastery in Conyers, Georgia, “visitors to the Monastery can clearly see architectural details that enhance the Cistercian approach to life.” What might be especially interesting to parishioners of St. Monica is the work that these Cistercian monks do on stained glass. They have been designing and manufacturing stained glass for places of worship since 1957.

I wrote about this in an earlier post entitled, “On Beauty – A Spiritual Reflection,” It this article I noted that, as an accomplished musician, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a great devotee of the arts and music. In addition, Benedict talked and wrote much about what he felt was the demise of quality, Catholic art, architecture and music in the years since Vatican II. In his article, “Ten Myths of Catholic Architecture,”  DCF 1.0 Duncan Stroik, Architect and an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, has also lamented the conventional wisdom concerning church architecture that has sometimes been promoted “in the spirit of Vatican II”.  Some examples:

  • The church building should be designed with noble simplicity. Devotional chapels and images of saints distract and take away from the liturgy (Yeah? Just try that at St. Monica in South Philly. See how far you get).
  • The fan shape or stadium-design, in which everyone can see the assembly and be close to the altar, is the most appropriate form for expressing the full, active and conscious participation of the body of Christ.
  • The money spent on churches is better spent on serving the less fortunate, feeding the hungry and educating the young.
  • Since God dwells everywhere, He is just as present in the parking lot, on the beach or on top of a ski slope as in a church. Therefore, church buildings should no longer be seen as sacred places (My personal favorite).

Even my friends the Jesuits have offered some thoughts on Catholic Church architecture. (Imagine, the Jesuits writing about liturgy!)  In the article, “Upon This Foundation” which appeared in the May 28, 2012 issue of America Magazine, Michael E. DeSanctis asks a number of comment-eliciting questions:

  • Are new church designs taking us backward?
  • What is a church?
  • Is it a temple in which God lives?
  • Is it a tent within which a pilgrim people assembles?
  • Is it many other things?
  • What does a post-Vatican II Catholic church look like if the answer is “both” or a variant of “all of the above”?

Having lived close to five years in Europe, I had the privilege of visiting numerous magnificent examples of church architecture:

  • The Cathedral in Cologne (gothic),
  • The Cloister Church in Birnau on the Bodensee (a true “jewel” of Baroque architecture),
  • on The Carolingian Octagon or Palatine chapel in Aachen (Byzantine and a personal favorite of mine,
  • The Norbertine Strahov Monastery in Prague (originally Romanesque and later rebuilt in Baroque style).

 

Frankly I enjoy the debate. I look forward to thoughtful, informed conversations from various parishioners as we consider what the future “space” might look like in order to address our vision and the pastoral mission of St. Monica.

 

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