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Austen IvereighNovember 07, 2010

[BARCELONA] The liturgy was to die for. There were more than 1,000 celebrants and the chief among them was pretty hard to beat. And it helped to have the King and Queen of Spain in the congregation. But the real star of Pope Benedict XVI's dedication this morning of the Sagrada Familia cathedral -- now officially a Basilica --  was Antoni Gaudí's modernist masterpiece itself. 

It's hard to describe just how stunning, and unsettling, it is. Begun in 1882, and continued in fits and starts since Gaudí's death in 1926, the Sagrada Familia is still unfinished: work has yet to begin on the Glory facade, and the tallest of the 18 future towers - culminating in the Jesus tower, which will soar 600 feet -- are yet to be built. But what there is already makes a huge impact: viewed from the air, the Sagrada Familia erupts from its surrounding residential blocks like something atomic and raw, an explosion frozen in the act of reaching for God. 

But inside, barring the statues, work is more or less complete, which is why it can be declared fit for worship. Its vast interior -- the cathedral can hold 12,000  -- is like a forest: the columns reach for the golden-palmed canopy like tropical tree trunks, in blues and reds.

It was an early start for the journalists. We were bussed in at 7am, and lodged in one of the balconies overlooking the main nave, with a cold breeze funnelling up the spiral staircases. We followed much of the action on a small screen which, as we waited, lovingly dwelled on the plants, animals, symbols, words and sculptures which adorn the towers and facades -- the most ambitious attempt since Dante at distilling the whole of Catholic teaching in a single work of art.

But you had to be there to behold the transformation: what had been, until just a few months ago, a tourist attraction and building site was now, with a congregation of 6,500 (the limit was imposed for "security reasons"), a choir of 800 and a sea of more than 1,000 clergy, looking much more like a functioning church.

Before the Mass the Pope was  greeted by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia -- he in a dark suit, she in white -- in the museum downstairs; they sat for a few minutes chatting on some chairs designed by Gaudi. Then the King and Queen appeared in the nave, and took their seats on the edge of the sanctuary.

At 10am the Pope in resplendent gold was outside the door at the Passion Facade -- but needed the help of the Archbishop of Barcelona to open it, as the congregation exploded in applause.

The "alleluias" as the Pope entered seemed to come from an angelic chorus -- a dramatic acoustic effect which Gaudí achieved by placing the choir high up on balconies around the transept.

He eventually reached the sanctuary in the company of dozens of cardinals and bishops, taking his place on the cathedra, but not pausing to venerate the altar, which was not yet consecrated.

After Cardinal Lluis Martínez Sistach, Barcelona's archbishop, addressed the Pope, it was the turn of the chief architect, Jordi Bonet, a short, elderly man who looked a little Gaudí in his last years. As he spoke, the sun came out; and, just as in a forest, the rays filtered through the many holes Gaudí had designed for moments such as this, and the light danced across the columns and marble floor. It was hard, where we sat, to hear what Bonet was saying; but he seemed to receive divine congratulations for helping to fulfil Gaudí's vision.

Then the Pope was handed a very large key, which he handed to the priest responsible for opening and closing the Sagrada Familia. He blessed the water, and sprinkled it on the altar -- a vast block of porphyr -- while the choir erupted in song. The Pope prayed for God to be present in this house of prayer, and to purify those present; then he commissioned the readers, praying that "the Word of God resounds always in this place". The readings, from Nehemiah and St Paul, were in Catalan and about books and architecture. The Alleluia picked up the theme: "I have built and consecrated this temple so that my name may live in it always". The Gospel was read in Castilian -- the story of Zacchaeus.

In his homily, the Pope praused Gaudi as a genius and a committed Christian, who lived austerely with the flame of his faith always burning. This act of consecration, he said, was "the high point of the history of Catalonia", which since the end of the nineteenth century "has given an abundance of saints and founders, martyrs and Christian poets".

The Sagrada Familia is without doubt the greatest of the works to have come out of the Renaixsenca, the flowering of Catalan art and architecture at the end of the nineteenth century which Gaudi pioneered but also transcended.

The Pope noted that the cathedral was first the idea of an association dedicated to St Joseph, and that Gaudi, when asked when it would be finished, said that St Joseph would take care of it. It was significant, he added, that this consecration was being carried out by one whose baptismal name was Joseph.

The Pope praised "this massive material structure, fruit of nature and an immense achievement of human intelligence" saying that it stood "as a visible sign of the invisible God, to whose glory these spires rise like arrows pointing towards absolute light and to the One who is Light, Height and Beauty itself".

Gaudí, he said, was inspired by three books which nourished him as both believer and architect: the book of nature, the book of sacred Scripture and the book of the liturgy.  "In this way," he said, "he brought together the reality of the world and the history of salvation, as recounted in the Bible and made present in the liturgy. He made stones, trees and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God, but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God revealed in the birth, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

And it's true: the Sagrada Familia is unsettling because, as well as seeming to be upside down, it is also inside out: the outside is within, and what is interior made external. It is, in this way, a prophetic space -- one that foresaw the breaking down of the barriers between Church and world, God and man, which is at the heart of the Gospel.

Or as Pope Benedict put it: "In this he accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty."

Gaudí did this, he said, by bringing out the beauty of stones, lines, planes, and points. Beauty "is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness."

It wasn't long before Pope Benedict drew on this idea to challenge contemporary society.

This is the great task before us: to show everyone that God is a God of peace not of violence, of freedom not of coercion, of harmony not of discord. In this sense, I consider that the dedication of this church of the Sagrada Familia is an event of great importance, at a time in which man claims to be able to build his life without God, as if God had nothing to say to him. In this masterpiece, Gaudí shows us that God is the true measure of man; that the secret of authentic originality consists, as he himself said, in returning to one’s origin which is God. Gaudí, by opening his spirit to God, was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.

He ended his homily with a summons to rescue the place of the family in contemporary society, and a clear message to a Spanish government which has made the liberalization of abortion one of its signature reforms, along with same-sex marriage. In addition to the many technological social advances, he said, 

... there also need to be moral advances, such as in care, protection and assistance to families, inasmuch as the generous and indissoluble love of a man and a woman is the effective context and foundation of human life in its gestation, birth, growth and natural end. Only where love and faithfulness are present can true freedom come to birth and endure. For this reason the Church advocates adequate economic and social means so that women may find in the home and at work their full development, that men and women who contract marriage and form a family receive decisive support from the state, that life of children may be defended as sacred and inviolable from the moment of their conception, that the reality of birth be given due respect and receive juridical, social and legislative support. For this reason the Church resists every form of denial of human life and gives its support to everything that would promote the natural order in the sphere of the institution of the family.

Then came the litany of the saints, and the sun again came out and danced along the aisles.

I have never before seen the dedication of a church, but I imagine that few ceremonies will ever quite have compared with this one.

The Pope began by taking off his chasuble and anointing the altar with oil of chrism. This was not a mere sprinkling. The Pope had a huge jug of oil and he spread it liberally over the vast altar, going round it until it was pretty much covered. Then  Cardinal Sistachs and the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, together with 10 bishops, took the oil round the church, daubing it on the columns and walls, making messy signs of the Cross as the choir sang, "Happy are those who live in your house, O Lord".

Then a clutch of priests brought up a huge bronze urn of burning coal, which they placed on the oil-smeared altar. The Pope added incense, and soon he was obscured behind great clouds of fragrant smoke. As acolytes moved through the congregation with thuribles, the choir sang: "Let my prayer arise before you like incense."

Then the altar was wiped and a cloth laid on it, followed by candles and flowers and a cross -- and suddenly it looked like an altar on which the Eucharist is consecrated. The Pope lit a candle, praying that the light of Christ "shine in this church so that all may reach the fullness of truth".

And then the lights came on -- glowing reds and greens and blues in the knots of the columns, lighting up the names of the evangelists and the animals which symbolised them. 

Gaudí was not just an architectural genius. He was a liturgical one too.

After that it looked like a normal papal Mass -- only in a church of jaw-dropping beauty and brilliance, in a liturgical space that came closer to God's own creation than anything attempted before in architecture. The distribution of Communion was long, and the emotion and stillness grew. 'Panis Angelicus' sung there was unlike any other 'Panis Angelicus' ever sung.

Then Cardinal Sistachs read the papal bull declaring the Sagrada Familia to be, henceforth, a Basilica. (Barcelona already has a cathedral. The Sagrada Familia will be, like the basilica in Lourdes, a space consecrated for a global congregation).

After the final blessing, the Pope left to pray the Angelus outside the Nativity facade, passing a huge carpet of flowers. The crowd outside clapped and roared their approval, and may even have joined the Pope in prayer.

Then he came back into the Basilica and there was more clapping. The Pope looked exhausted but delighted.

Colleagues here in the press room reckon there were 250,000 lining the streets when the Pope left to return to the Archbishop's Palace for lunch with 150 bishops. Many were waving Vatican flags, as well as Catalan ones -- a dual loyalty which has sometimes proved hard, in Barcelona, to express.

But no one doubted that this was a day in which those two identities merged -- joyfully expressed in the lusty, heartfelt singing at the end of the three-hour Mass of the Rosa d'abril, the hymn to the Virgin of Montserrat, the mother of Catalan identity. 

The greatest work of Catalonia's greatest artist, a visionary set to be declared a saint, was declared fit for worship, and filled with the warmth of prayer and hope.

Barcelona may be one of Europe's most secular cities, famous for its freedoms and hedonism. Now it is also famous for the world's greatest tribute -- certainly its most breathtaking -- to the family of Nazareth -- opened today for worship, by the Pope himself. 



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12 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Austen, for your excellent series on the pope's visit and the consecration and to Fr. Martin for the video.  Both helped me to imagine being there and experienceing the full flowering of the Catholic imagination!  it is an extraordinary church and even though I only had half a day to spend there, it left an indelible impression on me.  I hope the cause of Gaudi's canonization moves forward quickly. 
Thomas Piatak
12 years 11 months ago
Thanks for the detailed coverage of this important event and of the impressive homily from our impressive Pope.
Molly Roach
12 years 11 months ago
In 2004 I was in Barcelona for the Parliament of World Religions and had the privilege to spend a couple of days exploring the Sagrada Familia.  I have never been in a church so alive.  Gaudi's vision is unmatched and this beautiful church is a sign of hope and the sheer energy of God.  Not to mention imagination to die for!

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