Envision, if you will, the perfect Catholic church building. For some this would be an exercise of the imagination, one that takes into account the person’s idea of the sacred, of beauty, of practicality. For others it may be an exercise of the memory, recalling the space, sight-lines, colors of a particularly fine chapel or church. Individual taste, remembrance of a particular religious experience, personal history, the tradition of a communityall have a part to play in this envisioning exercise. But real-world considerations will intrude into this ideal vision, because we do not live in a perfect world. Our ideal church building must necessarily fall short of our own vision.
Were we to share our vision with others who have imagined alongside us, we would find similarities but also differences, perhaps even conflicting ideals.
For the Catholic bishops of the United States, envisioning the ideal church building is a practical challenge of some urgency. During their November meeting in Washington, D.C., they issued a set of guidelines entitled Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship (www.nccbuscc.org). It is a 108-page statement covering many aspects of church design. It is theological in tone, reflecting on Catholic sacramental and spiritual tradition. It takes into account the great variations among American Catholics, but it will satisfy no one completely. It is almost as if the bishops themselves each tried to envision the ideal church building, shared their visions and then compromised, knowing that we do not live in a perfect world.
Pastors and parish leaders, who will have to implement the guidelines in building and renovating their churches, have their own visions too, as do their parishioners. As a result, practicality, compromise and Christian charity must be paramount in the planning of new or renewed buildings.
Too often in the past, church renovations or a new church have caused factionalism rather than unity. Liturgical wars is not too strong a phrase to use to describe the invectives hurled from all sides. When the positioning of the tabernacle in the church becomes the occasion for such claims as You don’t understand the Eucharist or You don’t believe in the Real Presence, it is clearly time for both sides to call time-out and pray quietly. Allegations of heresy and stupidity are not at all helpful. Patience, charity and compromise are. If the neuralgic issues can be surmounted, a parish community will have the opportunity to come together on a project of immense pastoral significance.
Ideally, the church building will be well suited to the parish assembly’s celebration of the Eucharist. It will be welcoming, it will be an expression of the faith tradition of the parish, and it will serve as a teaching tool for the new members of the community. If possible, it will have a separate chapel for quiet adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
We applaud, for instance, a parish in the South that has made imaginative use of glass, light and technology in the construction of a Blessed Sacrament chapel, separate from the sanctuary, but visible from the entire church. During the celebration of the Eucharist, it is a particularly comfortable place for parents and small children, who have an unobstructed view of the altar. Likewise a parish in Ohio, which had the opportunity to include some memorial statuary near the entrance of a new church, asked the children and young people of the parish who they wanted represented. And their suggestions were followed. So an expression of the faith tradition of a community is carved in stone and itself becomes a sign to the next generation. The sense of ownership is shared with the young, who are, after all, the hope of a parish.
In those areas of the United States where the church is growing and new parishes are being founded, there is often a strong desire on the part of the community to provide a sacred space. A meeting hall or a temporary structure is not enough. Once the church building is up, it becomes a visible symbol of the community. The presence of a visible, clearly recognizable and distinct church building for Catholics is a magnet for some who have drifted away and serves as a beacon for others who might wish to learn about Catholicism. In such cases, it is the building itself that serves as a sign of the community.
This community is, of course, the true temple of living stone, constructed of people committed in Christ to lives praising God, loving our neighbors and serving our world. To tear apart this living temple while building one of stone is an exercise in self-mutilation and scandal. We live in a time of architectural and theological development. Experimentation should be allowed while at the same time traditions should be respected. Ultimately, we must admit that there is no ideal church, just as there is no ideal Christian except Christ himself. The rest of us muddle through and do the best we can, some more beautifully than others, but we are all loved by God. So too Christ will join us wherever we gather in his name to worship his Father, no matter the building, as long as we love one another.