Church buildings are one of the great public signs of the presence of the Church itself. There are other signs as well – the Catholics who live out their faith day by day, the Church that speaks to the culture both affirming and criticizing what is going on. The Church building, however, is one of those concrete signs (no pun intended) that speaks to all with eyes to see 24/7.
Now the building speaks because there are people to see it and hear it. Architects write about the “etiquette” of a building. By this, they mean the way that people can best participate in the building so that it serves them. The famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier said: “space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” So the space, the light, and the order of the Church building have a particular goal. At best, they are to bring the community that gathers there to a union of appetites and physical postures around Jesus Christ.
Now in a very strong sense, Jesus Christ provides the space, the light, and the order of the community experience. So at least in theory, we could have this experience in a barn. Nevertheless, we all of us need all of the help we can get from the Church building to be united in Christ and not to being distracted about whether I switched off the oven or deposited the checks at the bank. The altar, the pulpit, the windows, the baptistery, and so on speak to our senses and calm them, as well as get them in line for this one experience, meeting Christ in the Eucharist. Now the Church has a well developed tradition of building architectural spaces that performs these functions. Almost two thousand years of this disciplined approach to church building suffered major setbacks in the sixties and seventies when people began to apologize for being Catholic and to think that secular styles “must” be better than the architectural traditions of the Church.
Space and light and order
Sharp angles and disruptive shapes from that period kept us on edge throughout the celebration of the Eucharist. Many churches were designed by non-Catholics and so were simply a hodgepodge of interesting secular elements – glass doors, a crystal bowl for the consecrated hosts, sound systems that approach that of a sound stage, and so on. Those were and are not “the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”
Corbusier may not have always pulled it off in his designs, but he knew that human beings would be using his buildings. One can say that the architectural tradition of the Church has known the same thing all along. It knows how to draw people into the liturgical experience. The traditional architectural forms, such as the nave and transept, high – even vaulted – ceilings, windows that show the saints or scenes from Scripture, all of these things help our spirits and our bodies, our minds and our wills, attain that focus that we do not perhaps even want, looking as we do for distractions even when we are driving. The human being is brought into a liturgical celebration which is the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Humanity meets the humanity of Christ, now glorified. But as a man he suffered for our salvation.
This is where the church building gains its profound dignity. As Aquinas reminded us, in speaking of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others.” Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by ‘His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three – the Word, a soul, and flesh,’ as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii),” (ST III q.1 a. 1). So even the building is a signal that the Incarnation has happened. God has communicated his wondrous good to us in Christ. This communication continues in this building, which is the precious site of the celebration of the sacraments, and of moments of silent prayer before the Blessed Eucharist. The church building, by its designed respect for the multidimensional mess that is the human being, schools us to a focus on the central moment in human history: when God died for his people. This is the sign that we come across on little side roads and great boulevards, when we see a Church. God has entered history and even on the little country road in the backwoods of Virginia, I am reminded of that wonder, when I see a Catholic Church.