Built of Living Stones 16-18: The Church Building

Chapter One’s second heading, “The Church Building,” covers heavily footnoted ground:

§ 16 § Just as the term Church refers to the living temple, God’s People, the term church also has been used to describe “the building in which the Christian community gathers to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, and celebrate the eucharist.” (RDCA II, 1) That building is both the house of God on earth (domus Dei) and a house fit for the prayers of the saints (domus ecclesiae). Such a house of prayer must be expressive of the presence of God and suited for the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, as well as reflective of the community that celebrates there.

So there is a careful balance that must be maintained. A church must convince believers and seekers and visitors alike that God is present, but it must also possess something that tells people about the community that lives its prayer life there.

§ 17 § The church is the proper place for the liturgical prayer of the parish community, especially the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday. It is also the privileged place for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and reservation of the Eucharist for Communion for the sick. Whenever communities have built houses for worship, the design of the building has been of critical importance. (Cf. CCC, 2691; Cf. RDCA, TC, 6.) Churches are never “simply gathering spaces but signify and make visible the Church living in [a particular] place, the dwelling of God” among us, now “reconciled and united in Christ.” (CCC 1180) As such, the building itself becomes “a sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects the Church dwelling in heaven.” (RDCA I, 2; Cf. canon law 1214) Every church building is a gathering place for the assembly, a resting place, a place of encounter with God, as well as a point of departure on the Church’s unfinished journey toward the reign of God.

I like what BLS has to say about design. Churches are not only places where God gathers people. God gathers people in all sorts of ways. I like the two important qualities the Catechism brings out. Christ must be experienced in the qualities of reconciliation (I suspect a rather larger ambit than the sacrament of Penance) and unity.

I also like the notion of pilgrimage brought into this discussion. Inasmuch as we are pilgrims, the grandest building we construct is a mere tent, only a waystation compared to the final experience of the reign of God.

That said, you can’t just pitch a tent. Art and architecture work together to enhance and define the ars celebrandi, the art of celebration:

§ 18 § Churches, therefore, must be places “suited to sacred celebrations,” “dignified,” and beautiful. (RDCA II, 3) Their suitability for worship is determined by their ability through the architectural design of space and the application of artistic gifts to embody God’s initiative and the community’s faithful response. Church buildings and the religious artworks that beautify them are forms of worship themselves and both inspire and reflect the prayer of the community as well as the inner life of grace. (Cf. Liturgiam Authenticam 12, 16) Conversely, church buildings and religious artifacts that are trivial, contrived, or lack beauty can detract from the community’s liturgy. Architecture and art become the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the local community, that of preparing human hearts to receive God’s word and to enter more fully into communion with God. (CCC 1098)

That last Catechism footnote also contains this caution: It is for this reason that Sacrosanctum Concilium (nos. 14-17, and 129) maintains that a firm education in liturgical theology and in the historical development of the arts is central to seminary education.

These sections provide some real meat for discussion. I could see a parish committee spending an entire meeting, or even a workshop getting to the local expression of these principles. What do you see?

All texts from Built of Living Stones are copyright © 2000, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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