Editorial: Domus Dei et Porta Coeli

Yet this does not take away from the fact tha4 just as time can be marked by Kairoi, by special moments ofgrace, space too may by analogy bear the stamp ofparticular saving actions of God. I have a strong desire to go personally to pray in the most important places which, from tlze Old to the New Testament, have seen Gods interventions, whick culminate in the mysteries of the Incarnation and of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.
-John Paul 11, Letter Concerning Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation

The lively discussion of the draft document on architecture, domus Dei, held by the American bishops last November highlights the growing interest in sacred architecture in the Third Millennium. A significant portion of their remarks dealt with the placement of one of the smallest elements within the church, the tabernacle. Most of the bishops spoke passionately about the tabernacle as the site of the Real Presence of God, and recommended that it return to a prominent and central position in our churches. And in reaffirming the location of the Presence of Christ in the reserved sacrament, we also understand that the building which holds the tabernacle would be called the “house of God.” Certainly, Christians throughout the ages have thought as much, calling their churches by the Latin, domus Dei. Recently I was reminded of this when I visited the magnificent Cathedral of St. Paul, in the Minnesota city of the same name, built by the great patron of architecture, Archbishop John Ireland, in 1906. Over the north transept doors, he and his architect Masqueray had the inscription placed, “Truly this is none other than the house of God and gate of heaven.” Yet, from early Christian times the church has also been called a house of the Church, or domus Ecclesia, and from this understanding it derives its vernacular names: eglise, igreja, iglesia, chiesa, kirche, and church. The terms domus Dei and domus Ecclesia are time honored and should be seen as complementary descriptions of our church buildings. If we think about it, the house of the Church must be by definition also the house of the Church’s bridegroom and head, Jesus Christ. Perhaps the greatest criticism of recent church architecture is that it usually does not even come close to expressing the idea of domus much less domus Dei or domus Ecclesia.

I believe that understanding the concept of church as domus Dei is fundamental to a reappropriation of Catholic architecture in the new millennium. It is not difficult to imagine the difference in emphasis the architect will give to the building whether he considers it a shelter space or a house. What then of the priorities of the parishioners and tl- building committee whether they speak of constructing a “worship space” or a “house of God”? “House of God” reminds us for whom we build it, and puts the priority on building a temple worthy of Him who fills the heavens. The house of God is the place where we go to meet Christ, most especially in the Eucharist, but also in the Word of Goi in the sacraments and in our brothers and sisters. In a time when we suffer from secularization and cornmercialization, a well-built and beautiful monument to the saving work of Jesus Christ is truly countercultural.

Conceiving of the church as a domus Dei protects us against the overly functional view of the building as mere shelter or the subjective interpretation by an architect or building committee. If the church is the domus Dei, it will not sacrifice the architecture and iconography in order to have more seating, cry and usher rooms, or maximum square footage. Considering the theology of the church building before starting a design will inspire the parish to seek to use the fine; materials they can afford, and gives an incentive for building something as good as other buildings they admire.

What does the name domus Dei imply in architectural terms? The domus Dei is beautiful, spacious and mysterious in imitation of Him who is prophet, priest and king. It will be inviting yet awesome, fit for the King of Kings yet we coming to the rich and the poor, a house for both saint and sinner. Isn’t it a bit disconcerting to visit churches built in recent years dedicated to “Christ the King” which have all of the character of a gymnasium’? A house fit for God does not necessarily mean it should be ornate, but it certainly should be strikingly beautiful. And it will employ the best that we can give. Is it not reasonable to think of house of the Lord as the most beautiful house in town?

How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. Genesis 28:17.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.