Editorial: Ecclesiam Aedificat Eucharistia

On this foundation [of the Eucharistic Liturgy] a rich artistic heritage also developed. Architecture, sculpture, painting and music, moved by the Christian mystery, have found in the Eucharist, both directly and indirectly, a source of great inspiration. —Ecclesia de Eucharistia

Just as the Cathedral liturgy is meant to be an example for the diocese so too should be the art and architecture of the Cathedral. One of the many roles for the diocesan bishop is to promote Catholic art and architecture. New construction, restoration and beautification are all ways in which a bishop can lead by example. He can also take a personal interest in the harmony, beauty and iconography of new buildings in his diocese (and for which he is ultimately responsible). However, some bishops feel that their hands are tied when dealing with parishes that have limited funds and a purely functional vision. They may also feel that subsidiarity means that a parish should be allowed to hire the architects and design the buildings in the way they see fit. Alternatively, there are bishops who, by fiat or by virtue of those they put in charge of diocesan offices, promote novelty or banality in new church architecture.

If managing the physical plant of a diocese is difficult, how much more trying for the bishop of Rome who must lead the worldwide Church. Benedict XVI has inherited the seat of Peter at a time of great challenges and hope. He is a theologian of first rank who has written and spoken widely on issues of liturgy and architecture. For this reason we are including a chapter on architecture from his seminal The Spirit of the Liturgy. As a cardinal he promoted the reform of the reform as well as supported the use of Latin in the mass of Paul VI, traditional music, as well as the Mass of Pius V. Some have suggested Benedict XVI may write the first encyclical on the Liturgy in forty years. If so, it might give the Holy Father an opportunity lay out a vision of art and architecture for this new Millenium.

Benedict XVI follows the papacy of John Paul the Great during whose reign we saw a renewal of interest in the tradition of Catholic sacred art and architecture. How did this happen? In general, I believe it was a response to the persona of the Pope and his clear devotion to the Blessed Sacrament more than anything that he said or wrote specifically on architecture. An important early intervention of Pope John Paul II was to set up adoration chapels in all of the major basilicas in Rome. This Eucharistic focus led him to comment on the central placement of the tabernacle on the wall behind the altar at St. Matthias in Rome: “The design draws the eye of the person entering immediately to the Eucharist, the center and focal point of all the church’s worship.” During his pontificate there was a veritable revival of Eucharistic adoration, formation of new religious orders with that charism and the construction of numerous adoration chapels. From the Porziuncola at Franciscan University to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama these chapels have reconnected with the rich tradition of sacred art and architecture. This great Eucharistic awakening also translated into passionate arguments on both sides of the rail as to the location of the blessed sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. Liturgists and theologians notwithstanding, the pure but naïve common folk had the audacity to pick up Vatican II or the General Instruction on the Roman Missal for the first time and actually read then. And then these non-theologians had the holy audacity to argue with liturgical design experts, pastors and even their architects about the centrality of the tabernacle. With the revised General Instruction and its emphasis on locating the tabernacle “in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” and allowance for placing it in the sanctuary (including on an old high altar) these faithful have been vindicated. After the tabernacle, the next step was to reconsider the design and location of other elements in the church, and the design of churches themselves. And though the liturgical and church architecture establishment is desperately trying to hold onto power, the faithful are increasingly requesting churches that are traditional houses of God rather than community centers.

John Paul II’s Letter to Artists offered a dramatic vision of the necessity of beauty, indeed of its power to save the world. Photographs of his pilgrimages to countries far and wide showed him kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament or a revered icon of the Virgin. One of the most moving events was his reinstitution of the papal mass and procession from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major on the feast of Corpus Domini. This was a chance to sanctify the City of Rome and for the faithful to experience the pilgrimage boulevards on foot as they were intended. He visited the parishes of the Eternal City including many modern churches on the periphery and after one such visit he made the famous remark “There is little sense of the sacred in these modern churches.” His own patronage of the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Vatican palace was intended to signal through its design and integration of Byzantine style mosaics the desire and ability of the Roman Church to incorporate the traditions and iconography of the East. A major aspect of his pontificate was the preparation for and experience of the Jubilee of Jubilees in the year 2000. Churches all over the world created Holy Doors and pilgrims were offered indulgences to visit holy places. Rome itself was at its best: buildings and artwork were restored, streets were clean and churches great and small beckoned to the faithful and to the curious to enter and find there heavenly consolation. For the millions who came to Rome for John Paul’s funeral and the hundreds of millions who saw it on television it was an example of the power of the liturgy and the architecture of the basilica of St. Peter to give an appropriate gravitas to the seat of Peter. And is it not remarkable that he departed for his heavenly consolation during this year of the Eucharist. Totus Tuus.

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