Editorial: Venite et Videbitis

The more the Church grew into the Eucharistic mystery, the more she understood that she could not consummate the celebration of Communion within the limited time available in the Mass.—Benedict XVI

What is it that makes a Catholic church different from other churches? I remember asking myself this question as a graduate student in architecture school. On a cold and dreary day I visited the Dominican church of St. Mary in New Haven. What is it that would draw people in to make a visit, say a prayer, or even stay for a while in this massive Gothic pile? Huge stairs challenged me to come in. “There is something important up here,” they seemed to say. Upon entry, the architecture was generous, grand, and with a sense of the beautiful. The lofty and colorful vaulted nave and side aisles with their bundled colonnettes and stained glass were complex and offered a glimpse into a shadowy mystery.

Musty smells, lingering incense, flickering candles, and imagery made me aware of the sacredness of the place. Elements such as side altars, statues, paintings, stations of the cross, wood confessionals, and pews seemed familiar even though I had never seen them before. I was moved by the beautiful and strange works of art. I felt I was in the Father’s house and I felt safe, cared for, and a bit in awe.

Later, a fellow student told me that what differentiates a Catholic church from all other churches is that God is present there at all times: in the Eucharist, reserved in the tabernacle. This was a novel thought to me, having grown up going to contemporary multipurpose churches where the reserved Eucharist was hidden away and housed in a brass box. I asked a priest I respected whether what distinguished a Catholic house of God from other churches was that God was truly present in the reserved host. He told me no. But I continued to wonder why some Catholic churches seemed so holy.

At the recent Synod on the Eucharist in Rome, the bishops expressed concern that people do not have correct faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. How much has this lack of belief been caused by the design of modern churches and the treatment of the tabernacle?

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his book God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life writes, “During the day our churches should not be allowed to be dead houses, standing empty and seemingly useless.” Our churches are not to be used simply for an hour a day, but they are places of prayer and we should fill them. The devout Simeon, who was waiting to see the salvation of Israel, and the prophetess Anna, who worshipped in the temple night and day, rejoiced at Christ’s presentation in the Temple. They would be jealous of us who have the opportunity to be in his presence every day.

Pope Benedict sees our churches as calling us and inviting us in. Jesus Christ beckons to us through art, architecture, and material goods to enter in and worship. The oval piazza of St. Peter in Rome is one of the finest examples of how the exterior of the church building can be an invitation to the mysteries inside. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, responsible for the design, wrote that “since the church of St. Peter is the mother of nearly all the others it had to have colonnades, which would show it as if stretching out its arms maternally to receive Catholics, so as to confirm them in their faith, heretics, to reunite them to the Church, and infidels, to enlighten them in the true faith.” The house of God should beckon us, draw us in, and offer us an image of the eternal and real presence of the Lord. This should be done by employing the time tested principles of sacred architecture rather than with the profane aesthetic and commercial tricks of shopping centers, country clubs, or multiplexes.

Pope Bendedict again: “Jesus Christ’s invitation is always being proffered from [our churches]. This sacred proximity to us is always alive in them. It is always calling us and inviting us in. This is what is lovely about Catholic churches, that within them there is, as it were, always worship, because the Eucharistic presence of the Lord dwells always within them.” This worship continues outside of the liturgy, and we should participate in that worship through prayer, adoration, and by honoring Christ through noble and beautifully designed tabernacles and their surroundings. It was for this reason that St. Charles Borromeo, among others, advocated the enlargement and centrality of the holy tabernacle and its joining with the Eucharistic altar at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and in the cathedral and churches of the archdiocese of Milan. The eternal flame or sanctuary lamp hanging near the tabernacle is the sign of the fire of love that dwells within this miniature temple. The worship of Christ present is also articulated by other types of iconography: praying angels, images of the saints and martyrs who offered their bodies towards Christ’s one sacrifice. The saints and angels along with the faithful of all lands are part of that worship. The heavenly host and the heavenly banquet have historically been represented in our churches—a thesis recently articulated in Denis McNamara’s brilliant new book, Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago.

So even when the historic architecture of other Christian traditions is inspiring or even imitates the splendors of two millennia of Catholic tradition, it is the Eucharist reserved that sets apart the Catholic church or chapel as a sacred place. This is why people cross themselves as they pass a church, why they genuflect as they enter their seats, and kneel to pray in Christ’s presence. If the theological truth of God’s real presence in the tabernacle is believed by the faithful and church architecture reflects the fact that we are in the presence of the Almighty then it will cause us to rethink how we comport ourselves in church, how we relate to others and show reverence for Him who offered himself on the cross. The Lord is always there:

When, thus, the eternal light was lit in the Church, and the tabernacle installed beside the altar, then it was as if the bud of the mystery had opened, and the Church had welcomed the fullness of the Eucharistic mystery. The Lord is always there. The church is not just a space in which something sometimes happens early in the morning, while for the rest of the day it stands empty, ‘unused’. There is always the ‘church’ in the church building, because the Lord is always giving himself, because the Eucharistic mystery remains present, and because we, in approaching it, are always included in the worship of the whole believing, praying and loving Church. (Benedict XVI [Joseph Ratzinger], God is Near)

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