Editorial: Vocatio Architecti

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable.”
John Paul II, Letter to Artists

One of the reasons that we are amazed by the beauty of architectural masterpieces is that they appear to go beyond the ability of mortals to conceive them. Their harmony and proportions seem to have been constructed by angels. In order to bring to fruition these sacred works, ranging from the nave of Amiens Cathedral to the exterior of San Vincent de Paul in Los Angeles, many hills have to be climbed.

The unique involvement of the patron, the limitations of materials or craftsmanship, the large sums of money required and the length of years necessary for construction have historically distinguished architecture from her sister arts, painting and sculpture. In addition, the modem architect must also work with zoning boards, building committees, finance committees and Offices of Worship, which only complicates matters further. All the more reason to laud all new buildings which express the ineffable through their materials and composition.

But what is the purpose of the sacred building, or of any building for that matter? As an architect, one serves the client by creating something for his or her needs and taste, working diligently to construct a building within a budget and time frame. But for the Catholic architect, mere professionalism is not enough. It is necessary also to create an architecture about which people can remark, “I am moved, for truly God is in that place.” The Catholic architect understands that after the patron, the zoning board, the building committee and the Bishop, his ultimate patron is the Father above, to whom he must eventually answer. So we ask, shouldn’t the work of architecture please God in the same way as the heartfelt prayers of a saint, a sacrificial gift to the poor, sung Gregorian chant, or the “Fiat” of the Virgin?

Designing a church can be likened to painting an icon, which is a spiritual act, done with prayer and fasting. The church building itself is not unlike a well conceived sermon or a theological text, both of which must communicate the message entrusted by Christ, to a diverse group of people. To conceive, design, and construct a building for worship is itself a holy act—and to be involved in this holy act is a great privilege for an architect. The architect imitates the Creator while asking the Holy Spirit to inspire his drawings and models. It has been said that the teacher will be judged more harshly than the student, and insofar as architecture can teach the faith of the Apostles and direct our actions in prayer and liturgy, the architect will certainly be judged by his fruits.

Finally, just as priests, religious, and all the baptized are called to be perfect, so the architect is called to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. Our work in designing churches, schools, hospitals, airports and homes must always be of the highest standard—both temporal and eternal. By designing and building edifices for commodious use, durable construction and incredible beauty we both imitate and serve the Divine Architect. This is a humbling idea for many, especially those of us who have been trained to see architecture as self-expression rather than as “a noble ministry.”

Blessed Angelico and Saint Barbara pray for us.

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