A Vacuum in the Spirit

The Design of the Jubilee Church in Rome

by Breda Ennis, appearing in Volume 9

While on my way in the car to see the new church built by Richard Meier on the outskirts of Rome, named 'God the Merciful Father" (in the original Italian, "Dio Padre Misericordioso"), two phrases kept coming into my mind from Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists, in which he remarked: "even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience." He goes on to mention what the Fathers said at the end of Vatican Council II: "This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair." Even to people unfamiliar with Rome, it will surely come as no surprise to learn that the celebrated beauty of the center of Rome bears no resemblance whatever to the city's drab suburbs. As we drove along the Via Prenestina on the way to Tor Tre Teste — the site of the new Meier church — I noticed that the architecture along the way got worse and worse. And, of course, when architecture is dull and drab, it tends to create a vacuum in the spirit. But was this vacuum now about to be filled?

We turned the corner, leading to the incline where the church is situated, and I got my first glimpse of the church. Almost at once, however, I began to feel somewhat perplexed. There in front of me I saw a mass of snow-white concrete walls, both curved and straight, held together by glass and surrounded by a pale paved area and a low wall. I walked with two friends toward the front of the church, but it was not clear, at first, just where we were supposed to enter the church. Looking through the glass façade, the eye comes to rest on the wall which divides the nave from the atrium or narthex, and you think that this cannot be the entrance because you do not immediately see the inner door. The two other entrances are between the curved "sails": one leads to the Day Chapel and the other to the Baptistry area.

When finally we got into the atrium, I found myself in a rectangular space which had, apart from the small geometric holy water font, an inscription on the wall announcing, "This Structure Is a Testament Sacred to the Monumental Work of Men in the Service of Spiritual Aspirations. Richard Meier, Architect." I was surprised by this, not accustomed to seeing the name of the architect so prominently placed in the atrium of the church. To be honest, I rather expected that the inscription might be a quotation either from the Bible or from one of the writings of Pope John Paul II, a text perhaps from his encyclical, "Dives in Misericordia" (published in 1988). The Pope himself had decided that the name of the church should be "God the Merciful Father."

It was a Sunday, and the parish priest, Don Gianfranco Corbino, was celebrating Mass as we entered. We remained quietly at the back of the church, a good place to observe both the people and the building. My first impression of the nave was that it was really rather small. From earlier publicity and publications, I was expecting to find myself in a vast space with seating for about 700 people. Don Corbino confirmed that it holds, in fact, about 300 people only, or 350 if extra chairs are added. The literature on the church states that it holds 500. The parish itself is a mere seven years old. (The people in the parish had originally belonged to a parish nearby.) It has a population of about 8,000 people (many young people and about 2,500 family units).

Before the building of the new church, the parishioners worshipped in a plain, secular space. Needless to say they are delighted to have a church and also happy that their church has provoked so much interest internationally. Many of the visitors are students of architecture with their professors. However, the publicity about this project, upon its completion, has been noticeably limited in Italy — surprisingly so, given the fact that it is a Jubilee Church. When it was consecrated last October, minimum coverage was given by Italian TV and newspapers. Perhaps the fact that no Italian architect was invited to present a project can account for the tepid reaction.

But there could be another reason as well. In 1993, as part of a project to build 50 new churches for the year 2000, a competition was launched (open to all countries which are part of the Direttiva Architettura della Communità Economica Europea) for church and parish building designs. A specific request was made for projects which included a church, a building for parish activities, and accommodation for clergy. A few locations were indicated, among them the area of Tor Tre Teste. There was a massive response — about 534 projects were presented. No project was thought suitable for this particular area, however. The competition ran into difficulties, in part because of the high number of participants and also because of the excessive number of jury members (coming from too many and too varied backgrounds). Criteria were also difficult to establish, and agreement was even more so.

Lessons were learnt after this unhappy episode, and when it was suggested that a church be built to celebrate the Jubilee of the Year 2000, a much smaller commission was established. Only six international architects were invited to present projects, and clear criteria were indicated. It was decided, for example, that the architect chosen for the project would not have to be a Christian believer. And, in the end, the name selected was that of Richard Meier, an architect from New York.

Mass was being celebrated during my first visit, and it soon became clear that there are some serious problems with the acoustics. The priest’s voice was muffled, and bounced off the walls. You heard him and his echo. The same happened when the organist began to play and with the congregational responses. Some technical adjustments have since been made, but it is hard to see how this problem can be completely resolved. The organ itself is a powerful one.

Don Corbino has a very united and active parish. They have published a book of cartoons for children, entitled "Tracce di un cammino" (Traces of a Journey), where the history of the parish is narrated right up to the day the church was consecrated. Numerous gifts were received from other parishes and various associations, e.g., chalices, liturgical vestments, etc. A gift of Pope John Paul II was the awarding of "titular" status to this Jubilee Church, and Cardinal Crescenzo Sepe, prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization, was given the titular title.

When the Mass ended we began to "feel" our way through the church. One thing I love about Roman churches is that, moving from the nave to the sanctuary area, you begin to experience a distinct "change of space." But this did not happen. The altar itself is a block of travertine resembling a boat. It has the relics of twelve saints, including St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, and St. Maria Goretti. The long "bench" to the right of the altar I found quite banal (it reminded me of the benches in train stations). And the box-like ambo did not impress me either. Of course, if you have lived for many years in Rome, and been privileged to enjoy the deluge of color within the ancient city, it can be difficult to accustom yourself to stark interiors and raw geometry.

On the positive side, the name of Le Corbusier comes to mind when you consider certain elements in the church, the profound conical window behind the cross, the clear glass slit running around the church etc. But, walking to the end of the nave, and looking back directly at the altar, you suddenly realize that the beautiful Cross — from the 1600’s, a wooden cross and Christ .gure made of "papier mache," a gift from a nearby parish — is not in line with the altar. I found this really disconcerting especially since the altar is supposed to be the sacramental focal point of the church. It is the symbolic "source of light," from which "rays" stretch out in every direction. But, when the altar and the crucifix are not on the same axis, a visual "tension" is created which is in no way conducive to prayer or contemplation. In relation to the choice of a crucifix for the altar wall, I was curious about the fact that no contemporary artist had been approached to design one. An interior like this would have bene .ted from a crucifix like the one made by Giuliano Vangi for the Cathedral of Padua in 1997. Vangi’s Christ is made of silver, nickel, gold, and bronze.

During my second visit to the church I had a long chat with Don Corbino about the day-to-day life of his church. He told me that thousands of people have come to see it. When I asked him about the cost of running a church of this complexity, he admitted that the income from the parish could not cover the expenses. I saw that he had a severe cold. He told me that the church heating system is under the travertine floor and this means that, apart from being inadequate, it is necessary to turn it on at least ten hours before any ceremony or Mass. This is, of course, apart from the cost of regularly cleaning the vast quantity of glazed windows (for the church and the parish centre). Rome is famous for scirocco winds from the desert — they tend to leave a thin layer of sand on every surface they find, and they are very frequent. So how are they going to keep the glass clean and the costs down? This is a heavy burden, obviously, for the new church and parish of God the Merciful Father — more a misery, I would say, than a mercy!

As one moves towards the sacristy, through an opening to the left of the altar, there is a large display case. Inside is a collection of chalices, a crucifix, candlesticks etc., designed by the Jewellers Bulgari and donated to the church. An extraordinarily beautiful gift. The chalices are an excellent mix of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic influences. Not surprisingly they attracted the attention of many of the visitors. The collection itself is situated immediately behind the altar wall on which the great crucifix is hanging. I wondered, though, why it was put in that position. It would, I think, have been a better idea to have kept the collection somewhere in the sacristy. People looking in from the back of the church can see the sacred objects, as it were, "on show."

The Day Chapel and the Baptistry area are separated from the main nave by an L-shaped wall. These are directly under the massive curved north wall or "sail" and seem to be a little lost in all the pale travertine and white cement. The chapel can seat about 24 people. At the end of the chapel there are the confessionals. I sat down and looked towards the altar. What caught my eye was the tabernacle. It is a golden square with a circular design on the front. Apparently Meier wanted a higher and narrower one. The tabernacle is very beautiful. The front has a circular roughened surface which is pleasant to observe. It is at an angle so that it can be seen from both the main nave and the chapel.

I noticed that the parish has placed a statue of the Madonna in the chapel with a candle holder in front of it. Don Corbino told me that a new statue will be made later. Meier’s iconoclastic tendencies, it would appear, did not seem to encourage him to anticipate the speci.c devotional needs of the parish and parishioners, which is a pity! Some images in color, as an aid to prayer and contemplation, would, perhaps, have been the best idea. Visiting the church one’s mind kept looking back to Le Corbusier’s use of stained glass in his chapel at Ronchamp (1950–54). I found myself re.ecting on some expressions used by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his book entitled Spirit of the Liturgy (1999, Ignatius Press) where in a chapter entitled "A Question of Images," he speaks about iconoclastic tendencies in Sacred Art. He notes: "Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship."

The confessionals are small cubicles with two seats in each one and the doors are made of wood and glass slits, linking up to the design in paneled wood on the vertical south wall of the main nave. This creates a sense of continuity between the two areas of worship. The priest and the parishioner can be clearly seen inside. I understand that an old-style grating confessional will be added to cater for the pastoral needs of those people who do not like the 'face to face' confessional style. Figurative Stations of the Cross are being made, in bronze or stone. The original idea, I understand, was to have each Station represented by a Greek cross.

One of the areas in the church I find most problematic is the baptismal font and where it has been placed. It is just to the left of the nave, in full view of the congregation and the celebrant at the altar. Again it is a rectangular design in travertine, with an indented centre for the holy water, and in front of it there is a small sloped area. You almost fall over it as you move to the side of the nave. I felt that it is too close to the main altar and that it gets lost in the hub of geometrical constructions nearby, i.e., the confessionals, the organ, the day chapel wall, etc. I would have liked to have seen it placed near the entrance door of the "corridor" which leads to the day chapel. The baptismal font is the place where Christians are initiated into the communion of believers. Only after this initiation are they invited to take their place around the main altar. Here, unfortunately, the font and altar are so near together that it is difficult visually to perceive that they represent two distinct stages in the Christian mystery.

Much has been said and written about the three curved walls, or sails. One’s mind goes back immediately to John Utzon’s Sydney Opera House (1957–73), though the latter is a more exuberant and dynamic structure. The feeling I get from the three curved walls is of a building falling in upon itself — even if the parish building and bell tower "lean against" a strong vertical wall which marks the demarcation line between the church and the rest of the complex. The whole structure is visually very analytical and "cubist." When I look at old or new churches I always search for that sense of a breakthrough of the sacred into human experience (on a visual level) — what the Rumanian scholar Mircea Eliade called "hierophany." He says that in developed religious systems there are three cosmic levels — heaven, earth, and the underworld, linked together by the vertical "axis mundi." Church spires, domes and bell towers have this quality, and this is why they are able to soar up above all their surroundings. The Meier church seems to lack this dynamic element. Again I returned, in my mind, to the Le Corbusier church in Ronchamp. In comparison, the Meier church is very rational in its conception, whereas the Le Corbusier church draws you up into its mystical web.

The bells in the tower were cast at the Pontifical Marinelli Foundry and are dedicated as follows: the first and biggest bell to Europe and the Virgin Mary — it contains a list of all normal Jubilees from 1300. The second is dedicated to America and Sts. Peter and Paul, Patron Saints of Rome. The third is dedicated to Africa and St. Charles Borromeo (to honor Pope John Paul II, whose first name is Karlo). The fourth represents Oceania, and is dedicated to St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Thomas Aquinas — the name of the parish which owned the property on which the new church stands. The fifth and last is dedicated to Asia and Sts. Francisco Saverio and Thérèse of Lisieux. Four of the bells list, respectively, the dates of the first baptism, funeral, and wedding in the church, and the date of the laying of the first stone.

When the Vicariato commissioned Meier to construct this church they appointed an Italian engineer, Ignazio Breccia Fratadocchi, to supervise the work. Some modifications were made to Meier's original project. These relate to the parish center only, where some new spaces were created (relating to the actual needs of the parish). The church authorities made some decisions of a functional and economic nature. The auditorium was thought to be too big for the actual needs of the parish. The changes made were to reduce to some extent the overall cost of the entire project. The project was supposed to cost five million dollars, but the final cost ran to over twenty-five million dollars. Much of this high expense came from the extra time and study needed to resolve the problems (and the cost of the solutions) relating to the erection of the curved walls.

Inevitably, a project of this scope and complexity calls for extensive sponsorship. Fortunately, many companies were willing to give funds, materials and engineering expertise. What must not be forgotten are the many religious orders and parishes who did fund raising for this Jubilee church. Proceeds from tickets for the annual Vatican Christmas concert also contribute to the cost of building churches in the outlying areas of Rome.

An Italian company called Italcementi began their connection with the Meier project, as economic sponsors. What is interesting is that they ended by being both economic and technical sponsors. This is because their company got involved in the engineering problems related to mounting the precast blocks. They also proposed a new type of white cement, mixed with Carrara Marble inert, called TX Millenium. This material is long lasting and safe from atmospheric agents, heat, wind, and earthquakes. The construction company was Lamaro Appalti S.p.a., and many other companies were also called in to give technical and material support.

It is clear that even if Italy did not "provide" the architect for this project, it did, however, contribute in an incredibly important way to solving the technical problems relating to the erection of the curved walls. Over two hundred precast blocks (each weighing twelve tons) were used to make the "sails." To put these into place Italcementi invented an enormous skeletal machine which moved on rails. This innovative and massive moving crane was made in the North of Italy. It took three months to assemble and it could not be used if the wind blew at more than 40 km per hour (which happened quite frequently, I believe). Men had to be trained to use this huge machine, which was six meters higher than the tallest curved wall. It took seven months to mount the first curved wall, five months to mount the second, and six months to mount the third. Meier's original design anticipated that the mounting of the precast blocks would be quicker, at the rate of four blocks per day.

What is so marvelous about many Italian companies is that they do not come to a halt when technical problems present themselves. If no solution can be found using an external source, they try to invent a system or a machine that can do this.

The church authorities were fortunate in finding a strong sponsor like the Italcementi Group. It was clearly important to build a church which would last over time (like the old basilicas) and would not go to ruin after a short time (like many modern buildings). Some technical problems relating to stability and materials presented themselves and, as a result, a group of Italian engineers worked, in collaboration with Meier, to find a way to erect the curved walls and find a material that would stand the test of time and weather. This explains why the project was not finished for the Jubilee year and also why the costs were so high.

Driving back into the center of Rome, after my last visit to Tor Tre Teste, I found that there were still some questions in my mind concerning the Meier church. The Pope's Letter to Artists spoke of the need for "beauty in order not to sink into despair." But does the Meier church answer to this need? Certainly, there are elements in the church which aspire to that austere beauty, that austerity of form so often exalted by certain extreme modernist and contemporary tendencies. But what about the people visiting and worshipping there on a regular basis? In what way does the Meier church, as a work of architecture, as a construction in the Roman suburbs, help to fill "the vacuum in the spirit?" Can the building be described, perhaps, as a fine edifice in its own right, but not particularly suitable as a building for sacred worship?

At a time when contemporary culture and the Church can often seem far apart, Pope John Paul II has suggested that art can serve as "a kind of bridge to religious experience." I agree wholeheartedly. But I doubt very much if the Meier Church succeeds in being that kind of bridge. After several visits to "Dio Padre Misericordioso," my impression is that, if the building can be described in any sense as a "bridge." it is a bridge which serves simply to lift us up, or bring us into one of the zones of the (by now) familiar modernist enterprise.