Editorial: In Persona Christi Capitis

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 30

“By the power of the sacrament of Orders, in the image of Christ, the eternal high Priest, they are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship, so that they are true priests of the New Testament.”
—Lumen Gentium, 28

As buildings get more complex, owners hire individuals to assist them in working with the architect and contractor. These individuals, who often have a background in architecture or construction, are termed “owner’s representatives” because their role is to help make projects run more smoothly. So when a young pastor without construction experience undertakes a project, he might hire someone to advise him and to whom he can delegate some of the work. However, he may end up delegating away some decisions that he should not and therefore limit the quality of this sermon in stone.

Universities, corporations, and the government often have their own in-house building department due to the amount of construction that they do. My father had a wonderful career travelling the world and monitoring construction for the U.S. State Department. In the Church also some dioceses have a building department whose role is to assist the pastors and look out for the interests of the bishop, usually in minimizing construction errors and cost. Typically the diocesan staff is there to offer advice, to suggest alternative ways of building, and to monitor the work of architects and engineers. The difficulty comes when, in order to prove their worth, staffers go beyond their role and try to make aesthetic, liturgical, or construction decisions for the pastor or architect. When questioned they can always point to projects from the past, such as when Father Sarducci spent millions on Saint Mary’s and the diocese had to pay it off, or when Monsignor McGillicuddy built a hall at Saint Joe’s that is falling down. So the diocesan staffers help to monitor architectural decisions by priests and prevent them from making dumb mistakes. In extreme cases the department has a list of favorite architects, legal agreements, and standard fees that can not be challenged by the pastor or the architect. “This is how we always do it. Take it or leave it,” they say. Particularly painful for some is that after helping the parish cut costs the department charges the parish a fee.

It might surprise some bishops to learn that their building department has become all-powerful and that their priests live in fear of them. While some diocesan staffers tell me that their goal is to get out of the way so the pastor and architect can design a good building, others believe that when it comes to architecture the priest works for them. Does this make sense? Why are laity in the chancery determining who the architect is, how much the pastor can spend, and what the design looks like? Do the bishops know what is being decided in their name? If we consider that the purpose of architecture, whether churches, schools, parish halls, or rectories, is to serve the Church, we understand it as part of her sacred mission. Pastors are responsible for this sacred mission and presumably understand it better than most laypersons, even those with construction experience. On the other hand it is true that pastors may not have experience in the practical side of architecture, but that is what the architect is for.

So what can bishops do? First, trust your priests, who are the shepherds of the flock and entrusted with the salvation of souls. Give them the authority and encouragement to take on building projects for the glory of God and the service of man. Emphasize that architecture is integral to a sacramental faith and the ministry of the priest. Challenge the pastors to educate themselves in architecture and find ways to design, fundraise, and build a building that will best serve their flock. Second, get them to hire talented architects. Third, consider how the diocesan office can best serve the pastor in these expensive projects. With their experience the staff should help the pastor to understand the process of design and construction so that it goes more smoothly. They should respect the authority of the pastor as the leader and respect the role of the architect as directing the design. They should encourage both priest and architect to think in terms of durability and quality in regard to materials and methods of construction.

What if the bishop left it up to the pastor’s discretion whether or not to involve the diocesan experts? That might encourage the diocesan building department to provide services that pastors find worthwhile rather than just being a regulatory agency. To enable the pastor and his architect to do the finest job possible within the parish’s means is the goal. And as much as the diocesan office advises or recommends, in the end it is the shepherd who will be held responsible for spending the funds and constructing a building that will be there for decades to come.