Editorial: Rerum Supernarum Signa et Symbola

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 6

Further, the buildings and requisites for worship should be truly worthy and beautiful, signs and symbols of heavenly realities. Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani

It is often said that when times get tough, people get religion. This used to mean that people would return to church, and the stories of this after the calamity last September are instructive. Priests like firemen and policemen rushed to the scene at the same time that all sane people rushed away. And some of these sane yet overwhelmed people found themselves entering the doors of a church perhaps for the first time in years. Catholic churches were natural destinations notwithstanding the fact that they are normally open as places of prayer and refugium peccatorum. How many sheep returned to the shepherd in the weeks following the terrorism of the World Trade Center and how much did the beauty, warmth and sacramentality of our churches help facilitate it? How many prodigal sons and even older brothers returned to their father during quiet meditation in front of the son whose body was broken for them or during the heavenly banquet in which saints and angels were seen to participate? It may be difficult to really know.

There are those who have seen more seasons than I who say that when the economy slows, people build churches. Given the church building boom of the past five years it is hard to believe that church construction could increase any more. Yet it may be so. Let us hope that just as in other areas of life the present trials will cause us to reflect and even to re-think the identity of the buildings we call church. What kind of church offers solace to the sinner, comfort to the dying, and hope to the sick? Is it not a place of harmony, of salvation stories etched in glass and marble, of a radiant light which emanates from the ark of the covenant? Like a hearth which we gather around when we are cold and to which we often become entranced by the delicate flickering of the flames is the golden tabernacle. All of us are embattled by sin, sickness and death and the house of the Church reminds of this in its timeless manifestation of those heroes and heroines who have been through it all and have endured til the end. Martyrs holding instruments of their death and mystics gazing upon the sensual beauty of their mother or their bridegroom welcome us into our spiritual home. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and in their presence we are attracted to higher ideals, realizing that our bellies should not be our masters, and offering us the opportunity to be changed in some small way.

Life is serious business and religion is more so. Many of us were brought to our senses by the senselessness of the destruction of many lives on the tip of Manhattan. Once again we must raise tall towers in boldness and in faith. But not the abstract towers of commerce nor the skyline of human babel. Those are easy to construct with their transient symbolism and material remuneration, workshops for many but a home for none. And let us reject the impulse to invert these cathedrals of commerce into commercialized Cathedrals, where the pitiful art and architecture which serves the temporal needs of corporations is employed by the eternal institution. This is the legacy of the past half century, with its adulation of the progress of science and technology. A new century offers us a chance to return to our senses and reemploy an architecture that speaks to our senses in a profound way. We have had our eyes narrowly focused on ourselves, beautiful creations but not the ultimate beauty, and now we must broaden our vision upward and outward. An architecture which helps raise our hearts and minds to heaven, which indicates where our treasure should be not by ignoring heaven but by intimating it. A transcendent architecture welcomes all people with a generosity of space, volume and elaboration in a way that any great office building, museum or sports arena can only offer a pale imitation of. And while the church building offers us peace, joy and hope it also implicitly asks something of us, and our response to the saints, the eucharist and the resurrection is to offer hope to the world.