Serving the Church Through Architecture

by The Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, appearing in Volume 27

This is the text of Bishop Rhoades’ presentation to the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame on October 29, 2014. It is printed here with permission.

I am very grateful for the invitation to speak to you today. I speak not as an expert in architecture, but I speak as a bishop of the Church about your service of the Church through architecture, a service for which I am deeply grateful. Your School of Architecture is renowned for its service of the Church in not only preserving, but in fostering anew, the Church’s rich tradition of sacred architecture. You serve the Church through architecture in a variety of ways. Through architecture, you can serve the Church’s mission of the proclamation of the Word of God, the teaching of the faith, and the New Evangelization through beauty. You serve the Church’s liturgy and prayer. And you serve the Church’s mission of charity. I hope this talk will help you to see how you serve the Church in all these ways.

Saint Mary Church interior from 1880, Lebanon, Pennsylvania (destroyed).

The Second Vatican Council insisted on the unique character of the vocation of the laity: the vocation to “seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them to the plan of God.”1 When this vocation is lived out in the architectural profession, when men and women of faith become architects who see their work as a call from God, when they are led by the spirit of the Gospel, their lives and their work can contribute to the sanctification of the world. It becomes a participation in God’s work of creation and is also a means of growth in holiness. The Second Vatican Council taught about the universal call to holiness, a call rooted in Baptism. This call to holiness, of course, requires each of us to follow Jesus Christ, to pray, to listen to the Word of God, to participate in the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life, and to practice the commandment of love in all the circumstances of our life. This call to holiness is also related to one’s profession. It is not lived apart from or separate from one’s profession. Whatever one’s profession, when one’s life is one of faith, hope, and charity—lived also in the workplace—it contributes to the building up of the Church, the communion of saints. Those in the profession of architecture can quite literally contribute to the building up of the Church by building sacred places. They build places where the community of faith gathers to listen to the Word of God and to celebrate the sacraments. Sacred architecture can be a powerful instrument for the New Evangelization, especially through beauty. It can help build and nurture faith.

I’d like to give an example of this from my own personal experience. I grew up in a small city: Lebanon, Pennsylvania. My parish was called Saint Mary’s; its official title was Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish. The parish church affected my own life of faith and growth in the faith as a child. My home parish was founded in 1810 and its original church, like so many in the early years of the Catholic Church in the Northeast and Midwest, was a quite simple brick church, yet quite beautiful inside. By the 1870s, because of immigration, the church became too small. The second church was built and dedicated in 1880. Like so many Catholic churches at that time, it was a beautiful testament to the faith and sacrifices of the immigrant Catholics. It was a beautiful Gothic structure. Upon each side of the church were towers terminating in octagonal spirses 132 feet high, topped with gilt crosses. The church was built right in the center of downtown Lebanon, an imposing Catholic monument in a mostly Lutheran community. Irish and German Catholics sacrificed much to build this church, and they adorned it with frescoes, large beautiful stained-glass windows, and a high altar of Gothic art that rose 45 feet from the floor of the sanctuary to the cross surmounting the top. The side altars dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph were also of beautiful Gothic design. The high altar contained statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the twelve apostles, and saints to whom the parishioners were particularly devoted, like Saint Patrick. At the center was a prominent statue of Mary being assumed from a tomb into heaven, with angels at her sides.

My family worshipped in this church during my childhood. There I received my first Holy Communion and Confirmation. There we made visits to the Blessed Sacrament whenever we walked downtown. It was our spiritual home. It was a house of God where we experienced sacredness and beauty, where one was naturally drawn to prayer, to lift up one’s mind and heart to God. In 1971, when I was in eighth grade, the church was closed after an engineering report revealed that the church structure was unsafe. People were shocked—not only the parishioners, but the whole community. Mass was moved to the school auditorium. That’s where I attended all through high school. The decision was made to demolish the church, and people were heartbroken. The beautiful statues and windows were removed from the church and kept for safe-keeping in the school basement. Some of these treasures were damaged by a flood during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. What was salvaged was restored and placed in the new church.

The new church, the third Saint Mary’s Church, was completed and opened in 1974. The new church incorporated the beautiful stained-glass windows from the old church and some of the statuary. But the architectural style was completely changed. Following the fashion of the time, it was built in a fan shape and did not even have a center aisle. Its exterior was bland and no longer soared upward to heaven. Without going into further detail, I think you get the picture. I share this with you because I want you to know how this affected the community and even my own faith life. No longer when I entered the church was I moved to contemplate heavenly realities. I could still pray, but it wasn’t as natural in the new church. The building didn’t draw me into prayer like the old church. Still, the Blessed Sacrament was there—but it was off to the side and not in the center. It was deliberately made and positioned to be almost identical to the ambo or pulpit. I share all this to impress upon you the spiritual vocation you have as architects, how what you do in building churches impacts people and their spiritual lives. I don’t blame anyone for what happened at my home parish church. It was the 1970s and there was a lot of confusion. Confusion in theology and about the liturgy. This confusion and the trendiness of the times did much damage, damage that naturally flowed into the area of church art and architecture. In this era of the New Evangelization, I believe we have entered into an exciting time for the Church. Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity, not rupture, is taking hold in theology, liturgy, and architecture. All this will lead, with the help of God’s grace, to a new springtime for the Church and hopefully a discovery or rediscovery of the faith in the lives of many. You have a part to play in this exciting venture of the New Evangelization.

Saint Mary Church, Lebanon, Pennsylvania, 1974.

In his famous Letter to Artists in 1999, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote of how “the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator.” He stated: “With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling him or her to share in His creative power.”2 I think this applies very well to architects. Using your God-given gifts, your work can be a creative artistry, giving form and meaning to the natural elements of the earth. This is truly a sharing in God’s creative power. You thus mirror the image of God as Creator.

In his Letter to Artists, Saint John Paul wrote a paragraph in which he speaks specifically about the service of architects to the Church. He wrote: “The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities, a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme can still inspire architectural design in our own day. Not infrequently these architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer and true works of art.”3 I am not sure which architects and churches the Holy Father had in mind. But I am grateful for this school of architecture here at Notre Dame and all that you do to promote the building of churches that are both places of prayer and true works of art. Yes, the Church needs you, needs the talents and ingenuity of architects who proclaim and serve the mystery of faith, whose works proclaim the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Christian faith.

Throughout the history of the Church, art and architecture have served the Church as expressions of the Christian faith. In the early centuries, art and architecture adapted the forms of the classical Greek and Roman world. For example, the basilica form and structure. Basilica architecture was adapted for the celebration of the Church’s liturgy. The results were amazing: basilicas like Saint John Lateran and old Saint Peter’s, and many others. The art (paintings, mosaics, sculptures) filled these churches, raising the hearts and minds of Christians to the mysteries of our faith. These great buildings were functional for the liturgy, but, as Saint John Paul II wrote: “the functional is always wedded to the creative impulse inspired by a sense of the beautiful and an intuition of the mystery.” The Holy Father said: “From here came the various styles well known in the history of art. The strength and simplicity of the Romanesque, expressed in cathedrals and abbeys, slowly evolved into the soaring splendors of the Gothic. These forms portray not only the genius of an artist but the soul of a people. In the play of light and shadow in forms at times massive, at times delicate, structural considerations certainly come into play, but so too do the tensions peculiar to the experience of God, the mystery both awesome and alluring.”4 This art and architecture helped form the culture as it became a culture more and more imbued with the Gospel. This continued in the Renaissance. Great artists and architects like Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini, Borromini, Maderno were “rendering visible,” as John Paul wrote, “the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and travelling companion to all men and women in their search for God.” We see this in the “new” Saint Peter’s Basilica and its colonnade, “which spreads out from it like two arms open to welcome the whole human family.”5

I mentioned the adoption and adaptation of classical architecture for Christian churches. And then the continuing development and evolution of various architectural forms: the basilica, the Romanesque, the Gothic, and then the Renaissance and the Baroque. All these forms had an order to them and were able to reflect God’s creative activity, bringing order from chaos. God is the giver of order, not disorder; harmony, not disharmony. In my opinion, some modern forms of architecture have moved in a direction that does not reflect order, thus leading to a certain expression that does not sufficiently serve the Christian vision of things, let alone the Church’s liturgy. Some forms of modern architecture do not seem to me to be suitable for church buildings. Unlike Greek or Roman architecture, which expressed ideas of perfection, beauty, and truth and were indeed compatible with Catholic teaching, some architecture today does not seem to be compatible. Attempts to make them compatible have often revealed problematic theological views. The great treasure of Christian art and architecture was born from faith within the Church. When there is a crisis of faith, like in our culture today, this can also be seen in its art and architecture. We even see this in some churches today, and we’ve seen it in recent decades even in the celebration of the liturgy in some places. The sense of the transcendent and the sacred can be lost. It is imperative that we recover the sense of the sacred, in the celebration of the liturgy and in church art and architecture. Truly sacred art and architecture, like the liturgy, and also liturgical music, must be oriented to God, not to the self. Catholic art and architecture should be in continuity, like the liturgy, with the tradition of the Church through the ages. A church should lift one’s gaze and one’s mind to God, not to ourselves gathered together to worship Him. Beautiful church architecture indeed invites people to lift their minds and hearts to God. When I studied in Rome for seven years I visited hundreds of churches there, not out of mere curiosity, but because they were places where the art and architecture lifted my spirit to God.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to dedicate the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia. During that visit, Pope Benedict praised the architect, Antoni Gaudí. I would like to share with you some of the things the Holy Father said about Gaudí and the Church of the Holy Family. First of all, Pope Benedict said Antoni Gaudí was “the soul and the artisan of this project.”6 It was his Christian faith that motivated and inspired him. The pope said that Gaudí conceived the church he was designing as “a monument of praise in stone to God.”7 I believe that is the true spirit that should inspire architects of churches today—to build churches that are monuments or hymns of praise to God.

Gaudí, a very gifted architect and a man of deep faith, sought to bring the Gospel to people through his architecture. “Gaudí conceived of and projected the Church of the Holy Family as a profound catechesis on Jesus Christ.”8> That is why he built, for example, the three porticos of the exterior of the church. They are, Pope Benedict said, “a catechesis on the life of Jesus Christ, a great Rosary, which is the prayer of ordinary people, a prayer in which are contemplated the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of our Lord.”9 Gaudí wanted the church and its exterior to be a home for all, for ordinary people. His faith also inspired him to charity. “He designed and financed from his own savings the creation of a school for the children of the workers and of the poorest families of the neighborhood.” Gaudí said: “The poor must always find a welcome in the Church, which is an expression of Christian charity.”10 We thus see the authentic faith of this architect, a faith expressed in charity.

Pope Benedict said that the Church of the Sagrada Familia “reflects all the grandeur of the human spirit in its openness to God.”11 He called it a “splendid work—full of religious symbols, delicate in the interlacing of its forms, fascinating in its play of light and color—as it were an immense sculpture in stone, the result of profound faith, of the spiritual sensitivity and artistic talent of Antoni Gaudí.”12

Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, dedicated 2010. Photo:

Pope Benedict said that inspiration came to Gaudí from “the three books which nourished him as a man, as a believer and as an architect: the book of nature, the book of sacred Scripture, and the book of the liturgy. In this way he brought together the reality of the world and the history of salvation, as recounted in the Bible and made present in the liturgy. He made stones, trees, and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God, but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God revealed in the birth, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”13 What a great lesson for church architects—to use the books of nature, Scripture, and the liturgy in designing and building churches. All of these books lifting us toward the Author of these three books, “to the One who is Light, Height, and Beauty itself.”14

In his Letter to Artists, Saint John Paul II wrote that “the theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art” and “the artist has a special relationship to beauty.”15 He wrote: “In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him or her by the Creator in the gift of ‘artistic talent.’”16 The artistic vocation as architects is a great service to the Church and her mission when your talents are used to serve truth, beauty, and goodness.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of the “noble ministry” of artists when their works reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people’s minds to Him. At the end of the Council, the Council issued a message to artists and appealed to artists in these words: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!”17

When we work on plans for new churches or restorations of churches in our diocese, I always ask the planners to list beauty as a number one priority in their planning. This is because I believe that churches should speak of the mystery of God’s beauty. The world needs God, needs beauty. It seems that some artists and architects purposely eschew beauty as the legitimate end of art. This is part of a bigger cultural crisis in the West: currents of secularism, relativism, and hedonism. Some art is not only not beautiful, but mocks beauty and even mocks God. There are ideologically driven movements that assault tradition and Christian culture. They have found their way into the world of art and even architecture.

Beautiful churches contribute to the creation of a society and a culture that is not forgetful of God. At a time when many seem to try to build their lives without God, a time of increasing secularism, we need churches that remind us of our origin, purpose, and destiny: God and heaven. They should reflect a Catholic worldview. Our churches should not be stripped of the imaginative elements that uplift the human spirit. They should inspire the faithful. Heresies from the early Church, like iconoclasm, seem to reappear throughout history. I think about how mosaics, statues, stained glass, sacred vessels, vestments, and art within churches built of noble materials and in harmonious design not only speak of our Catholic faith but also can lead us to contemplation. A good question to ask is: “Do our churches lead us to an encounter with the living God Who is Truth and Beauty itself?” Churches should be places of encounter between God and man. That’s what the liturgy is, but the place where the liturgy takes place serves the same sacramental end. The Church teaches in the Catechism that “Christians construct buildings for divine worship. These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.”18 They are to be houses of God, temples or dwelling places of God (after all, Catholic churches house the Blessed Sacrament), and houses of prayer. They are not auditoriums or theaters. They are places built for divine worship. They should be worthy of their end. They should point us to heavenly realities, the heavenly liturgy, and, through beauty and images, connect us to the angels and saints in praise of the most Holy Trinity. Our churches should offer a foretaste of heaven.

Architects and artists use the matter of the earth, material elements, in their work. But this matter, created by God, can be used to reveal heavenly realities. The Second Vatican Council taught that “Church buildings are to be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.”19 Through the material world, therefore, we can connect to spiritual realities. This is part of the Catholic vision, teaching, and theology of sacramentality. Church buildings are to be sacramental signs. This is something that should be reflected in Catholic architecture. The world was created for the glory of God, Vatican I proclaimed. Saint Bonaventure explained that God created all things “not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it.”20 So artists and architects of churches can use the materials of earth to give glory to the Creator and to show forth His glory.

I’d like to finish by returning to something I mentioned at the beginning of this talk: the call to holiness. When you use your gifts to serve the Church and the building up of God’s kingdom on earth, this becomes a means to your own growth in holiness, your sanctification. You can bear witness to Christ through your work done with a spirit of faith, hope, and charity, thus revealing the infinite richness of the mystery of Christ. Your own spirituality, your own prayer life, is essential. Prayer becomes a stimulus also for using your gifts in architecture to serve God and His Kingdom on this earth. It is important that we live an integrated life, not two parallel lives: a spiritual life and a secular. Everything we do, including our work, enters into the plan of God. I wish to encourage you to live such an integrated life: your prayer, your faith, your work, your state-in-life vocation—all united through your intimate relationship with Christ in the Church. I pray that you allow yourselves to be guided interiorly and sustained by the Holy Spirit in your work. The Church needs you and your work for the great venture of the New Evangelization. At the Visitation, the Blessed Virgin Mary exclaimed: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” May your lives and your work as architects proclaim the greatness of the Lord and help all of us to rejoice in God our Savior!