Beauty Offered on the Altar

The Church: Unlocking the Secrets of the Places Catholics Call Home

by Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina
2013 Random House, 2013 pages, $21.99


What initially seems to be “only” an introductory book about the foundations of Catholic worship places soon reveals itself as a source of not only useful information but also, more significantly, profound insights and provocative meditation. As a result, The Church: Unlocking the Secrets of the Places Catholics Call Home will prove helpful and inspiring for those interested in deepening or widening their understanding of sacred space and art in general—and Catholic churches in particular—no matter how much they know already. Going through this pleasantly written book means to consider every material aspect of Catholic worship through a rich and engaging commentary using a wide variety of historical sources, some dating back to the Early Church Fathers. This returning to young Christianity serves to remind the reader of the original sacred intention behind a particular physical manifestation, be it form, space, furnishing, imagery, etc. This is necessary because, the authors tell us, “as Christians are drawn into doctrinal and theological reflections, they can lose touch with the original and ordinary meanings.” Such honest and refreshing meditation on elemental issues is one of the most attractive qualities of this intelligent and sensitive book. Certainly, it brings life and understanding to the at times legalistic tenets and dry recommendations guiding the programming and design of Catholic churches in the U.S. today (e.g., Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal).

The authors deploy the intellectually and spiritually prolific conversation between Church (the one body of believers) and church (the building wherein believers worship) to elucidate the multifarious dimensions in which Catholic faith and practice become expressed and supported, communicated and sought via architecture. Unsurprisingly, we find Cardinal Wuerl and Aquilina often pointing at the natural and basic role that beauty needs to play in inviting, affirming, and celebrating the sense of awe, grace, and love associated with the presence of God. In fact, this book’s high regard for aesthetics, along with its contemplative interest in fundamental issues, provides the necessary fodder for great architectural design meditations. For example, the discussion on doors is something that every architecture professor could bring into the design studio to illuminate the issue of entry, passage, or threshold (in this case, between the holy and the mundane). The chapter on the tabernacle is as fascinating as it is moving, with far-reaching implications (architectural and otherwise) when we come to terms with Jesus Christ’s presence or dwelling in the world as (etymologically speaking) “tabernacling.” And who would know of the remarkable mutation that takes place in the sacristy and how little most architects and artists have looked into its incredible potential for expression and support? In these as in other occasions, the book does unlock the secrets behind Catholic churches, as its subtitle promises us.

These revelations, often emerging from revisiting Catholic beginnings, not only remind the faithful of the reasons for doing what they do today but also, most provocatively, encourage potential new vistas of other, perhaps more loving, truthful ways for bringing forth the faith. This incredible gift to human creativity does not miss the forest for the trees, however. While consciously avoiding dictating a particular manner by which to pursue sacred art and architecture, Cardinal Wuerl and Aquilina are quite clear about the absolute centrality that the experience of the Eucharist—the Mass—must play in the conception, design, detailing, and construction of every church. Hence, they keep on emphasizing that Catholic churches are built out of love, to tell the love story, Christ’s sacrifice, and to extend an unending invitation to partake in that love. And it is in the love story of the Word Incarnate where we find the “sacramental principle,” that uniquely and identifiably Catholic seal that explains the important role that buildings and other material expressions play in supporting and advancing the faith. This Catholic conviction that matter “may mediate God’s presence in the world” provides anyone related to building churches with the inspiration and duty to do their best aesthetic work in a manner whereby beauty “is offered on the altar, not made an end in itself.” As the authors put it, in the architects’ effort “we see their love of beauty, but their greater love for God.” The search for architectural excellence is thus not about someone’s ego, institutional power, or cultural manipulation but rather a humble, principled, and heartfelt service to the love story that the Church must keep ever alive and share with the whole world. The respect and earnest pursuit of this mission is what has allowed the Catholic Church to be responsible for, arguably, the best architecture and art that the Western world has produced over the past two millennia.

In short, The Church is a straightforward, insightful, and fast-reading book that is full of valuable information, down-to-earth scholarship, practical advice, inspirational contemplation, and design and artistic opportunities. Anyone interested in sacred architecture in general—but certainly those concerned with Catholic churches—should get a copy of this wonderful manuscript. Perusing it will no doubt rejuvenate existing understanding, inspire the purest imagination, invigorate the trust of beauty, and deepen one’s faith.