When one of my third graders saw the architect’s drawings of the new church we’re building for my parish, he exclaimed, “Father! It looks like a Catholic Church!”
Indeed. His observation not only registered his delighted surprise, but revealed that such a church was not something he had experienced before.
In South Carolina, where I minister, a Catholic Church that looks like a Catholic Church is actually a rarity.
This is why, in our first building committee meeting five years ago the parish representatives stated quite firmly that everyone wanted a traditionally styled church. I was happy to agree with them, and so we proceeded to plan a modern church in the Romanesque style.
We did so for some very good reasons.
The people of my parish were clear that they wanted a church that “looked Catholic.” Their motives were mixed. There was some nostalgia and sentimentality.
“I want a church with stained glass windows,” said one older woman, “like the one I grew up in.”
Others said that in the Bible Belt of South Carolina, it was important that a Catholic Church was distinctive in its architecture. Others were unable to articulate exactly why they wanted a traditionally styled church. They just knew they didn’t like the modern, fan-shaped, concrete flying saucers that have landed in so many American suburbs.
During the five year process of building the church we’ve been able to explore together some of the deeper reasons for a Catholic church to look Catholic. It has to do with the principles of the Second Vatican Council and what it means to be Catholic in the first place.
Before I explain what I mean, I should say that, although our new church is built in a Romanesque style, it is not simply a throwback to a pre-Vatican II age. The seating is planned around a central altar with good acoustics and sight lines to aid full participation of the laity in worship.
While accommodations are made for modern worship, the style of architecture also roots the liturgy firmly in the venerable traditions of the Catholic faith.
The two guiding principles of the Second Vatican Council were aggiornamento and resourcement. The first term refers to the drive to “open the windows” of the church to the modern age, while the second term values the movement to return to original sources of the faith.
The windows could only be opened to the modern age authentically by re-connecting with the ancient simplicity of the faith.
Pope Benedict XVI would re-affirm the need for both of these guiding principles with his emphasis on “the hermeneutic of continuity”, insisting that change in the church was an organic development of the 2,000 year traditions rather than a rupture with them.
If this is so, then the principles which guide the Church in the modern age ought to guide church art and architecture as well as theology, liturgy, evangelization, canon law and catechesis.
The people in my parish knew this at gut level, even if they were unable to articulate it. Put simply, they didn’t like the modern, brutalist school of Catholic Church architecture. They didn’t like the modern churches that looked like parking garages because, as they said, “They don’t look Catholic.”
They understood that a Catholic church should connect with the past with pride while ably serving the present and looking confidently into the future. They wanted their church to be not only timely, but timeless.
We honed in on Romanesque as our style of architecture (rather than Gothic, Baroque or Byzantine) for several reasons.
Firstly, Romanesque is a universally recognizable Catholic style. We looked at Romanesque churches from Africa, India, Poland, England, America and Australia. It is also a style that has stood the test of time. You can find Romanesque styled Catholic churches from almost every age.
Third, the purest Romanesque style is simple— austere and harmonious with the minimalism of modernity.
Finally, because of its simplicity, Romanesque is affordable. The price tag for our new church is just $5.2 million.
The first words everyone says when they see our new church is, “It’s beautiful!” This is another reason for building a traditionally styled church in the modern age.
A Catholic Church is not simply a preaching hall. From the beginning, it was a temple not an auditorium. The Catholic faith declares the real presence of Christ in the world and the Church is the focus of his dwelling among us.
It is therefore right and proper that we build a beautiful house for God because God himself is the source of all that is beautiful, good and true.
Finally, in an increasingly secular America, and in the Bible Belt of Big Box megachurches, our new Catholic parish church is a sign of contradiction.
We’re witnessing to the distinctiveness of our faith not with aggressive evangelization tactics, but with a building that attracts others with a confident message of beauty, truth and goodness incarnated in ordinary bricks and mortar.