Tag Archives: Architecture

The Alabaster Church

Should we be building (or restoring) beautiful churches when there is so much poverty in the world? Shouldn’t the Church sell all that it owns and give the money to the poor?

I am a simple man and I do not have a complete answer to that question. But I ask you to consider the story of the feast of Simon the leper, or more appropriately the story of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. Does this story have a lesson for us that applies to the questions above? I think so.

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee

Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1620, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In the Gospel of Matthew, verses 26:6-13, we read:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”

In the Gospel of Matthew this woman pours ointment on Christ’s head, in Luke it says she pours it on His feet and wipes them with her hair. I think it is fair to say she did both, and to do so fits with Christ saying she did it for His burial. But here’s the question I think we should ask for ourselves in light of this story: Do we not, very specifically and uniquely, have Christ with us at Mass, truly present? Are not our churches, in fact, both temples and palaces: places for worship and sacrifice on the one hand, and places for monarchal reverence and pomp on the other? Yes, we must help the poor, but our love for our neighbor goes forth from our worship of our creator and our savior. We proceed from Mass into the world, conforming our lives to Christ in our actions. And churches are for all who come, rich and poor alike.

The poor, above all else, need salvation of their souls as does everyone else. Certainly we must not forsake the poor with cheap excuses that our monies are tied up elsewhere. Christ chastised the Pharisees for that as well. But we must not turn away from proper worship in order to, instead, focus on the poor. When we do, we put our souls at risk, and theirs.

[I realize I risk saying all this because I am not poor. My apologies for any thickheadedness and offense.]

I believe the state of the “new Church” today, with its numbers plummeting, its thin gruel of RCIA programs, its horrible music, its new Mass with namby pamby vestments and shallow prayers, and all its staggering and ravaging scandals, is all of a piece with its degraded and ugly churches. To forsake right worship, which includes, if at all possible, beautiful places of worship of sufficient design and beauty to glorify the King, is to lose the forest for the trees. It is, in a sense, to lose Christ.

This is one reason why churches that focus only on helping the poor all too often become churches where soup and blankets becomes their gospel and not the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, saving us from Hell, and leading us to eternal life. Raising Lazarus was an image of the gospel, but Lazarus was raised to die again. His true salvation came because Christ died on the cross, and then rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then Lazarus believing in that truth.

Therefore, I believe that a gospel which says we should do away with fancy churches and instead give that money to the poor is, in fact, a substitute gospel. It has some appeal because it has some important truth (we truly do need to help the needy and lay down our lives for others), but it elevates one truth inappropriately above another. The poor (and the downtrodden, and those in prison, and widows & orphans, and the hungry, and the naked, etc), whom you must love, will always be with you. But if you are to see Christ in the poor you must first see Him in the Eucharist, and bend the knee, and bow your head, and worship Him. Should you sell all you have and give it to the poor? Maybe. Should the princes of the Church live simple lives of poverty? I think they probably should (certainly many today should be brought low). Ought the Church as the body of Christ celebrate Mass in plain sheet-rocked or concrete-tilt-up boxes instead of beautiful, ornate, and more expensive churches? I think not (if at all possible). Give glory as and to whom glory is due.

Does this mean that if we focus once again on building more beautiful churches all our problems with go away? No. But we must not be afraid to build beautiful churches. To do so will feed and inform our souls in surprising ways, and help us become more holy, more fully human, more like Christ. This goes hand in hand with helping the poor. The stunning churches of old, those that are still with us, are memorials to those who built them in a similar way that the story of the woman with the alabaster box is her memorial.

You will meet her if you get to Heaven. And, perhaps, you will bow to her and thank her for showing the way.

Finally: Arvo Pärt, the brilliant minimalist composer from Estonia, set the words from Matthew above to music. Listen to this and read the words as you do. This is, I believe, a stunning example of what setting the words of scripture to music can be.

Introíbo ad altáre dei.

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France is paying for 2,800 Cathedrals & Churches to be Demolished across France

It’s sad to see a beautiful Catholic church building destroyed. The video below shows some demolition moments from a church destruction earlier this year in France. But for how sad the video is, the churches demolition is really just a symptom of many other factors.

Those factors include such things as:

  1. The French government and not the Church itself owns all the Church buildings. And many of these buildings are old and in need of major repairs, and are unsafe if not repaired — the one above was going to be quite expensive to repair. And though beautiful, they don’t attract enough tourism to warrant their survival.
  2. A Church whose membership numbers have been in free-fall for decades. Thus there just are not the numbers to keep the churches filled with parishioners and, consequently, financially supported. There are a lot of reasons for this, but certainly they include: Too many priests and bishops who no longer believe in the faith, but have found careers essentially live action roll-playing being priests and bishops. Modernism and all its mutant children, including bad theology, a lightweight view of marriage, and rampant sexual immorality seem to have replaced a hearty and robust faith — and few are interested anymore. And many Church leaders often seem eager to dismantle the Church.
  3. Consequently very few Catholics are left who have the means and are willing to save these old churches. It’s easy to bemoan the loss on social media, it’s another thing altogether to step up and contribute where needed, even to fight for it.

And the list goes on. The point is, however, that we should not be surprise at all about the destruction of this church. What we should be is sad. But not so much for this building as for the Church itself, and for the world that is so actively and happily rejecting Christ. If anything, the above video is a powerful reminder of how the Church has been, and is continuing to be, assailed from within by a Catholic leadership who no longer has faith, and a laity who follows suit.

This is the text from the video notes:

This is the last moments of Église Saint-Jacques d’Abbeville (St. Jack’s Church Abbeville). France is paying for 2,800 Cathedrals & Churches to be Demolished across France. The Saint-Jacques church was a neo-Gothic parish church located in Abbeville The building was constructed from 1868 to 1876 at the site of 12th century church which was rebuilt in 1482. It gradually deteriorated for lack of maintenance at the beginning of the 21th century and was demolished from January to May 2013. Architect Victor Delefortrie was responsible for the design of the church. The church contained two bells, Jacqueline from 1737 and another, mute, dated 1645. Inside, there was a particular organ called Mutin Cavaillé-Coll from 1906. During World War I , Abbeville was bombed but Saint-Jacques church was not affected. Only impacts shattered the windows. It also survived World War 2. In 2008, it was estimated that it would cost 4.2 million euro to restore the church from weather damage and disrepair. In 2010, an association was created to safeguard the church and a petition was launched. In spring 2011, while deciding on its fate a crack was noticed which had caused stone to fall from the church. The 31 January 2013, Nicolas Dumont, the mayor of Abbeville, issued an order to demolish the church as a safety hazard. The next 7 February, the city council voted to demolish the church at estimated cost of EUR 350 000. On April 27, the foundation stone was found and preserved by the city. In November 2013, the rubble of the church are used by two artists to create a work of contemporary art entitled Build/deconstructed. A town square was proposed for its replacement. The project was the work of an architect in the city, Jean-Marc Demoulin, who accommodated the desires of the residents. A lawn of grass covers the church’s location, taking its shape and orientation. Two pathways form a cross. At the site of the choir, a memorial will be erected to honor veterans and Achilles Paillart, the pastor responsible for the church’s reconstruction in 1868. A small pond will occupy the site of the altar The conversion also included the creation of forty-two parking spaces on the perimeter of the square, including three for people with reduced mobility.

The story as told above doesn’t seem as horrible as the video images first seem, but it’s still a terrible situation. I do not know if it’s entirely true about how many churches France is paying to demolish. 2,800 seems rather high, but my gut says it’s probably true. Is there hope for France and its churches? Can these buildings be saved? Can the Catholic Church in France rise from the ashes? If Christ returns will He find faith in France?

I pray every day for the Church in France.

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Celebrating in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite at the Pantheon (a.k.a. St. Mary and the Martyrs) in Rome

This Mass was organized by a group of students who call themselves the Tridentini (“A group of Roman Pontifical University students gathering each month for celebrations of the Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.”) and celebrated by l’abbé Matthieu Raffray of the l’Institut du Bon Pasteur in Rome. I believe they are SSPX, but I’m not sure.

I must say I’m curious about the support of the SSPX. Given that it’s in an irregular relationship with the Church, and is thus not in communion with it, I cannot give my support. That many others do makes me wonder. I’m sure some do not know about the issues with the SSPX and the Church, and therefore their conscience is clear. But others do, and yet the pull of the Tridentine Mass is so great that they still go. Again, I wonder. As I’m learning more of Catholic Tradition, including the traditional Latin Mass, and its place and role within our contemporary society and the Church, I’m more and more prone to cut the SSPX  some slack.

Fortunately I have access to the TLM once a month at a nearby parish 15 minutes away, and every Sunday at another parish if I want to drive 20-30 minutes — both in full communion with Rome. My home parish is not yet “TLM,” but may become that in the not-to-distant future. For now it is a reverent and solemn (but not without some of the typically questionable aspects) Novus Ordo parish. Still, I love it. I’m not a hardcore traditionalist, yet.

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From the Sacrament to the Mysteries: A Survey of Classical and Sacred Architecture

Dr. Denis McNamara gave two lectures on Church architecture, sweeping quickly through many aspects of Church design, classical architecture, the meaning of many details that easily get overlooked, and why it matters. The amount of interesting information in these talks is amazing and, I believe, a lot more important than most Christians realize or probably would care to know but should. Denis is also one of the three voices on one of the best Catholic podcasts anywhere, The Liturgy Guys.

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Beautiful Catholic Churches, Old & New

An EWTN show called Extraordinary Faith did a couple of episodes on new church designs and old church restorations that reflect the traditional patrimony of the Catholic Church.

The information here is great, and shows something of the rebirth and growth in recognizing the timeless and appropriate architectural and artistic designs of those buildings we instantly recognize as churches. Consequently many parishes and religious groups are wanting such buildings again.

I love the level of exposure to these beautiful churches and those who build & restore them this shows brings. There is a great deal of skill and work involved in any traditional Catholic church building. I also love the passion exhibited here for the traditions of the Church.

[An aside: Of course, and as expected, in the “spirit of EWTN” the production quality is serious, thoughtful, and sometimes (unintentionally) humorously amateurish. I would love to see EWTN level up two or three notches with its productions. Perhaps something like Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series, which would be at least a place to start. I’m not just complaining. I used to be a professional television producer and director, so I know a few things about what it takes to make good television, and it’s mostly not a question of money. EWTN too often is caught somewhere between 1980’s professional television and community access television.]

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral Restoration and a Tour of America’s Parish Church

I have never been to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Someday I may get there. I hope so.

Here is a video report on the restoration of the Cathedral from a few years ago. This was a newsworthy event, so it was poper that it was covered in the secular media.

A great question was asked; essentially why was so much money spent when there are plenty of other financial needs in the world and in the parish, such as poverty and school closures, etc. Although Cardinal Dolan did not go into it much, there are many good reasons to keep the cathedral in tip top shape — it is a prominent house of God, visited by millions, providing for the spiritual needs of many, hosting popes, and bringing in revenue to the parish. It is a good thing to spend money and labor on a cathedral. Doing so is a form or worship. Simply it comes down to whether God truly exists and whether the Real Presence of Christ is there seven times a day for the faithful (how many times they celebrate Mass in St. Patrick’s).

If one does not not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist then beautiful churches makes no sense. If, on the other hand, Christ is truly present then it makes all the sense in the world.

If you want a bit more intimate portrait of the cathedral, here’s the Cardinal giving a person and revealing tour of this great church:

I honestly do not know what I think of Cardinal Dolan. He seems like such a remarkable man, and a very good cardinal. On the other hand, I personally don’t like some of the ways he is so super affable. Kinda makes me feel like there’s a whole lot up front, but not so much underneath — and that I would be manipulated a bit in his presence rather than experience true engagement. I have to trust others more knowledgeable than me. Regardless, I would love to meet him someday. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful.

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Restoring the Church by restoring a church

Here is a great video how one Catholic parish in America has renovated its church building, invigorated its parish life, helped its community, and is contributing to the restoration of the Church at large. The video is from 2010, but its message resonates still. Basic things: repair the building, offer vespers, bring back pomp and reverence, Latin, chant, Corpus Christi procession, altar boys, communion on the tongue while kneeling, incense, mystery, etc., etc. They also employed an architectural and liturgical expert, Denis McNamara, to help lead the restoration.

The church interior was completed in 2014. Here are some stunning images, including before and after photos of the project. What beauty. My parish should do this! I’m sure the first response will be about money, but I really think it comes down to the will to do it — as do most goals of highest value.

If there is any one formula or silver bullet for creating vibrant parishes it seems to be: get back to the roots, restore the old ways, focus on truth, goodness, and beauty in the Mass, and do those things that support these things, like renovating your church building inside and out.

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