Eucharistic Churches; Centesimus Annus 101

When Architecture Flaunted the Blessed Sacrament

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 6, 2005 ( On Sunday Benedict XVI opened the first Synod of Bishops of his pontificate with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The synod, which will run until Oct. 23, has as its subject: «The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.»

The synod has already attracted much press attention. Some journalists are homing in on the question of collegiality in this pontificate, others on the topic of pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion. For all Catholics, this meeting will be of great significance as the Eucharist is at the core of the Church.

But along with the timely issues concerning the contemporary Church, the synod will also reflect on central questions already addressed almost 500 years ago during the Council of Trent. The result of those deliberations led to a revolution in art and architecture aimed at highlighting the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church.

In a period when some denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist and others questioned the efficacy of the Mass as a sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, reformers such as St. Charles Borromeo, St. Philip Neri and St. Ignatius and the Society of Jesus promoted Eucharistic adoration and the Forty Hours devotion. They also encouraged the faithful to take Communion more frequently when previously it had been custom to receive the Eucharist only a couple of times a year.

The city of Rome was transformed as an astonishing 50 churches were built in just 40 years at the end of the 16th century, all designed to underscore the centrality of the Eucharist. The most celebrated and the most beautiful of all is the Baroque church to the Holy Name of Jesus, otherwise known as the Gesù.

The Gesù was built between 1568 and 1573, with the facade concluded in 1584. Not only was it constructed without a rood screen (a dividing screen formerly used to hide the altar from the faithful) but the nave was designed to be broad and long to hold a large congregation. The altar was raised and bathed in light from the dome so everyone could see it.

Furthermore, the faithful gathered in the Gesù were reminded of what the term «nave» means. Derived from the Latin «navis,» or boat, the idea was that Christians were embarked on a common journey to God, and that the Church, the «ark of salvation,» with Peter’s successor at the helm, was guided them surely toward heaven. As one approached to receive holy Communion in the Gesù, the impression was that of sailing forward toward that destination. At the moment of receiving the Eucharist, the dome hovering overhead illustrated that it is the same Eucharist which is the means to salvation.

The congregation was encouraged to look forward and focus on Christ’s presence in the church. Tabernacles were placed prominently in the church, either in the apse or in a distinctive chapel immediately next to the altar. Side chapels diminished in importance. While containing sumptuous marbles or beautiful art, they were set deeply into the sides of the structure so as not to distract people from their path and final goal.

Since the glory days of the Counter-Reformation, church design has somewhat lessened its emphasis on the Eucharist. The lack of distinction between sacred and secular space (i.e., nave and altar) has sometimes obscured the honor and privilege once accorded to the Eucharist. At times the tabernacle is concealed in some dark corner of the church and the faithful, looking to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, often find themselves wondering where it is.

Perhaps another St. Charles Borromeo is needed to call art and architecture back into the service of God and the sacraments just as he did so effectively in the 16th century — if only there were a synod suggestion box.

* * *

Economics With a Soul

On the eve of the opening of the synod, the Acton Institute initiated a series of 10 conferences to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical on Catholic social thought, «Centesimus Annus.»

In the beautiful setting of the former Church of Santa Marta, now property of the Italian Ministry of Culture, an extraordinary trio of speakers came to address the subject of «Solidarity and Entrepreneurship: The Moral and Economic Foundations of the Free Society.»

Italian Minister of Culture Rocco Buttiglione, whose candidacy for membership to the European Commission was rejected last year because he stated that he, as a Catholic, privately considered homosexual activity a sin, was the principal speaker.

Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney and himself no stranger to the slings and arrows of the media in his public defense of Church teaching, commented along with professor Carl Schramm of Johns Hopkins University.

In his lyrical, Italianate style, laced with poetry and dramatic description, Buttiglione described a Europe that today’s young people would not know. He spoke of the pre-John Paul II Europe, a continent resigned to the inevitability of Communism where even Church leaders sought solutions of compromise with the totalitarian regimes that appeared to be a permanent reality.

Buttiglione presented John Paul II’s pontificate as a ray of light, a mighty gust of wind that swept in a new era of the Holy Spirit. John Paul II emphasized that «indeed, besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself» («Centesimus Annus,» 32). A new world grew from the fall of Communism and the rise of freedom and democracy.

But this changed world and the affluent society that resulted from it offers its own distinct challenges. Modern-day Europe is in danger of being seduced by relativism and increasingly self-serving policies.

Buttiglione suggested that beyond the «equivalent exchange» proper to justice — the equal compensation for work or goods rendered — Europe must begin to look more toward the «gratuitous exchange» of charity, an obligation of society to look out for those cannot care for themselves.

Instead, however, of the huge bureaucratic machine of the socialized state, which imposes its will and offers no options for its dependants, Buttiglione drew on John Paul II’s insistence on the subjectivity of society, where intermediate associations play a larger role in coming to the assistance of those in need.

Buttiglione left the assembly with an optimistic view of the future: If Communism had been eradicated by the Christian sense of the dignity of man, then the other obstacles would eventually be surmounted.

In contrast, while recognizing the positive changes wrought during John Paul II’s pontificate, Cardinal Pell offered a more sober vision of the state of affairs.

As free markets toppled Communism, exaggerated consumerism and materialism have insinuated themselves into society. Furthermore, an aging population and resulting smaller workforce is creating a market push towards euthanasia. Quoting John Paul, Cardinal Pell noted that «a right to die will inevitably give way to the duty to die.»

Cardinal Pell also raised the question of how the burgeoning economies in India and China would extend benefits beyond the privileged few, and what would happen as the gap between rural poverty and urban wealth widened.

He warned, moreover, of the reality of original sin and its consequences and the dangers a rising market economy would present to families as well as to the poor.

The final speaker, Carl Schramm, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has lived his life in the practical reality of the market, offered several fascinating statistics and important observations.

Schramm spoke of fundamental shifts in the economic order in the last 45 years, from an «iron triangle» of big business, big labor and government, to a «virtuous box» of large business
es, universities, individual entrepreneurs and government. He pointed out that in 1960 the 1,000 largest firms employed 45% of the work force whereas today that number has dwindled to 13%.

In this era when intellectual property creates new firms and entrepreneurship has become more secure and stable, new generations will be free from the «memory of want.»

Schramm sees the road to solidarity for this new entrepreneurial society through systematic philanthropy, which privately funded, would have the freedom to intervene and act where necessary. He suggests that this would be one way to counteract the «scandal» of the disparity between economic leaders and the poor.

Three remarkable talks, rooted in John Paul II’s social magisterium, but differing in viewpoints, expressions and style, offered a hopeful reminder of the fruitfulness of Catholic social thought for the evangelization of politics and the economy.

* * *

Grand Angels

Amid growing concerns about the aging population, Italy inaugurated an initiative to teach people to see the elderly as a resource, not a problem.

Oct. 2 was the first «Grandparent’s Day.» Rome celebrated by offering free museum entrances, special grandparent/grandchild activities, and appearances by celebrity «nonni,» as grandparents are called.

Besides cheery balloons and home-cooked lunches, grandparents were offered a tribute by Italy’s president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

Ciampi spoke of the historical and contemporary importance of grandparents to the family. He emphasized the vital importance of the family in Italian culture of the past and present and called for «a rediscovery of a precious solidarity among the generations.»

Statistics were also released regarding the 14 million grandparents in Italy. They are a third of the adult population and 17% are still working. Seventy percent of Italian grandparents baby-sit for working parents and 95% make some kind of economic contribution to the family.

Certainly it can be no accident that the day chosen for the «Festa dei Nonni» is the feast day of the Guardian Angels, as it seems that for most Italian families, grandparents continue to be exactly that.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation