With vacation looming on the horizon, I started my list of summer reading this week, to at least get into the cheerful mode of reading for fun. I started with a book that has been beckoning from my shelf all winter long, “The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternal,” by Duncan Stroik (Hildebrand Books, Chicago 2012), and opened the pages to a wealth of ideas and visions.
Although a slim volume of 182 pages, the larger format, delightful illustrations and hard cover are not ideal for a beach blanket, but I have been carrying it on trips to Florence and around Rome and have found the book a wonderful companion in sacred spaces.
Duncan Stroik is a professional architect as well as a professor of architecture at Notre Dame and the editor of the Sacred Art Journal. He has built some of the most spectacular new churches in the United States in recent years, including the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In Professor Stroik, we have a rare man who lives the trifecta of preaching, practice and prayer.
The book asks readers to think about the purpose of a Catholic church. Is it mere functionality? A holding pen for the faithful? A soundstage for the Father Such-and-Such show? In every chapter Stroik underscores the uniqueness of the Catholic faith — the Church of the Eucharist, the locus of the sacraments and the tangible physical encounter with the Living God.
First, the award-winning architect takes us on a tour of a church from a liturgical standpoint, starting from the altar, which “stands as a sign of Christ Himself, who is the priest the victim and the altar of His own sacrifice.” Stroik leads the reader outward to baldachin, sanctuary and beyond.
As the faithful witness the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on the altar they are then sent into the world to proclaim the good news of our salvation, but — and here is the rub — if the site of the altar does not illustrate majesty and mystery, how can the faithful be witness to exactly that?
“The Church Building as a Sacred Place” discusses many different types of churches, from the oldest to the most modern, and offers hundreds of images of monumental structures. And yet for all the soaring canopies or marble veneers, the book threads one insistent theme throughout, that of the church as Domus or house. It is the Domus Dei, the house of the Lord, it is the Domus Ecclesiae, the house of the church and Domus Eucharistiae, the house of the Eucharist.
The idea of church as house or home resonates deeply in the architecture of Rome. The doors stand open all day long and it is a place of comfort and refuge, a focal point in one’s life and beginning and ending of every day. We long to go home after work and find our homes beautiful and welcoming. As the house of the Lord, we expect the church to evoke His presence, but at the same time make the faithful feel welcome and comfortable as they enter under the same roof as their Creator.
The book meditates at length on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Built of Living Stones,” guidelines for church buildings published in the year 2000. It presents a thoughtful critique of the document, enhancing and expanding areas which were left unclear or open to unhelpful interpretation. Stroik looks to tradition, using Richard John Neuhaus’ felicitous term, “the democracy of the dead,” to inform the present, much as all the innovative churches from the past did. He explains why historically, when church builders have experimented with certain types of buildings such as the central plan, they were often left aside as not focused enough on the liturgy. It is a great lesson on church construction and will make readers open their eyes as they step into their own parishes.
Midway through the book, however, the velvet gloves come off and Stroik steps into the ring with what he deems the “Modern Iconoclasts.” These are the designers who have removed all that is Incarnational or representative of God made man in the Church. From the ancient Greeks man has been the inspiration for architectural orders and forms and this anthropomorphic sense was carried into Christian churches, which illustrated the head and body of Christ.
The deconstructed fragmented spaces have not only lost a sense of axiality or direction, but also the uniqueness of the Christian message where God walks among men as man. Stroik describes this woeful trend as a preference for the “abstract rather than figurative” and “techno-centric over humanistic.”
Stroik notes the steadily increasing influence that the Protestant meeting house has had over church building during the last century. The Protestant focus on the pulpit rather than the altar grew into the soundstage mega-church, which translated into the fan shaped church, unknown in the history of Catholic church building, which appears like a theater where people go to watch a show and “feel inspired.” The simplicity extolled by Protestant churches has turned into a barrenness of the Catholic sacramental space. Stroik notes, not without a touch of irony, that people leave their exquisitely furnished home, get into their lavish cars in their designer clothes to come to churches that are stripped down and bare. What kind of poverty is this?
The Modern Iconoclasts would have people believe that the time for beautiful churches is over, but as Stroik points out, it’s like saying we can’t have contemporary saints.
In Chapter 8, Professor Stroik arms readers with answers to the ten myths about Contemporary Sacred Architecture. I found myself cheering after he delivered blow after blow to the tired excuses of money, Vatican II guidelines and “noble simplicity” to justify the construction of inappropriate sacred spaces.
In a gratifying one-two punch Stroik takes to task the churches in Italy that actually demand admission fees – one of the most loathsome modern customs.
Stroik holds up one church as a particularly egregious offender against architectural sensibilities, Dio Padre Misericordioso, built as the Jubilee church for the new millennium, by Richard Meier. While I am (finally) in agreement about the problematic nature of the church liturgically, the building still seems to be rooted in the tradition of Rome in its materials, travertine, concrete and the play of light and bold shape. Its evocation of a ship revisits the work of the great architect Borromini, who was also called a heretic for his vision that gave the world beautiful churches like Sant’Ivo and San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane.
Four hundred years ago Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti wrote a treatise on art to incite the faithful to demand decorous and respectful art in their churches. Now Duncan Stroik has invited parishioners to learn about sacred space and its role in framing the liturgy so as to insist on proper and inspiring places of worship.
Readers will soon understand that this book intends to do more than illustrate and delight. While extolling the wonders of Church design, it also arms the faithful with arguments and ideas to express the growing dissatisfaction people are feeling with their own Domus.
So what is the purpose of a Catholic church? Certainly not a grocery store, or post office or some other place where we carry out a chore. It is the space where we give thanks for God’s love, celebrating His supreme and perfect sacrifice. We show our love for Him, as we do at home with our loved ones. Shouldn’t that be a place of exemplary beauty?
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.