Giovanni Paolo Panini (1692–1765), “Interior of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome”
I used to wonder why the Church, in her venerable wisdom, had a memorial feast day (August 5) for the dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. What’s the big deal? It’s just a church building, right? OK, it’s bigger and older and more beautiful than most churches, but so what. The Church is really the people right? Well, yes and no. Certainly St. Paul talks about us being ‘living stones’ being built up into the ‘temple’, but that image only makes sense if there is such a thing as a physical temple made up of real stones.
So why should Catholics build beautiful churches? Lots of reasons.
First of all, our faith is an incarnational faith. We believe that the Son of God took flesh of the Blessed Virgin and entered this physical realm of human history. That transaction within history registers as the expression of God’s everlastingly beautiful glory and power alive in this world. So a Catholic church that is beautiful and built to last is a witness to the Incarnation. Its beauty also represents the sacrifices of time, talent and treasure to build such a temple fit for God. “This is not just a meeting hall!” the beautiful Catholic church proclaims. “This is a temple where God dwells in our midst as Christ his Son came to dwell in our midst.”
Furthermore, so many churches were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary because she, in a most unique way, is the temple of God on earth. She is beautiful. She is full of grace. She is transcendent and eternal because of the graces received from her Son. So too, a Catholic church should be a silent witness to these truths. Here we have built a temple that is beautiful and transcendent and full of God’s presence and grace. Here the Son of God dwells in his sacramental presence. This great church is therefore a reminder of the Blessed Virgin, and if a reminder of her, then a reminder that her destiny is the destiny of each one of us. We too are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit. We too are called to be transformed by hard work, sacrifice and God’s grace to become everlastingly beautiful. We too are called to an eternal destiny.
Here’s another reason: a beautiful Catholic church proclaims our values. It says, “This church is going to last 1000 years. It will be so beautiful that no one will dare to tear it down.” We believe in the eternal truths that are so beautiful and true and everlasting that no one can ever destroy them. Furthermore, we believe in values that are everlasting and never change. We aim to live lives that are as solid and dignified and beautiful and true and everlasting as this building. Our doctrinal truths, our moral truths, our love, our life, our joy–all of these are everlasting and this church speaks silently and eloquently that what we hold dear we are willing to invest in, and we are willing to sacrifice much to build a witness that will last long after we are gone. This will speak to believers and unbelievers a truth that is beyond words and which will lift them to prayer which is beyond words.
In every age people spend money building beautiful temples to their gods. If you want to see what gods a society worships look around for the beautiful buildings. Which buildings in our cities are built with marble, fountains, high ceilings, silver and gold fittings, oriental carpets and fine furnishings? Banks and insurance companies mostly. There you find the temples we have built to our gods. Then look at so many modern Catholic churches–built on the cheap with tawdry materials, cut corners, shoddy workmanship, poor design by ignorant architects who are working for their own glory trying to ‘be creative’. A beautiful, traditional Catholic Church protests against all of that vulgarity and low life with great dignity and power.
A beautiful Catholic Church speaks all these truths silently in stone. When we build temporary, secular looking structures we say exactly the opposite. When we build in cheap materials, cut corners, choose poor stuff, tacky figurines and go the way of plastic, mass produced fiberglass, then we are (often literally) building in wood, hay and stubble. Why are we surprised therefore, that our Catholics have a faith that is cheap, temporary, second rate and falling apart? Our faith is incarnational. I believe that if we invested more money in building and maintaining our beautiful buildings, we would actually be investing in a stronger faith for the future.
The last point (and I could go on) is that a church is not just a meeting place. It is a house of prayer. It is a place that becomes hallowed with prayer. Therefore it must be a place that lifts the heart to prayer. The human heart is vulnerable to beauty. The beauty of worship and the beauty of a church building lifts even the hardest heart to prayer. In a beautiful church people’s hearts are opened. They stop and gaze and lift their eyes upward and as they do the fall to their knees, and even the most unlearned stumble and mumble the words their stuttering tongues seek to find: Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord God of Hosts.