'Built' Theology

Joseph Pronechen recommends Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis McNamara.

‘Built’ Theology

Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy

By Denis R. McNamara

Hillenbrand Books, 2009

226 pages, $50

To order: (800) 933-1800


Want to know why Catholic church architecture and art should be beautiful? Where it originated? Why it went awry after Vatican II? Where it should be going?

Denis McNamara gives the answers and plenty more, all in a positive tone, in his oversized book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. The title’s second half hints that it was partially inspired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s book on liturgy.

Considering McNamara’s background in the histories of art and architecture and his position at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake outside Chicago, he ably shows why church buildings must have architecture, art and the liturgy in an inseparable, indispensable bond.

“Our task is to build beautiful churches because beauty makes the truth of Christ in the liturgy attractive, drawing people toward it, inviting them to engage in it, be transformed by it, and in turn transform the world,” McNamara explains. “Our task is to build beautiful churches that engage us most actively and fully in the liturgy, allowing us to see the presence of angels, the saints, and even the Trinity itself at an altar. … We build beautiful churches to glorify God and grow toward salvation.”

McNamara explains why “liturgical art and architecture are themselves part of the rite,” starting with God’s instructions to Moses on how to build the tent for worship, then moving to the Temple and to classical tradition. Simultaneously, McNamara makes the perfect case why the essential set of directions every church architect and building committee needs to know and follow is St. John’s description of the heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation.

Says McNamara, “The effective revelation of the heavenly Jerusalem is the critical element in sacramental art and architecture whether in the seventh century or the twenty-first.”

Accentuating the positive without dwelling on the negative, the author examines why after Vatican II churches got stripped of their ornament, decoration and devotional art according to the “spirit” of the Council. He shows how the Council really gave the exact opposite message in its first document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), and Pius XII’s Mediator Dei (On the Sacred Liturgy), the foundation for the Council’s document.

Step by step, McNamara shows that “church architecture is the built form of theology,” and “a church is a sacramental building that makes present to us the realities of heaven and earth at the end of time.”

This is an absorbing book on why we need to build beautiful churches according to our theology. If we do, our worship will be richer and give us a glimpse into heaven.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

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