Churches Are Symbols of Heavenly Realities

Architect and author Denis McNamara wants churchgoers to notice structures and details that reflect heaven.

Denis McNamara wants churchgoers to understand how church architecture and art should aid worship.

Assistant director and professor at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., McNamara is the author of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books, 2009), which is endorsed by Archbishop Raymond Burke and Scott Hahn.

He spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen on church architecture and art’s role in worship.

Did church art and architecture get misinterpreted after the Second Vatican Council?

After the Council, there was a renewed emphasis on the participation of the faithful in the pews, and some Church leaders had the notion all devotional imagery was somehow a distraction from proper focus on the liturgy. Some called for a clean break and the removal of devotional objects from churches. Instead of both/and, it was an either/or: either devotional or liturgical.

In the later 1970s, many leaders in the liturgy field began to think of the church as a domestic building. The church building was re-envisioned as a house, and they sometimes lost sight of it as a sacrament of heaven. But that’s where the biblical foundations for church architecture come in: The fundamental pattern of the church building has a heavenly origin. When you substitute an earthly theory for heavenly origin, then it’s ripe for takeover by secular theories of architecture that don’t give the building enough sacramental importance.

What have we ignored about church architecture?

The basic fundamental claim that everything in the church — both artistically and architecturally — is a sacrament with a small “s.” We’re used to the seven sacraments: those instituted by Christ and guarded by the Church. But in a wider understanding, a sacrament is anything made of earthly matter than reveals an otherwise invisible spiritual reality.

And you clearly bring this out in the way you refer to two foundations: Vatican II’s document Sacrosanctum Concilium and Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei (On the Sacred Liturgy).

Vatican II is very much in line with the great Tradition of the Church. What Vatican II teaches about church architecture is quite traditional, despite what people sometimes think it says.

The proper context for Vatican II can be understood by reading what came before it, rather than simply looking at what came after it. That’s the context in which Council Fathers were writing. Pius XII’s important document on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, established what was right and wrong in the liturgical renewal movements that existed before the Council. You see the Council Fathers taking phrases almost word for word out of Mediator Dei and putting them into the texts of the Council.

What’s one major point these documents make?

Sacred architecture and art are composed of “signs and symbols of heavenly realities,” says Sacrosanctum Concilium. That’s what we’ve often forgotten: A church is supposed to show you heavenly things. The challenge then arises: What are the heavenly realities, and how do we represent them?

What should be the goal of church architecture, new or otherwise?

Always to make a church building a sacrament of the heavenly Jerusalem. Strangely, that’s the concern least often voiced in new church design.

We are beings who perceive things through the senses, and art and architecture allow us to perceive the heavenly realities with our eyes. And by perceiving them, we become conformed to be heavenly ourselves, and become ready to meet God. Therefore, a church is not just a pretty building for people who like old-fashioned things. A beautiful church is a theologically appropriate church. It allows people to participate in the heavenly realities and, therefore, leads them to salvation.

The irony is that some post-conciliar architects thought that an undecorated church would help people participate by forcing them to look at the action of the altar, when in fact it often impoverished participation because it didn’t allow people to see the heavenly realities: the Trinity, a renewed heaven and earth, and the angels and saints singing God’s praises.

Why do you trace our church architecture back to the Temple?

In the Book of Exodus, Moses is shown by the Lord how to build the tabernacle exactly as he’s seen it in a vision. This place of worship, then, has qualities and measurements given by God. Both the tabernacle and the later Temple of Solomon are understood as microcosms of heaven and earth.

What does a Catholic priest do? He walks through the nave, steps into the sanctuary past the altar rail (a vestige of the veil) marking the edge of heaven and earth, offers prayers and petitions to the Father in the Eucharistic prayer, then comes back to the edge of heaven and earth (the edge of the sanctuary), to offer the true presence of God in the Eucharist to the people. Understanding the Temple liturgy and architecture helps us understand the Christian liturgy.

Moreover, architectural analogies are given in the New Testament. The people of the Church are called “God’s building” based on the foundation of Christ.

What is the place of devotional art in churches?

Liturgical art shows the very reality of the heavenly realities: the Trinity, the angels and saints focused on God and singing God’s praises described in the Book of Revelation. A devotional image is one particular facet of that heavenly reality brought out for personal devotion.

Devotions are not only good; they are indispensable. However, they are not to be confused with the liturgy itself. So the devotional image should have its own place in a shrine or chapel. You’re meant to go there one-on-one and pour out your concerns and seek a saint’s intercession. Sacred art should avoid extremes of style; its fundamental mission is to reveal the nature of the saint as he or she exists in heaven.

The tabernacle sometimes got caught up in the devotional-liturgical divide as well, because the reserved Eucharist was often seen as solely for devotional prayer. But people have realized now the tabernacle is a fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant, the golden box where God’s abiding presence rested with Israel. As Pope Benedict has written, God’s abiding presence still remains with us today in the tabernacle in a way that brings no conflict with the action of the liturgy.

Any particular architects and churches that stand out?

Notre Dame professor Duncan Stroik has emerged in the last few years as perhaps the most famous of the new classical church architects. Not only does he know the basics of traditional architectural grammar, he is a talented poet of the architectural language. He recently completed two big, new traditional churches: the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., and the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in California. Others include James McCrery of Washington, D.C., Thomas Gordon Smith, also of Notre Dame, David Meleca and Bill Heyer in Columbus, Ohio, and numerous others.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

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