When a new church was being constructed in the poorest part of town, Fr Dwight Longenecker wrote that the poor would see a new church rising.
“We’ve got prostitution, gangs, drugs and crime. We’ve got broken homes, broken hearts and broken lives.
In the midst of this we are trying to build a beautiful new church…
Notice he didn’t say we are going to build the most cost efficient building possible. He said they were going to build a beautiful church. A church that is well built with architectural features and elements can a beacon of Christianity in and of itself.
“Christ the King came to live among and save the poorest of the poor. Our church will rise like Christ the King–showing our neighborhood that Catholics still build beautiful churches and that we do so for a reason: because our faith is beautiful and Christ is beautiful. We will build a church that will last for a thousand years because we are committed to the renewal of our world and the renewal of this community. We will build a church that is true and solid because the faith is true and solid.
The poor will see a beautiful church rising in their community–amongst the flophouses and drug dens–and know that the Catholics here chose to stay here. We didn’t sell up and move to the suburbs where the money was. We stayed here to be a lighthouse in the dark.”
A church building doesn’t need to be big or expensive to communicate the Christian faith through its architecture and design. But it doesn’t need to be designed with intention. I recently visited this tiny rural church on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Its St. Benedict’s parish but it is also called “The Painted Church” because it was hand painted by Fr John Valghe. He used house paint on regular wood to create the illusion of a European Gothic cathedral and he also painted frescos of bliblial stories to teach the illiterate in his parish.
Fr Valghe knew that beautiful churches serve a purpose. Yet there is a growing sentiment that beautiful churches are unnecessary or even wasteful.There are some who would say that a church building like the the one below is morally superior to a great cathedral because the money used to build a cathedral could be better used to help the poor.
Fr Longenecker challenged that idea:
Why should the poor be given a church that is mean, shoddy and falling down and why should the rich be the only ones who offer to God a beautiful temple? It was not so in times past. In the days of our great grandfathers poor immigrants built beautiful churches for Christ while they lived in poor hovels. Now we build poor hovels for Christ while we live in McMansions. I can see a beautiful traditional church in the poor part of town. The fact that it is being built right across the street from a whorehouse is, for me, a very wonderful Catholic contradiction. Jesus, after all, welcomed the worship of the prostitute.
Jesus rebuked the same sentiment when Judas said “Why this waste?” when Mary poured expensive oil on Jesus feet. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor! Jesus reprimanded him and commended Mary’s extravagance. “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Judas was engaging in the zero sum fallacy. The fallacy claims that if one person gains or enjoys a beautiful or valuable thing that means another person loses something. That’s not true. There isn’t a finite set of wealth, art, and beauty that we are all grasping to get. God gave man the ability to produce, create or cultivate all three. Its not the cultivation or production of wealth that is wrong. It is failure to share what is produced with those in need that is the sin.
The truth is that a church building is accessible to everyone! It is available to the rich, the poor and everyone in between to enjoy the beauty and meaning in the architecture, art, and sacramentals, music and culture.
The poor may rely on that beauty more than others.
We see the desire for beauty and tradition expressed in the parishes and schools built by poor immigrants in previous centuries. Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness.“ And it was the poor who wanted them!
-Duncan G. Stroik Beauty is for the Poor Too
Why did the poor want churches to be a work of art?
It is true that rich and the middle class can afford many distractions: artwork, books, museums, travel, and entertainment where they oftentimes come in contact with beauty, serenity, and even the divine. Yet for those less well-off, where do they find the richness of culture and the majesty of nature but in the dome of a cathedral or the stained glass of a church? Beauty is For the Poor Too
Worship is More than a Spiritual experience
With the rise of shopping mall and school gym churches and buildings devoid of any religious imagery , we seem to have lost the awareness that God created worship to incorporate both matter and beauty.
We are baptized into Christ with water. .
Prayers for healing involve anointing with oil.
Jesus used mud to heal the blind man.
Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were taken to those who were sick. Their sicknesses would be cured, and evil spirits would leave.
People were healed by Paul’s shadow.
Healings took place by touching Ezekiel’s bones and looking at the fiery serpent on a pole.
God commanded the building of statues and images for worship and we see the same things described in heaven.
Jesus death on the cross was a physical death and he said unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we have no life in us. God came to us in the flesh. He became a human. That’s why matter matters.
But we don’t see artwork, statues, relics, and other material aids to worship in many churches today because during the reformation, iconoclasts (literally, “icon smashers”) stripped churches of material items used in worship. “When Reformation states and mobs destroyed or suppressed those alternative cultural forms, they were in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story” and “the loss of paintings, murals, sculptures, architecture were irreparable.” –The Breaking of Images, Phillip Jenkins
The reformers ” claimed that it was sinful to make pictures and statues of Christ and the saints, despite the fact that in the Bible, God had commanded the making of religious statues (Ex. 25:18–20; 1 Chr. 28:18–19), including symbolic representations of Christ (cf. Num. 21:8–9 with John 3:14)” Do Catholics Worship Statues?
To hear some tell it, God himself would oppose elaborate churches and anything material used in worship . Joe Heschmeyer, dispels that myth in this blog post. God’s instructed the Temple of Soloman to be “elaborate, beautiful, even extravagant”!
…to take just one example, the statues of the cherubim are mounted on chariot made of gold. The priestly vestments were equally extravagant (see Exodus 39) as was virtually everything associated with the worship of God. All this remains true in the New Testament and for all eternity.” –The Worship of Beauty and the Beauty of Worship
Heschmeyer points out that “this extravagance is true for all eternity”! “The heavenly Jerusalem, for example, is described in this way (Revelation 21:18-21):
The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
And the Liturgy described in Revelation is an elaborate affair, too with the prayers of the saints being offered before the throne of God. (Revelation 8:2-4):
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” –Joe Heschmeyer
In spite of all of the scriptural support for extravagant beauty associated with worship spaces, some folks just don’t get it. Like the creator of this meme:
The meme misses several key points:
The person who takes a vow of poverty doesn’t own the church building.
A curator doesn’t own the museum, just as clergy don’t own the church.
God commanded opulent design in worship so he isn’t opposed to it.
The Vatican doesn’t own priceless art-it is a curator of art for the public.
Churches are public and beautiful church buildings provide beauty for the poor.
“Faulting the Cathedrals and Basilicas of the world for containing “too much” wealth is an awkward denial of the fact that the cathedrals and basilicas of the world are explicitly for the use of the poor, and to steal from them is to steal, not merely from the Church, but from the poor themselves.” Marc Barnes
As a penniless college student, I would ride a bike about 10 miles to the Philbrook gardens to study. Why didn’t I just study outside on campus? Because Philbrook offers food for the soul, not just a place to study. Take a look and see:
I am not alone in being able to enjoy the beauty of Philbrook. Over 150,000 people from all walks of life and socioeconomic situations get to enjoy Philbrook each year. To sell if off and give the proceeds to the poor would actually be robbing the poor of the treasure that it is available to be enjoyed day after day, year after year. Its a favorite place for weddings to take place. The same can be said for a church building where people go to enter into the heavenly liturgy of the mass.
A beautiful church building, gracefully proportioned, drawing the eye up to the altar; windows in plain or stained glass, letting sun-beams in; beautiful vestments worn by the priests and deacons, colorful choir robes, reminding us that we are at no ordinary gathering, but at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb;… All this says ‘here is the place where we have come to meet the Bridegroom.’ The Role of Beauty in the Church
That said, a beautiful church isn’t necessary to celebrate mass when a church building isn’t available as this picture from World War II shows:
Last week, mass was even said on a turnpike with an altar made out of snow for travelers stranded in a blizzard in Pennsylvania with no access to a church!
So of course, a beautiful church isn’t necessary to worship God or even to participate in the mass. God was with the Israelites when they wandered in the desert! But when they weren’t wandering anymore , he later commanded building a Temple.
But Wait. Didn’t the New Testament Churches Do Away With Formal Buildings to Meet Informally in Homes?
The idea that New Testament churches were simply informal gatherings is a prevalent myth. People imagine that God did away with all the formality in worship afterJesus and that church was an informal event in living rooms. That myth has been recently disproven by archeologists. The earliest church documents show that the liturgy was very similar to the mass we celebrate today.
This drawing of a house church demonstrates that a house church wasn’t just an informal gathering without any structure as some people envision:
“At Dura Europos, where the extensive discovery has yielded not only abundant examples of Iconography throughout the house church structure and also some fragmentary manuscripts in the Hebrew language that show a continuity with the Eucharistic liturgy of the first century Didache and the more developed Apostolic Constitutions.”
Throughout history, Christians have typically met in homes when the church was forced underground and it was illegal to meet in churches. The New Testament describes the fact that church meetings were in homes , but it doesn’t prescribe it as a model of what a church should look like.
Even during periods when it was illegal to build a church, early Christians still built church buildings, as this discovery shows. So, just as the Israelites didn’t have a Temple during their wandering, an elaborate temple was the norm once they were settled, Christians met in homes while under persecution but the norm is to have a church.
That is why Fr Dwight Longenecker said that the poor in his parish in the poorest part of Greenville would see a new church rising that would be a lighthouse in the dark.
So the next time I hear “we should sell our churches and give the money to the poor”, I will agree that we need to care for the poor. But I will challenge the sentiment that stripping beauty out of churches is not the right way to do so. In fact, I may point out that we should be building more magnificent churches to give glory to God, to reveal the deepest theological realities and to give beauty to the poor.
Update: The church Fr Longenecker wrote about is no completed. To see photos, see what he wrote here: How Beauty Saves In our little corner of South Carolina