Why Catholics Should Build Beautiful Churches

I used to wonder why the church, in her venerable wisdom, had a memorial feast day 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. It’s 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, the 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 that 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.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17160007162310459631 Alejandro

    Hi Fr. Dwight, I live in a Mexican city and I get kind of sad when I see the differences between a rich neighborhood and a poor neighborhood church. I would like to see beautiful churches no matter where they are. Sometimes I would to see something like in the Mormon temples: they are all the same. But other times I like to see the parish people working hard to get the most of what they have; even if that most is just a warehouse with cheap materials.Regards,

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08906131174326742939 Patricius

    "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."How true!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02288730018702281708 Babs

    Well said. Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07610527895400569089 pilgrim

    You are correct. Beautiful churches are important. I would like to think that God sees that "done unto the least of these" is a nice dwelling place also. Balance is important. The world has so many that need so much, how do you live in balance?

  • http://openid.aol.com/jllfolarin jllfolarin

    While physical beauty is motivating and important, flesh and blood must always come before brick and mortar, as the church is meant to be a movement, and not a monument. When the living church is spiritually healthy and nourished, her beauty and inspiration will naturally emerge in all her physical works, which indeed are meant to reflect her. Bottom line, when we major on the majors, the minors will work themselves out beautifully.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16142633311407145793 Wine in the Water

    jllfolarin,I would say that the house of worship *is* a major. It is both a spiritual and corporal act of charity for the "flesh and blood."The church building provides a sacred respite from the world. It provides beauty with its art. It provides catechesis with its symbolism and its art. It provides a place that can be felt as home. It need not be lavish to do this, but when it is ugly and "cheap," it fails to do this.These things are part of the human experience. They are the needs of every human person. While those who cannot even meet their physical needs are in even greater need of these, there is also great spiritual poverty – as opposed to being "poor in spirit" – throughout our society. We cannot neglect this need either.And we must also consider, that when we reduce our acts of mercy to purely physical needs, when we deny their non-physical needs, we run the risk of de-humanizing those in need. It's not a matter of either/or, or even one-then-the-other. It's an obligation of both/and.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08887225068333635550 Gerry384

    Sir:Could you give a Bible reference, please, for St. Paul talking about us being 'living stones'?I find Peter's remarks about this in his first letter () — but nothing from Paul.Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04287681931799759902 Padre Steve

    Excellent as usual! Keep up the great work!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02774610776084180947 rosario3

    Great post…God Bless.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00997766157711823147 the owl of the remove

    One of your best pieces ever! I feel an article coming on….! (You don't by any chance, have a building project do you….?!)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12472727790451923136 Captain Dalroy

    For many, many people, The Church is the only place they can 'come home to'. We therefore honor our friends and family by building them a decent, beautiful home.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00334700057953625321 Elizabeth Mahlou

    Beauty can be in the definition. I think our Old Mission Church is one of the most beautiful there is and so do most visitors. Yet, the tiles are uneven, and you can see the prints of animals that scampered across before they were finished baking in the sun. The pews could use refinishing, but there is not money in our small community for that, but there is a lot of comfort in knowing that for more than 200 years those same pews have held worshippers, many now passed on, who came to pray together as we do today. There is as much beauty in the old, in my experience, as in the new, and there is perhaps even more beauty than in the rich. (And, nonetheless, I do, of course, enjoy the ornate churches; I just don't feel like my place of worship is any less beautiful.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01127649471079589529 Jason

    Catholic Churches should indeed be beautiful.It saddens me that in the post-modern world we put forth ideas as if new that our fathers and grandfathers understood to be common sense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13350375696728890052 SCWJR

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13350375696728890052 SCWJR

    I am happy to see a beautiful church, but I am happier to see healthy people. When people in this world are starving, spending exorbitant sums of money on beautiful is immoral.To make a case for building beautiful churches while the poor suffers is specious, because they are at best ambiguous on this topic, and arguably they are clearly opposed to such a practice. But for the sake of debate, let us assume they are ambiguous (eg. On one hand, we have Christ and the Apostles gathering wheat on the sabbath, while on the other hand we have Christ's feet being washed with perfume). As this is the case we ought to rely on our natural reason, and it seems eminently clear to it that buying gold things for ourselves or others while your neighbor is starving is evil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17965461333232420152 jpelicano

    SCWJR:As Mary broke open an extremely expensive jar of perfume and worshiped Christ by anointing Him, Judas used much the same argument as yourself. "Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?" (John 12:5) The response of Christ is that the poor will always be among us. I think this, when considered with the rest of the Bible's account of the ministry of Jesus, unambiguously shows that money spent on worship is NOT wasted. This is not an either/or situation. We are called to worship by giving to God AND others to the best of our ability. If we decided that we would not build anything beautiful until all people were fed and treated justly we would never build anything beautiful. How dreary life would be. Anyone, rich or poor, can enter a beautiful church and find solace, sanctuary, and the lifting of the soul. The benefit is for all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13350375696728890052 SCWJR

    jpelicano:Jeremiah Chapter 6:19-20Hear, O earth:I am bringing disaster on this people,the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law.20 What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me."Amos 5: 21-2521 "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!Luke 12:33. "Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys."Mark 2:27 Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" This is usually interpreted that the demands of the poor and needy trump the demands of Pharisaical religious observance. The verses you cite make sense if Jesus's words are interpreted to refer to His mortal body. Christ is still with us in His Church and Sacraments and will be everlastingly. As this is the case Christ's justification of Mary's devotion does not apply. I tell you again, I like seeing beautiful churches, purple robes, and golden chalices, and I know that no organization does more for the poor than the Church, but I think that the resources spent on beautiful things are better spent helping the needy. Lastly, I do not think we can really consider the tension at hand a both/and until it is the case that no one is in danger of dying of thrist, starvation, or deprivation of any other material good.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14624843397283907934 Tim H.

    Look at some of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. Many of them have intracately carved statues at the parapets, beautiful works that noone ever looks at. Hundreds of years ago, workers toiled to create this, knowing that men would hardly notice. They did their work before the face of God, because he deserves the best we have.-Tim-

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03011785452075633790 Mark G.

    SCWJR:In the Shanghai cathedral of St. Ignatius, a priest recently gave a homily about how after the time of severe persecution, the Catholics in his poor rural town wanted to build a church. He said they donated everything they had besides the bare necessities & often went without eating. For as long as it took, they sacrificed until the church was built.Seems I remember a missionary priest saying that in many poverty-stricken areas of the world, the church is the only beautiful thing that the people have in their lives, the only thing that enkindles the hope of heaven.I don't think you recognize how Western & bourgeois your mindset is about scorning the requirement for beauty in worship.I'm sure you know that it was God who ordered the Israelites to build an extravagant house of worship befitting his majesty. His rejection of their sacrifices was due to lack of charity in their hearts, not because the Temple was too lavish.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    "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."Fr. Longnecker, God is not limited by aesthetic beauty. He created the universe in its most sublime majesty, so anything that we can create, though immensely beautiful, can only pale by comparison.My point is that God can manifest His Spirit where He wills, when He wills, to whom He wills. The determining factor isn't the beauty of the temple; it's the passion and sincerity of the individual believer.When His disciples were infatuated with the beauty of the Temple, Jesus reminded them, "Do you see these stones? Soon they will not stand on top of each other. They will all be thrown down."Love of aesthetic beauty must not turn into a kind of snobbery in which people criticize different forms of Christian worship and music simply because they're not accustomed to particular tastes. When we place our personal tastes over our worship, we committ idolatry.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14156695400282604539 Chalmers

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