Do Beautiful Churches Produce Vocations?

I know a young priest who was brought up as a Baptist. He went into a beautiful old Catholic Church during the liturgy. This was a classic neo-Gothic church with stained glass windows and a beautiful liturgy. He fell to his knees and said that he knew then and there that he not only needed to be a Catholic, but that he was called to be a Catholic priest. He’s not the only one. I know two other guys who eventually made the same decision for the same reason, and numerous other converts who were drawn by the beauty and reverence of worship including the reverence evoked by the beautiful church.

The unknown architect of Glastonbury Abbey in England wrote, “I want to create a church so beautiful that it will move even the hardest heart to prayer.” Can a beautiful church produce vocations to the priesthood? Perhaps we should reverse the question and say, “Does an ugly church discourage priestly vocations?” To answer the question we must think through, and come up with a theory of aesthetics and think through the reasons for both ugly churches and beautiful churches. Once we understand the mentality behind both we will be able to answer the question of whether a beautiful church can help produce new vocations to the priesthood.

The modern churches we deem ‘ugly’ are usually designed from a utilitarian point of view. Modern architecture has taken as it’s creed Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum, “Form follows function.” Therefore most modern architechts, when considering the building of a church will ask, “Where will everyone sit. What kind of an artificial sound system should we install? Where will the heating, air conditioning and toilets go? Where will the Sunday School rooms go? What about disabled access? Do we need elevators?” All these practical and utilitarian questions must, of course, be answered, but if they are the only considerations you will end up with a practical, inexpensive and ugly building. You’ll end up with a building that is simply an auditorium.

Then, of course, Catholics will want their church to be ‘pretty’ so they’ll spend lots of money adding a layer of gloss. They’ll throw in some marble. They’ll buy some second hand stained glass windows from an old church in Ohio or somewhere. They’ll add a nice tabernacle or some statues. That’s all well and good, but the building itself is still probably an ugly, utilitarian, cheaply built structure.

We then have to ask what these churches say about the faith, for the church building is a sacramental. It states what we believe. A building, whether we like it or not, is a statement of our values, our faith and our world view. A cheap building with no inner integrity of beauty–a cheap building that is ‘dressed up’ to look Catholic or ‘pretty’ with decorations is superficial and shallow and only skin deep….just like our faith too often I’m afraid! In our superficial, face lift world we build churches that are superficial where the ‘beauty’ is really on ‘pretty’ and skin deep.

What about the liturgy that goes on in such buildings? Too often it also is superficial, sweet and comfortable and skin deep. Does such liturgy and do such buildings inspire vocations? Do they say to our young people, “Look what sacrifices we have made to worship God?” Do they say, “We have given all to build something beautiful for God”? or do they actually say, “It’s okay to give God second best. It’s okay to give him what’s left over.”? Do they come out of the building yawning and wondering what next for Sunday or do they come out full of awe and thankfulness for the beautiful worship of God?

A beautiful church, that required great sacrifice to build, on the other hand–combined with beautiful liturgy and an awesome and reverent worship of God is more likely to inspire the reverence and awe and sacrifice required of our young people who are thinking about a vocation.

This is my theory: sacrifice much to build a beautiful church and you will find that your children will sacrifice much to become the priests, brothers and sisters to fill that church for a next generation.

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  • Mitch

    To build a beautiful church you first need to build a solid church. A shell that can stand the centuries. That is what is so hard for most modern architects, why build a building that will last 200 years when you can build one that lasts 50 (and thus get a returning customer not too far down the road). After you have a solid building you can add ornamentation, statues, frescoes, icons etc. It is a solid enough building to change, have organic development but remain the same church throughout the ages much like the Church as a whole. I personally think that for any parish building committee Martin Heidegger's "Building Dwelling Thinking" is a must read. Even if you find the rest of his philosophy useless "B.D.T." provides great insight into how to build a building that is not just a building but a dwelling place, a place that unites the "fourfold" of Divinity, Humanity, Earth and Sky.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    the 'vandals'cut down the Glastonbury Thorna couple of months ago'broken britain' indeedpray for us great Martyr St George

  • matthew

    My family usually attends a new suburban(minimalist) roman catholic church but recently I took my 10 year old son to a 'latin mass' church(beautiful)in an urban city near us. As we walked out I aksed him what he thought of that mass and church. He simply said, "they are serious about Jesus in that church Papa".

  • Alphonsus Rodriguez

    I was kept out of the Catholic Church for at least twenty years because every time I actually went to a Catholic Church what I found seemed to be nothing like what I had been reading about in Chesterton, Ronald Knox, St. Augustine, et al. The impression I got was that Catholics had moved on to something other than what had been the Catholic Faith. I finally found my way into the Catholic Church via traditional high church Anglicanism (at a parish where things did look like what I had been reading about in Chesterton and the rest). I am very grateful that I live close enough to a parish entrusted to the care of the FSSP to be able attend Msss according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. The church we use is a renovated protestant church, but the transformation effected was quite remarkable. Ideally one would build a church to suit one's purposes, but with a bit of creativity and imagination some ugly churches can be vastly improved.

  • Arnold Conrad

    Many cities like Chicago and New York are filled with beautiful churches built at the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries by working class immigrants, who truly sacrificed to build them. It would cost millions to duplicate them now, if we even could. My home parish church in Des Moines, Iowa was built in the 1920s in the Lombardy romanesque style and is now a minor basilica and on the National Registry. I bet it would cost $10 million or more to replicate it, assuming the artisans could be found. New generations of young adults have rediscovered it and the beautiful liturgies celebrated there, reviving an inner city parish that might have died by now absent this beautiful church.

  • anilwang

    Beauty is part of it, but not beauty for the sake of beauty. It has to be "sacred beauty". I don't know how to define it in any way other than its effect. If it's a place where you want to kneel down and pray, it likely has "sacred beauty", even if it is simply furnished, e.g. some Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches are very simply decorated with icons but you feel compelled to pray there. If it's a place where you feel like looking around and taking pictures and doing art critiques, it's probably beautiful, but it likely lacks sacred beauty and will not inspire prayer and instead create distractions to prayer. If it looks like the perfect place to hold a conference or a basket ball game, it's probably a very good place, but lacks both sacredness and beauty and will definitely discourage prayer. Where there is no prayer, there is a lack of faith and a lack of vocations.

  • Joseph M

    Grew up in a plain Jane church (built around 1960) that, in comparison to what has been built since, looks pretty good. BUT – the music was fantastic, which helped create the kind of sacred environment even if the building didn't. On the Good News front: is the new chapel at Thomas Aquinas College – there's a building that will inspire some vocations…

  • Guiseppe

    Absolutely! If you've ever met Father Aidan Logan, OCSO, (trappist) and seen pictures of his home church in New Jersey, there wculd be no doubt that the beauty of the art and architecture of his Church in some way inspired him in his pursuit of the cowl.

  • Dr. Eric

    Beautiful churches and reverent liturgies absolutely produce vocations. If I had been able to go to a church like St. John Cantius in Chicago or St. Francis de Sales in St. Louis for their Solemn High Masses, I would have forsaken the world and become a priest. Having a "secret" language and rituals that are obscured to all except those at the altar makes a person want to be in on the "secret."

  • Dr. Eric

    Plus, who would want to work in the Borg Mothership instead of the Cathedral of Notre Dame?

  • Augustine

    Fr. L,I'd say that Frank L. Wright was right, as usual. The problem though is that the function that modern church buildings are trying to fulfill is that of a theater, not of a church.In this sense, godly church buildings fulfill their true function: worship the Holy Trinity. Then, the form that follows this function is what we know as beautiful churches. ;-)May Mary pray that Antoni Gaudi be beatified.

  • Rachel Gray

    Father, when you wrote "This is my theory: sacrifice much to build a beautiful church and you will find that your children will sacrifice much to become the priests, brothers and sisters to fill that church for a next generation," you summed it up well. It makes me think that the vocations are coming not because the church is beautiful, but because the people are faithful.My own home parish has a new church that isn't pretty at all (in my opinion). The pastor wanted a traditional building but was forced by the archdiocese to go with a modern design– it was a fight just to be allowed to have the tabernacle front and center. But many vocations come from my parish, where the priests faithfully preach the full Catholic faith and the people follow their lead.I do think it's very important to make a church as beautiful as you can reasonably manage, for the honor and glory of God and for the good effect it has on the people. As for vocations I'm sure it's helpful, but fortunately not necessary.

  • RMT

    Father, the phrase form follows function was actually from the architect that Wright worked under in Chicago, Louis Sullivan, who designed some beautiful buildings in Chicago.What Sullivan and Wright meant by the term was completely different than what the phrase morphed into–the artwork that both Wright and Sullivan placed in their buildings was intrinsic to the design, not something applied after they had exhausted all of the functional elements. There are many details, including beautiful and delicate stencil work in many of their buildings that would have been completely left off of their buildings if they were completely following the modernist creed.What later modernists attached to that phrase was the thought that because form follows function, the use of any excessive art or forms in the space was looked at as almost criminal.

  • Abel Kurian

    I personally loved beautiful churches, especially the old ones that have stood over the centuries with the elegant Gothic structures. But I know personally some churches that are so small and little, but yet are crowned someway or another, to be a place of deep spiritual prayer and holiness that transform a lot of peopleIts not only the bricks and stones that matter more but rather people's hearts.

  • deepoctave

    Although a beautiful building may be a factor, it must be a small and rare occurence. If it were a significant influence, Europe would be overflowing with vocations.

  • BuckeyeSandy

    A beautiful and REALLY Catholic church alone will not produce vocations, but we have not had much success with the post-modern protestant looking suburban churches with little trace of our Catholic identity either.

  • Mark Scott Abeln

    The beauty of the old Catholic church buildings was one component of my conversion. The other components were Catholic theology and the Church's moral code.

  • The Western Confucian

    A New York Times writer at the time of Pope Paul VI's visit to New York said that attempts to use industrial designs in churches "as irrational as to try to house a General Motors assembly line in the Cathedral of Chartes."

  • Mike Cliffson

    Oz purists permitting "Too true, blue"expresses my sentiments.I quite like liverpool cathedral,(one visit, one mass) but I know many don't.Who knows but that the original plans might have mentally been better for the Bishops of liverpool, I mean, I don't experience what a priest does, but I can see that being at the central altar of a massive circle might be just the lil'crack the devil needs…..and if iam easy meat for the devil who'll be trying 100times harder with a bish, well… .We were told at the time , the 60s,(when they left the luytyen's crypt and changed plans) that the Artchitects and builders had been surprised to be asked to produce a building that would last 4 centuries, but had nonetheless knuckled under – well , it's run into trouble 40 years on ,not 400.

  • Lynne

    Should an archdiocese close this church?Holy Trinity