When I was first a Catholic I wondered why we had a feast to celebrate the foundation of a grand church in Rome. So what? The readings for Mass, however answer the question. The whole thing comes down to fact that a great church like St John’s Lateran is a temple where dwells the presence of Almighty God. This causes us to ask what a church building is for.
In the Judeo Christian (and noble pagan) traditions–in fact in virtually every religion other than Protestantism–the religious building was a temple. It was the dwelling place of the gods. For the Jews the tabernacle in the desert and then the temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of the one true God. The temple is God’s house. That people go there to worship God is the secondary function. God is there. People go there to meet God. It follows.
However, at the Protestant Revolution all that was challenged. Simple people got upset at the splendor of the churches (and it must be said, the splendor of the lifestyle of the clerics) compared to their simple and poor lives and they resented the splendor and wealth expended. They liked the story of Jesus cleansing the temple and wanted to overthrow the temples of the Catholic church. They also wanted a religion of the simple Bible preaching. For this you did not need a fancy building, but a simple barn would do. All they needed was a preaching hall.
This barren,(if understandable) utilitarianism eventually won everyone over because (guess what?) building a barn for a preaching hall was cheaper too. Lots cheaper! So over the last fifty years in the United States Catholics also (who were still known for building beautiful churches) started building big barns to hear Mass said. The post Vatican II churches were utilitarian. They were the meeting place for the people of God. They were often round or fan shaped so the people of God could gather around the altar for the celebration of Mass. The tabernacle was often placed to one side because the focus for the building was no longer the presence of God, but the presence of the people of God. A certain people based theology went along with this….”Now we see that the presence of God really IS the people of God…” Geddit?
However, what was missing was the entire Judeo Christian tradition of the church building being God’s house. [Read More]