Why Not Beautiful Churches? UPDATED

One of my cousins is a Capuchin priest. He has worked very closely with the very poor and disadvantaged for decades, and he bristles when people talk about “frivolous beauty” or “liturgical pomp”, and when they declare that beautiful things should be stripped down and sold for the poor. “You help the poor by being with them, living and working with them; being one with them, because one of the biggest needs of the poor is the reception of a simple message: ‘You’re as important as anyone; you are loved and loveable.’ You don’t send that message by making the world uglier for them.”

Sell everything in a church, strip it down and you buy some temporary assistance; then the people who sold all that sinful, frivolous beauty go back home, feeling pretty good about themselves and all the ‘help’ they gave to ‘the poor.’ But when the money runs out — and my cousin says money running out is one of the few things you can bank on — then for the poor who remain, “it’s back to business as usual, but with nothing beautiful for them, anywhere.”

My cousin is a man with a great deal of common sense and compassion; living where and how he has lived, he needs both; he is by no means anyone’s idea of a “conservative” but he feels strongly that comfortable, wealthy people with generous instincts mostly have no idea what the poor “need” and that the poor have just as much right (and expectation) to enjoy the consolation and spiritual uplift of a beautiful church as anyone else. Moreover, struggling people don’t want everyday things like straw baskets to be used at communion, because they use everyday things, every day. At Mass, Jesus deserves beauty and they want to engage him in beauty.

His point is valid. I don’t know that I really understood the power of beautiful surroundings, created with the intention of praising and glorifying God, until I visited Rome and considered that the beauty making me gasp on every corner was created, painted, tiled, built by people who were very likely what we call “the poor” today — artisans and craftsmen who worked with their hands; day laborers who lifted and pulled and hammered and sawed. I remember standing back from the Chiesa Nuova and Gesu Church — churches built (respectively) by Saint Philip Neri and by Jesuits, both of whom knew something about living with and for the poor — and contemplating the sense of satisfaction and wonder that these ordinary, struggling people must have felt when the buildings were finished: look what we have done; look what we have made to the glory of God; we have a share in this; we worship here; this would not have been made, if not for us.

Pride; a sense of purpose; a sense of place and of belonging within a disparate community; something beautiful to gaze at in wonder, or — even better — to watch others gaze at in wonder, enjoying the secret knowledge that you helped assemble the scaffolding that created that staggering trompe l’oeil at Gesu Church; you helped haul in and install the welcoming green-tinted marble that makes Chiesa Nuova feel so intimate; you and your brothers and your sons helped place the mosaic tiles, one-by-one, that adorn and brighten the altar of Santa Maria in Trastervere, and 1400 years later, people will still contemplate them in slack-jawed awe and humility.

And for future generations of common, ordinary people — sometimes very poor people, what do the beautiful churches do for them? What does beauty do for any of us? It gives us pleasure; it helps us to dream; it stirs the imagination; it consoles; it reminds us that of all creatures, human beings are invested with a spark from the Creator; it gets us wondering — all of us, rich or poor, privileged or struggling — what potential conflagration of beauty might yet be lit from from our own small, individual sparks.

Blame Katrina Fernandez, aka The Crescat, for this rant. She inspired it by taking issue with utilitarianism which too often comes at the expense of beauty:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that those who criticize liturgical beauty hate beautiful things; I just think they don’t fully understand how it’s utilized within the Church. The full purpose of liturgical beauty and ritual is to physically manifest the spiritually metaphysical through the use of our senses.

In no other aspect of our lives do we demand a reason for beauty or question its purpose. We accept and appreciate beautiful art, music, or a sunset for what it is and allow it to uplift us. For some reason beauty is not suspect except when found in the Church. Then it becomes a waste of money, gaudy excess, and idolatry. Suddenly we are expected to ban beauty in His own house when He Himself made us with this desire to create and appreciate beauty? How odd.

And this argument against ritual, calling it meaningless pomp and circumstance. Ritual gives order and is rarely meaningless. You can find simple examples of ritual even in the most progressive evangelical home church which may open and close with a prayer each Sunday. And surely Catholics do not have the monopoly of liturgical ritual. Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists all have ritual in their worship practices yet it’s only Catholic liturgy most freely criticized and questioned for its usefulness. Again, how odd. One might suspect the real prejudice is with Catholicism and not general beauty or ritual in liturgy.

Really, Kat, ya think? You might have a point. There isn’t much criticism of our secular rituals — like the peaceful transition of an office; the traditional processes observed at a State of the Union address are not called meaningless. No one has yet suggested that the Capital building, or its Statuary Hall are wasteful excesses.

Read Kat’s whole piece. Beauty feeds the soul. We need it. The poor, Jesus said, we will “always have”. He lived with and for ordinary, struggling people, and kept trying to tell us that all of our solutions are not found in money. We keep missing it, don’t we?

UPDATE: Everybody wants beauty

The Power of Beauty draws a new vocation.

One of those happy synchronicities (or the Holy Spirit at work!):
Julie Davis is giving a big thumbs up to The Art of Faith, by Judith Couchman:

Many of the entries have illustrations so that when you encounter something unfamiliar, such as a “sakkos” for example, you know what you’re looking at.

This excerpt gives an example of the unexpected that can be encountered in a painting which seems fairly straight forward.

WALNUT Saint Augustine compared the walnut to Christ’s redemptive work. He likened the shell to the wood of the cross; the bitter substance surrounding the nut to Christ’s flesh; and the meat to sweet, divine revelation. In the Jewish tradition, the walnut symbolized Scripture. EXAMPLE: Fruit Still-Life with Squirrel and Goldfinch, painting by Abraham Mignon, seventeenth century. State Museum, Kassel, Germany. For this busy still life, Mignon imagined a squirrel releasing itself from a chain, wearing a bell collar, and munching on a walnut. In the Middle Ages a squirrel signified evil and this particular collar represented a fool or a sinner. Consequently, the former sinner chose Christ’s life-giving nature.

I had no idea. This prompted me to look for the actual painting which was one in which I’d have missed all the significance if not curious enough to read in this book about what a walnut could possibly represent. Honestly, it was one I’d never have given a second glance because a still life of fruit isn’t my thing, even with a cute squirrel.

Great stuff. Let us thank God for beauty, and for those who help us see it, appreciate it and understand it.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://clcumary.com Leroy Huizenga (@LHuizenga)

    Right on. Part of the problem is the death of metaphysics; in particular, people began believing beauty to be relative, not objective, and then (as concerns churches) bought into the whole idea that form follows function, assuming that the function of a church was to provide mere space for the community to gather, along with the idea that the church must enculturate the gospel into whatever cultural forms are to hand. I think too the shift of emphasis as regards the Eucharist from sacrifice to community meal has a lot to do with it; older churches resemble quite deliberately the structure of the Jerusalem temple (which of course existed for the purpose of sacrifice).

    The best resource for those interested in the question of ecclesial architecture should read Denis McNamara’s _Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy_. It’s a great and winsome crash course.

  • gradchica

    My family and I drive a little extra distance to worship in our city’s beautiful Cathedral precisely to be lifted out of our ordinary, everyday-ness by the beauty of the building, the music, the vestments, and the liturgy encountered there. We want our sons to appreciate that beauty, to associate beauty with God and with the holy, and to realize instinctively that what goes on in church is special and important and unlike what goes on elsewhere in our lives. The liturgy–and the church building–should lift us up to God and lift our thoughts to godly things, not make God and the encounter with Him in the Eucharist “ordinary”. The care, thought, and yes, expense we put into our churches and our liturgy show the importance of God and the liturgy to us–we’re putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak.

    Who will take the things of God seriously when we’re worshipping him in a plain white box or in a movie theater-esque building? We orient ourselves and behave differently in different surroundings–put us in a movie-theater church and we’ll behave and think as if we’re in a movie theater. I can see the difference in my older son when we’re traveling and attend Mass at a more modern church with fewer adornments: whereas in more “churchy” churches he is now instinctively quiet and genuflects before sitting–not standing/climbing/whatever else a 2 yo boy normally does–in churches that feel like lecture halls he is louder, less willing to sit still, and more likely to stand on the chair/bench than sit. I think his behavior illustrates a truth for us as adults: Put us in a beautiful church surrounded by holy art and we’ll act accordingly–and our actions will, one hopes, influence our interior disposition: kneeling feels right in front of a beautiful altar, strange and silly in front of a folding card table, and the not-ordinary, uncomfortable position of kneeling recalls us to why we’re kneeling–to worship the God that created us, becoming present to us on the altar.

  • http://www.patheos.com Deacon Tom

    Ask Father Robert Barron if the Church should sell Saint-Chapelle in Paris and give the proceeds to the poor! The beauty of some churches like Sainte-Chapelle and and other “art” owned by the Church is essentially priceless. No amount of dollars can replace the feeling of awe, wonder and God’s presence inspired by them. Any benefits to the poor would indeed be short-lived, and would do essentially nothing to address the more significant, real issues regarding poverty in the modern world. I read that a young man once confronted Blessed JPII with something like this: “Holy Father, why do you travel around the world so much especially when security and logistical expenses for your travel are so high? Shouldn’t we be using the money for the poor.” I understand JPII responded simply with: “Have you read the Gospel?” Of course, he was referring to Jesus’ command to spread the Gospel to all nations.

  • Joel

    Judas makes the same argument when Mary uses the costly oil and perfume for on our Lord’s feet.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    You know your cousin’s argument is the same as why taking everything from the rich doesn’t work economically. Yeah you can take everything and it runs the government for part of a year or so but then when it runs out you’re left with nothing and no one to invest and hire. The economy is left destitute. I like your cousin’s thinking. I go to a humble local church, but I love going into beautiful Cathedrals. But you know, even local humble Catholic churches have a greater charm than most protestant churches.

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  • http://www.stblogustine.com Matt

    When you set foot inside a wondrous Cathedral and are awestruck by the beauty and reverence of the surroundings, you will likely aspire to reach higher than you would praying in a Protestant warehouse or steel building. Such aspirations often lead to helping the poor and committing other charitable acts of kindness.

    The poor themselves likely having less beauty in their everyday lives benefit like the rest of us in the breathtaking scenery in front of them, realizing that the Heaven which awaits them must be even greater still hundreds of times over. The immesurable benefits to these uplifted spirits should not be ignored, and do change lives.

  • Peggy m

    I remember listening to an art history lecture which ended with the speaker saying “thank goodness for the Catholic church”. He was not Catholic himself, but he said he was grateful for the creation and—very importantly—the preservation of art. His focus was on French Gothic cathedrals—their stained glass, statuary, liturgical objects, the buildings themselves. Unlike most of their secular counterparts, bishops did not routinely destroy art works and buildings commissioned by their predecessors. The art historian said the churches are comparable to the best art museums, but they are free, usually open, and anyone can go in and see them. He remembered his student days, when he could only afford rare visits to the Louvre and the Cluny Museum, but he could always go to Notre Dame, St. Sulpice, St. Germaine de Pres, Chartres, etc., etc.

  • mrteachersir

    @Leroy: Catholic architecture has always been based on form following function. The theology of the Mass and various other liturgical practices led to a design, or form, that fit that function. The beauty and extravagance of the building was due to a reflection of the theology of the Mass: that Mass was the supreme act of worship, the ultimate sacrifice we can give, a melding of heaven and earth.

    The travesty of the post-Counciliar era is that theology of the Mass has changed (or at the least wasn’t understood), thus emphasizing a change in form. The biggest error of the pre-Counciliar Church, in terms of liturgy, was a lack of true education as to the true nature of the liturgy. It is hard to imaging that priests and bishops who truly understood what the Mass is would alter it (the form) so much.

  • Stargazer

    Ornamentation absolutely has a place in Catholic architecture. In the majestic space of a cathedral, it can become truly awe inspiring. Everybody should visit a cathedral on occasion for the inspiration and renewal it can grant.

    That said, I’ve seen too much of a tendency over the last couple of decades to turn humble, working, local, churches into Cathedrals’ lite. It leaves me feeling like it’s costume jewelry and pretentious. The marble encrusted Chancel and Sanctuary leaves me feeling cold. The lack of even a spec of unpainted wood leaves me wondering what the Son of a carpenter would think of it. I respect the humble local church that has the strength of will to remain true to it’s roots.

    There is a beauty in simplicity as well as in ornamentation. We’re a big and all encompassing and all welcoming group. Let’s have both.


  • Will

    I agree that we should have beautiful churches. I love seeing older churches in this country and Europe. I have also been in many beautiful modern churches.

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, although not Catholic, is one example of a beautiful modern (okay, it was built in 1905) church. I encourage you to visit it if you are in the Chicago area. Although the exterior is of concrete, for budget reasons, both outside but especially inside are magnificent.


  • ZJohn

    Thank you for addressing this often brought up issue!

  • http://mojavehicular.wordpress.com/ Bill M.

    My elderly parents, whose driveway is littered with hulled pine cones and other debris from the branches high above, would heartily agree that a squirrel signifies evil.

    As to ecclesiastical architecture, I find that even the most spartan church can be redeemed by a beautiful tabernacle, especially if it’s front and center.

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    I live in a neighborhood where most people are either the working poor or on some form of disability. Many struggle with addictions, or are transitioning back into society after incarceration. Families are stressed, and kids end up on their own—and sometimes parents themselves—early. The first spring in my house, I was blown away by the riot of color in the tulips that bloomed from the first bulbs I ever planted. A 12-year-old girl (one who spent a lot of nights on the street, or couch-surfing with various neighbors) passed by, looked at flowers with such longing, and asked “What are they for?” I was dumbfounded. There was nothing in her life, I realized, that wasn’t utilitarian. “They’re just to be beautiful,” I told her. “Be careful, I’m going to steal them,” she laughed. That night I cut every tulip, massed them in a big glass jar, and left them with a note for her on the porch of a neighbor’s where she stayed. When I got home from work the next day, the neighbor told me the girl had sat up all night, hugging the flowers to herself and smiling. I will never again underestimate the hunger for beauty. “Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us bread, but give us roses.”

  • Jack

    Jesus told His followers to sell their OWN property and give it to the poor.

    He never said anything about stripping the Temple of its riches and treasures to provide for the poor.

    And, as has already been pointed out, Judas, too, asked, “Why this waste?”–but didn’t really care about the poor. How many moderns who ask the same question really care for the poor?

  • http://ascentofcarmel.blogspot.ca Jason

    Definitely agree. Personally, I think the utter uglification of churches is just another wonderful product of that whirling in the wind elvenfolk movement known as “the spirit of Vatican II”. As if everything else that is beautiful in any sense wasn’t already gutted…

  • David J. White

    At the parish where my grandparents grew up — once a German immigrant parish — some years ago they ripped out the marble communion rail. My great-uncle saw a piece of the discarded communion rail sitting in the church’s parking lot, like it was put out with the trash, and started crying — because he had been a student in the parish school when the schoolchildren were asked to donate their pennies toward the cost of the communion rail.

    These beautiful churches were often not just built for poor people, they were build by poor people, often people who sacrified what little they had so that they could help their parish have a beautiful church. Whenever I see one of these beautiful old churches desecrated, I want to grab the liturgical vandals by the collar and shout, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO DO THIS, BECAUSE THIS DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU! I think we keep forgetting that our generation is not the only generation.

    Thomas Day in Why Catholics Can’t Sing says that you can always tell which churches in a city are beautiful and have beautiful music, because those are the churches where the homeless people prefer to hang out.

  • suburbanbanshee

    Immigrant neighborhood churches, built by people’s pennies, are usually the most beautiful churches.

    Incidentally, state legislative buildings are also supposed to be beautiful because they belong to all the state’s people. Beauty used to be seen as uplifting even in secular places, like banks and theaters.

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  • Miss Marple

    This attitude has come from secular ideas, I think. If we look at our current culture, how many things of beauty are “dumbed down” or vulgarized for the supposed entertainment of the “common man?”

    When I was a child, it was common to see Shakespeare on television, along with masterpiece plays from other playwrights. Walt Disney himself incorporated classical music into Fantasia. Art has become mostly a vehicle for shock and mockery. Poetry is now considered something old-fashioned.

    All of this, along with the criticism of ecclesiastical art, comes from the idea that most people are too poor (and by inference too stupid) to appreciate the high arts. It is a sad thing when classical music is used to drive teens from shopping malls, rather than to inspire them.

    As said above, there is hunger for beauty in the poorest of homes. And the place we worship the Lord should be the most beautiful of all.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd Flowerday

    It’s good to realize where the breaks in American Catholicism happened. First, there was a move to imitate European architecture on a smaller scale in ethnic parishes before WWII. Then after, a certain pragmatism entered in. Many parishes still live it, building schools first, worshiping in gyms and cafeterias, and putting the dream of a church on hold. The post-conciliar recovery, in one strain, has attempted to recover the centrality of worship, the use of fine materials, eschewing catalog art, cheap architectural imitation, and a disconnect with the needs of reformed liturgy. It’s a tough balancing act that most pastors detest–note Bishop Lynch’s public comments about his diocese’s cathedral renovation. And the priorities: fix the roof first, then put the statues and windows on hold for the next campaign.

  • http://rebelsprite.wordpress.com/ rebelsprite

    Great post! I agree….particularly it worries me, as others have mentioned, that this argument against using anything beautiful to glorify God (which further educates and inspires us on even sensory levels, as humans are sensory creatures in addition to being spiritual) and instead give it to a materially utilitarian purpose for the poor, was the one used by Judas….and this was just a lie – it covered his true greed to get at the money himself. Likewise, though people who express this similar view today may not actually steal from the funds, they might want to ask what ulterior motives of their own they are covering up with the concern for the poor – a fear of just stopping everything and glorifying God, God, God in every possible way, with everything they’ve got? A fear of realizing the real purpose is to glorify God and reconcile ourselves with Him, not just social work, and not only filling bellies with material food? Both need to be done….but God should never be neglected, without Him we are lost, as as feeble humans, we can can that much more for the inspiring beauty of our churches and services. But then….you already said all of that :-)

  • Doug

    History tells of one especially beautiful worship center whose design was directly from God. Its people came to focus so much on the physical side of worship (‘going to church’) and so little on true worship (obedience) that their building was taken away from them.
    Jeremiah 7, Douay: “Thus says the Lord of hosts the God of Israel: Make your ways and your doings good: and I will dwell with you in this place. Trust not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, it is the temple of the Lord.”
    Not long after, that magnificent temple was destroyed by pagan Babylonians; the third one- Herod’s- was destroyed by pagan Romans. There will not be another.
    Many of the mainstream religions believe that beautiful architecture itself is a way of worshiping God, but Jesus intimated otherwise: “Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in your name, and cast out devils in your name, and done many miracles in your name? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” Mt 7; ibid.

  • http://Pathos Wild Bill

    When I look around the Newer Suburban churches of all denominations including Catholic I just don’s see the same thing as the small town churches in the middle of nowhere that where built by the congregation. There are two in SW WA like this and both are Catholic and used? One is along the shore of the Columbia River across from Astoria Or. This is a very big tourist area and Mass is done Sunday Evening in August. This was built by an Irish Fish Canner in the late 1890′s. The other church is in Frances WA. This truly in the middle of nowhere but a beautiful small white frame building at least a hundred years old. It was built by and for Swiss dairy farmers in the area. I need to get good photos of both these churches and for various reasons never do.
    Compare a couple of small buildings built by a small group of local people to the modern MEGA CHURCH of all denomiations that look like a typical big box store. The old church buildings until recent years where for the most part built with sarcifice and great love of the congregation. You see little of this now, and churches are one part of this.


  • mts1

    The Church got caught up in the same anti-beauty iconoclasm with which the whole of society got infected. Look at the wonderful old train stations, then the barren modern airports. The grand old New York State Assembly building surrounded by ugly modern monoliths. It’s like the last real art types made were Art Nouveau and Art Deco, then bland nothingness, the architectural equivalent of white noise. The trouble is, when the Post Modern movement came to reintroduce some beauty, it used stuff out of scale and a-la-carte with no reference to its original purpose (like the new Chicago Central Library), and made a joke of the old instead of making something new and beautiful, like they forgot how. And it doesn’t have to be expensive to be beautiful – I remember the sublime yet simple rural chapels in the Bavarian countryside.

    And how is a beautiful church selfish? The long-gone builders gave me something to enrich my faith. I might help with a renovation that preserves it for people who will come long after I’m dead, and enrich their faith. It’s kind of an endowment to your community.

  • Steve

    A beautiful liturgy inspires a beautful church building. The Mass of Paul VI on the other hand, is only capable of banality.

  • Momma Kyle

    There is something innately disordered about a society who will build mansions for themselves and stick God in a barren warehouse. Thank you for this post.