A Living Presence: Catholic Sacred Art and Architecture

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a symposium at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. that focused on the critical importance architecture plays in the developmental process of planning and building our most sacred spaces: Catholic Churches.

The theme of the event was “A Living Presence: Extending and Transforming the Tradition of Catholic Sacred Architecture”. Jointly, the architectural design departments of Notre Dame University and Catholic University planned and presented this two-day event that called much needed attention to the role architecture and vocational artists have in the important mission of the Catholic Church.

One of the most striking points noticed during the convocation was the considerable amount of professional enthusiasm and professional dedication all of the presenters and participants exhibited during the symposium. In such a gathering — that united academia with pragmatic examples of artistic and architectural realities — it was visibly evident that the future success of Catholic Sacred Art and Architecture is on the right path and is poised for remarkable success with the designs and plans of inspiring Catholic artists and architects. The symposium itself consisted of the usual presentation of academic papers and subsequent discussions. Uniquely, however, the dedication and devotion of the Catholic faith was apparent in all of the presenter’s attitudes and ideas that envision future designs to enhance our Catholic celebration of the Sacraments.

Importantly, the symposium presented multiple points of view. Traditional Catholic architecture was allowed to co mingle with modern Catholic architecture, and every point of design in between was allowed to participate. The use of the terms, “traditional” versus “modern” does not always allow for a friendly dialogue between parties. However, the artisans and architects present at this gathering uniquely appreciated the fact that the Sacred Mysteries of the Catholic faith joined them together in an artistic and architectural symbiosis that transcended mundane schools of architectural thought.

Most evident at the entire symposium was the overall consensus that the design and building of Catholic Churches should focus on the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ, of which we are all a part. With the theme of “The Architecture of the Mystical Body”, Dr. Steven Schloeder illustrated the many points of architecture that converge in the Catholic Church with the understanding and appreciation of the anatomy of the human body. In developing an understanding and a deeper appreciation of the analogy of the human body, as related to the Body of the Church and the Mystical Body of Christ, art and architecture for the Catholic believer transcends the temporal limitations of human understanding and participates in the eternal mystery of God’s existence.

In appreciating such a lofty integration of liturgical theology, it becomes apparent that the role of the vocational artist and the vocational architect is one of the greatest spiritual and temporal obligations that reflects the living faith of the Catholic Church.

Discussions with various presenters during the event evidenced that in the post-Vatican II era of artistic interpretation, the modern Catholic has lost a significant appreciation of both signs and symbols that manifest themselves through our sacred liturgies and devotional faith. Clearly, this conclave of vocational artists and architects in Washington, D.C. last week shows a true concern for the revival of appropriate Catholic architectural norms that enhance our spiritual experiences while at the same time giving glory to our eternal and transcendent God.

The symposium shows there is a need for a developing dialogue between Church and artisan on a continued and regular basis. From a historical perspective, the role of the artist and the architect is pivotal to the foundational expressions of Catholic ritual and faith. The construction and design of our Catholic Churches, our most sacred spaces, is where the Incarnational Mystery of God Made Man intersects with our temporal attempt to provide a suitable place in which Catholics can justifiably celebrate and worship God’s glory, beauty, and majesty. The symposium also indicated for me, as an author, that there is a remarkable need for education and catechesis of the Catholic faithful as a whole regarding the critically necessary inclusion of  art and architecture into the Catholic worshipping environment.

Those entrusted with the development of the faith in our Catholic parishes should appreciate the vast artistic and architectural heritages the Catholic Church endorses and makes visible through the celebration of it’s most holy and sacred rites.  What is needed is the development and appreciation of the collective historical and social understanding of the Church’s artistic and architectural memory. Pastors and faithful alike need to realize there is indeed room and opportunity for multiple examples of the artistic and architectural differences to co-reside and co- exist as expressions of our transcendent faith and our attempts to humanly unite with our Deity through art and architecture.

The theme of the symposium, A Living Presence, best indicates the organic continuity architects and artisans offer the living Church. Through the adaptation of practical norms of architectural quality and integrity, the vocational artist and architect present a living structure for the Church’s worship.  Even in our human inadequacy these give glory and praise to the real Living Presence of Christ that is the central focus and presence in our Catholic Churches and our hearts. As faithful Catholics, we attempt to bring A Living Presence of Christ to a world that seeks Jesus primarily in our places of sacred worship, our Catholic Churches. The edifices that most visibly offer A Living Presence are indeed the works of inspired artisans and architects. They stand as the sacred gateways toward a deepening relationship of faith, through our signs and symbols of Catholic art and architecture — ultimately a structural living presence that leads faithful believers to the ultimate Living Presence, Christ Jesus.

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