Most Catholics, especially American Catholics, don’t think much about the religious art and architecture movement that exists in the Catholic Church today. For the most part, the weekly celebration of Eucharist that goes on in our parish communities is never considered as the living expression of the Catholic Church’s belief in Jesus Christ’s transformation of all human history. We are too busy fulfilling the obligation of Eucharistic participation and are incoherent to the vast artistic heritage that has reflected our exceptional faith since the Apostles.
Perhaps some of this appreciation for the awesome mystery of the sacred is lost because of the 20th century desire to move away from religious expression and divine transcendence. Perhaps it is the result of overzealous modernists who believed that in order to live a productive human life, the entire notion of liturgical worship and the ability of the human spirit towards transcendence was negated in our antiseptic attempts to rationalize God’s Divine Being into examples of pragmatic and utilitarian architecture.
Catholic worship though, most especially its Sacraments, is extremely and acutely aware of signs and symbols of God’s presence among us. Our Catholic Churches are testimony to the living, growing and worshiping People of God that is assembled under its architectural and artistic arches. In the axiom of Saint Prosper, again and again the cry of “Lex Orandi, lex credendi” is constantly heard in all of our sacramental and liturgical celebrations. We clearly pray as we believe in the Incarnational mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and our sacred spaces need to reflect our sacred attempt of prayer and adoration that reflect the glory of God.
There is a Renaissance of sorts going on throughout the Catholic world that perhaps is not really revolutionary, but rather a realistic appreciation of our historical, social and architectural roots. Recently, at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Holy Father celebrated the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the ad orientem, or to the East position, which echoed of a rich historical and liturgical heritage that was realized in Church architecture since antiquity. His actions not only reflected the fact that the Eucharistic sacrifice was being offered in prayer, but acknowledged our long-established appreciation for the transcendence of our sacred prayer in the direction of the Rising sun, the East, the land of the Risen and glorified Jesus. Once again, the sign and symbol of this Eucharistic celebration was intended to clearly herald the message that, liturgically and historically, the Church’s art, architecture and even its sacred prayer are a reflection of the Paschal mystery of the Church, past present and future.
Our sacred spaces, our churches, should not be considered as merely places of gathering or plain old assembly…they should be manifestations of the sacred presence that the Holy Eucharist offers to all believers who are awed by the power and majesty of God and His eternal mysteries. Far too often, our Catholic Churches are considered “gathering spaces” with no appreciation of the awesome fact that “et Verbum caro factum est et habitivat in nobis!” God dwells among us in our Catholic Churches in the Eucharistic species and our Catholic Churches need to reflect this appreciation and understanding of the great gift of Eucharist Jesus presents daily to His Church.
The design and implementation of appropriate art and architecture in Catholic sacramental applications should most clearly illustrate our heritage that is rooted in the God of Abraham, with His sacred presence among us. Most importantly however, our sacred worship space should be a celebratory place that calls the Catholic faithful to rich and solemn prayer.
It is especially significant that the trend of Church design has perhaps come to a more moderate perspective in terms of planning our sacred spaces. We are now enjoying a resurgence of the best points of design and artistic expression from both aspects of our liturgical heritage, the development of the Roman liturgy and enlightened incorporation of traditional art and architecture as part of our sacred celebrations. This movement significantly indicates to this author that there is not only a developing and growing appreciation of good liturgical expression through good liturgy, but also a resurgence of understanding of all of the signs and symbols available to enhance our sacred call to prayer.
Celebration of the Eucharist, regardless of the orientation of the celebrant, is the living prayer of a vibrant worshiping community, not just the ritual observation of a stagnant rite. Our celebrations and sacred worship rightly incorporate our artistic and ritualistic heritage into our Eucharistic celebration. There is a continuity that seems to be evolving among Catholic believers, namely that our worship of God is truly reflective of our entire spiritual and liturgical history. Such planning and design in our Church architecture is finally presenting an appreciation for the past and a pilgrim understanding of our present as revealed in our living and sacred future as the Kingdom of God continues to unfold.