A Refuge From Chaos: Discovering Christ Cathedral

A growing Catholic metropolis of 34 acres, the Diocese of Orange’s Christ Cathedral campus in Garden Grove, California is a bastion of evangelization at the crossroads of secularism and transcendence. It is also a couple of blocks from Disneyland—so if planning a family vacation to Anaheim, a visit to Christ Cathedral would be a convenient and worthwhile stop. (Imagine the day when a Catholic cathedral will be a main destination spot for a family vacation with Disneyland the quick stopover on the way!)

Carving out time to merge a vacation with a pilgrimage sends a subtle message to both family and community: we are not limited to this realm alone, and even vacation should include renewal time for the spiritual. While on the one hand, the world’s holiest places are often subsumed with tourists and photographers, selfie sticks threatening to transform holy grounds into disposable Instagram backgrounds, visiting such sites with the approach of contemplation and appreciation invites pilgrims to enter a mystery being contemplated around the world.

The centerpiece of Christ Cathedral is the cathedral itself—the sprawling, diamond-shaped, 10,000-glass paned, 78,000-square-foot structure designed by architect Philip Johnson and dedicated in 1980. For decades it was known as the Crystal Cathedral, the home of Crystal Cathedral Ministries under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller, the televangelist and pastor, who broadcasted his weekly show, Hour of Power, from the pulpit of Crystal Cathedral. The Diocese of Orange purchased the Crystal Cathedral property in 2012 and has been working to transform the cathedral into a hallowed place of Catholic worship.

Having retained much of Dr. Schuller’s architectural visions and contributions—pilgrims will notice elements ranging from the eye catching 18-story spire adjacent to the cathedral to the hundreds of stone engravings with Scriptural quotes to eleven stations of mercy commemorating the Jubilee Year of Mercy—this new heart of the diocese promises to be both a bridge to the past and a portal to the future. While the cathedral undergoes renovation, Christ Cathedral parish holds daily and weekend liturgies in its arboretum across the plaza in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The evident vibrancy—worshipers in prayerful meditation at the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the gatherings for weddings, the solemn funeral processions—witness the active life of a Catholic community.

Christ Cathedral is not abandoned property, ruins of a once glorious religious past that one can see dot the Irish landscape, for example, but a faithful field of hope in the often unforgiving, overloaded Southern California. “Beauty draws, God’s light draws, so people can be drawn here and maybe reconnect with their faith or just find a place of rest, beauty, and reflection, in the middle of the city,” Bishop Kevin Vann observed, who was appointed Bishop of Orange by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

In addition to the parish and diocesan headquarters, the grade school Christ Cathedral Academy operates on the campus, and several Catholic apostolates work out of the Tower of Hope, once the tallest building in Orange County: Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Center, the Augustine Institute’s and Dynamic Catholic’s Orange County offices, and EWTN’s West Coast Studio, which broadcasts original programming in Spanish and English.

This hub of Catholic activity offers a glimpse of possibility: as secular culture drifts further from the pillars that originally formed it—the very same pillars that continue to guide Holy Mother Church—into new territories of tenuous foundations with questionable motives and principles, a place like Christ Cathedral is both a refuge for the wayfarer and a stronghold of spiritual sustenance.

While much has been written about Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” thesis over the last few years, the motive for it remains urgently prescient: how do faithful communities following Christ reconcile this stake of belief with living in the world today? One cannot expect the millions of Catholics of the Pacific Rim, for instance, to retreat to forested monasteries. On the other hand, perhaps the sway of contemporary modern culture should be reduced in its overblown import. Is a happy medium possible? While a remaking of the Middle Ages is less a possibility than mass exodus away from society, the attitude of that time is nonetheless worthwhile today.

Romano Guardini, writing in The End of the Modern World, suggests a spirit that believers today can recapture: “There is only one standard by which any epoch can be fairly judged: in view of its own peculiar circumstances, to what extend did it allow for the development of human dignity?” In the same way that a cathedral uplifts the soul from the everyday to the heavenly, Guardini saw the Middle Ages as a period that strove to fuse the transcendence into the everyday, the will of God into the human spirit; the strive for perfect union of ora et labora. This is the Benedict Option for our own time: once the will of the individual becomes aligned with a care for the greater context—family, community, church, the transcendent—a cultural revolution will not be far behind.

In this way, Christ Cathedral symbolizes exactly what a cathedral should be, especially today: a holy place of solidarity amid cultural chaos and upheaval, so that the pilgrim—and even the tourist—who upon leaving the grounds may marvel at what the mystery of divine providence can accomplish through human hands, and in turn become a human agent of a cathedral’s fundamental mission, the mission of us all: to bridge the divine with the human.

James Day

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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