One of the basic principles of modern architecture is “form follows function.” In other words, ask what a building is for and it you will know how it should be built. When you are building a garage or an office building or a hospital or a school things a fairly straightforward: a garage is to protect a car and store things. An office building is a place where people work safely and efficiently. A hospital has to have everything necessary for the health care, treatment and comfort of its patients. That’s easy enough.
Architects will quibble about the “form follows function” dictum, but assuming that there is at least some truth to it, we can then ask, “What is a church for?” If we are being merely practical about it, a church is for people to gather for divine worship. Therefore the seating should be comfortable. Everyone should be able to see the altar and the pulpit. There should be a good sound system and adequate amenities like air conditioning, heating and toilets and cry rooms and bride rooms. However, is a church simply an auditorium? Many modern Protestant churches are built with this criteria. All that is required is a large, comfortable, efficient space for everyone to meet.
The Catholic tradition offers something greater. When we ask what a Catholic Church is for the answer is more than simply an auditorium. Within the Catholic tradition the Church building has more than a practical function. Therefore if “form follows function” we have to ask what these other functions might be for a Catholic church.
A Catholic Church is first and foremost God’s house. It is where the Divine Presence resides. It is not primarily where we come to meet one another. It is where we all come to meet God. God is here and we come here to worship him. The fellowship we share and the community we build is part of our greater life together that flows from our worship of God in God’s house.
If the Catholic Church is first and foremost God’s temple–and not just an auditorium–then it’s function is greater than the simple practical demands of good seating, a good sound system and practical amenities. Now the function of a Catholic Church becomes something harder to define and more difficult to put into a blueprint.
If the Catholic Church is God’s house, then it should be worthy of the Divine Presence. It should speak to us of the dwelling place of God on earth and point us to the dwelling place of God in heaven. In fact, it should be a place called “Bethel”. This is the place where Jacob saw the ladder into heaven with the angels going up and down. He cried out, “This is the very threshold of heaven and the doorstep of God!” In other words, a church should be so beautiful that it points our hearts and minds not only to the presence of God here, but to Holy of Holies in Heaven.
Furthermore, the church should speak of the qualities of the One who dwells there. So the Catholic Church should be beautiful. How do we make it beautiful? We can make it beautiful by putting pretty things in it, but this is only ornamentation. For a church to be truly beautiful it needs not just pretty things in it; it has to be beautiful from the depth of its design. The beauty can’t be just skin deep. It has to be integral to the building as a whole. It has to be beautiful from the ground up and has to be designed from the beginning as a beautiful building.
How does one ensure that a building is beautiful at this deep level? This is not an easy question to answer, but the classical answer is that the dimensions and proportions of beauty were established by the architects of the classical world, and these beautiful proportions have come down to us through 2000 years of Christian tradition in architecture. Therefore, when the church is designed these classical proportions should be incorporated so that the essential design of the building at its very heart will be, in itself, beautiful. When we experience these classical proportions we feel the beauty of the design at a deep level in our souls.
Another function of this temple of God is that it should inspire feelings of wonder and awe. There should be a sense of spaciousness and grandeur–even in a small church–which lifts the heart and mind to heaven. These feelings of wonder and awe open the heart to the beauty which lies at the heart of the church, and at the very heart of God. These feelings prepare the soul for worship and help to bring the soul into the presence of God who dwells in this temple.
Another function of the Catholic Church is that it instructs. It is a sermon in stone. It tells everyone who sees it, from the inside to the outside, certain truths about the Catholic faith–that the Catholic faith is beautiful and permanent and strong. That the Catholic faith has inner integrity and honesty and truth. All these things are deep, down impressions that register profoundly within the human heart and mind. The decoration of the church will also seek to instruct. We do not install stained glass and mosaics and wall paintings and carvings just to make it look pretty. All of these things reflect the beauty of God and the eloquent beauty of our Catholic faith.
Finally, the function of a Catholic Church is to connect the faithful with the great Tradition. A traditionally conceived and constructed Catholic Church puts the worshiper within the great stream of tradition that stretches back two thousand years. In a traditionally minded church the modern day worshiper steps into the Catholic tradition and has his own modern concerns swallowed up in something far greater.
How do we build a traditional church, therefore, in the modern age? We follow the classical proportions when designing the church, and we try to establish an honest relationship between methods and materials. Finally, we do this with materials that are contemporary to our place and time, and are therefore affordable and simple and strong.
When we do all these things together we should therefore produce a church which fulfills all the functions that we expect from a Catholic Church–not just the practical functions of sound system, seating, toilets and storage. Instead we will also fulfill the function stated by the unknown architect of Glastonbury Abbey in England in the Middle Ages, who said, “I want to build a church so beautiful that even the hardest heart will be inspired to pray.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com
image: Basilica of St. Therese of Lisieux in Normandy France / Shutterstock