Sagrada Família: A Symbol of Rediscovered Faith

Among the precious treasures of the Church that bring about the salvation of souls, which we must recover if we are to save our families and rebuild a Christian society, is the Sacrament of Matrimony. Is it not darkened today above all because we rarely proclaim this forgotten gem among the seven sacraments, no longer let it shine in our lives? Hope returns when we consider what is among the most improbable phenomena of our time, the construction of the Sagrada Família, the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, right in the middle of the modern metropolis of Barcelona.

The Dante of Architecture

Spacious in width, depth and height like a cathedral, this church is newly designed from scratch; it is actually being built today, in this our time, not just restored from ruins or finished from medieval beginnings like Cologne Cathedral in the 19th century. “This Church of the Holy Family is not yet completely built, but it has a firm foundation,” preached Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) in 1982. “For it recalls and sums up another building of living stones, the Christian family, in which faith and love are born and grow unceasingly.” The initiative to build the Sagrada Família, a “church of thanksgiving and atonement” like Sacre Coeur in Paris, came from devotees of St. Joseph, whom Pius IX (1792-1878) elevated to patron saint of the whole Church at that very time. In the Holy Family of Nazareth they saw a school of love, prayer and work in the presence of God, a school of following Christ, the leaven for salvation and the erection of a Christian society.

Low angle of basilica facade via W K on Unsplash

Even if the realities of life have changed and improved in material aspects since the laying of the foundation stone on the Feast of St. Joseph in 1882, it remains more necessary than ever to proclaim the importance of the Catholic family. It is “the generous and indissoluble love between a man and a woman as the fertile framework and foundation of human life in its coming into being, its birth, its growth and its natural end,” as Benedict XVI (b. 1927) instructed modern society in 2010. Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), “a brilliant architect and consistent Christian whose torch of faith burned to the end of his life, which he led with dignity and complete simplicity,” showed us through the Sagrada Família that “God is the true measure of man, that the secret of true originality, as he said, is to return to the origin, which is God.” Useful information on Gaudí is provided on the webpage: http://www.antonigaudi.org.

What is special about this gigantic construction site, which before the coronavirus outbreak attracted 4.5 million visitors a year from all over the world and is financed solely by “donations of sinners,” foundations and entrance fees? From what sources did its architect Antoni Gaudí, to whom the apostolic nuncio said, later Francesco Cardinal Ragonesi (1850-1931), “You are the Dante of architecture, and your work is the greatest Christian poetry in stone,” when he visited the site in 1915?

“At the very center of his work, Gaudí’s deep Catholic faith sits like a hard core, invulnerable and unbreakable,” sums up the contemporary art historian Gijs van Hensbergen (The Sagrada Família. Gaudí’s Heaven on Earth, 2018). “The Sagrada Família seems so unique and so closely linked to Barcelona that it is often forgotten that it emerged from a pan-European Catholic revival.” If it was Gaudí who designed Sagrada Família, he said, it was Sagrada Família herself that made him the devout Christian he would eventually become. “Only a church can worthily represent the spirit of a people, for religion is the most sublime force in man,” Gaudí himself confessed, in the spirit of medieval cathedral builders. Can his Sagrada Família also become a sign of hope for us, a symbol of rediscovered faith?

Since April 12, 2000, the beatification process for Antoni Gaudi has been open. Seven of his architectural works have been declared UNSECO World Heritage Sites, in 1984 and 2005.

Reconquering Catholic Faith

Anyone who has traveled through Spain with an open heart feels with all the fibers of his soul how much this country is marked by the reconquest of the Christian faith. Even the harsh landscapes of the Meseta and Extremadura, even the bold Sierras and wild Costas, seem imbued with the ethos of the reconquistadores. With its cathedrals and castles, Spain is entirely a Gothic country, but not because of the conquering Visigoths, who found Christianity there but let it be stolen from their hearts and minds by the Moors.

It is the land of the reconquista, from which philosophical minds like Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) called for a “Hispanization of the Western World” in order to give back to the rest of it the living faith and religious hope. German minds, for example, took up Unamuno’s call from Salamanca: “Let us hope that this is not just a fad, but becomes a fruitful and lasting exchange,” answered at the University of Bonn the scholar Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956) to Unamuno. “For my part, I believe that Germany can only win by becoming more Hispanic, as you demand in one of your essays.”

Ceiling of the basilica by Duncan Kidd on Unsplash

With the sensitivity of the great poet, the German Catholic Reinhold Schneider (1903-1958) listens to the ‘agonistic’, i.e. combative, Iberian spirit and creates portraits of great figures of Spain’s Siglo de Oro, its golden age: kings, conquistadores, saints who were confronted with the onset of the decadence of Catholic thought. They became emblems of an extremely vital and non-rationalistic overcoming of a situation, which is desperate if seen in a natural light only, similar to Schneider’s own Christian resistance to Nazism. “Spain is the real tragic people,” Schneider articulates in his time an attitude toward life as an endless struggle without hope of near, earthly victory, without Hegelian synthesis, which the Spaniards call Quijotismo

It is “a whole method, a whole epistemology, a whole aesthetics, a whole logic, a whole ethics, a whole religion above all, that is, a whole economy towards the eternal and divine, a whole hope for what seem rationally absurd,” writes Unamuno in 1913. According to this idea, Don Quixote, the well-known character of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), is considered the embodiment of courage, loyalty, faith and idealism. His antithesis is Sancho Panza, the representative of fear, progress, skepticism and realism. The quixotry of a heroic life does not save man from tragedy; but it can give his life a meaning that is ultimately based on supernatural hope.

Towers Rising to God’s Glory

When a trip to Spain draws to a close in Catalonia, this experience condenses into unexpected intensity and strikes at the heart, as if with the lances of an army of knights of the Catholic Kings. Antoni Gaudí’s Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, also for us becomes a sign of hope of rediscovered faith. Its slender, high towers surrounded by construction cranes grow new and young into the blue sky. “It is a visible sign of the invisible God to whose glory these towers rise,” preaches Benedict XVI. “Like arrows, they point to the absolute of light and of the One who is light, existence and beauty itself.” As the 138-year history of building the Sagrada Família shows, such an enormous project, which at the beginning could not be overlooked and stretched over generations, with its countless, seemingly hopelessly insurmountable difficulties and catastrophic setbacks, can only be carried out with the very special courage of Christian Quijotismo.

Benedict XVI consecrated the church in 2010, after completion of the interior and elevated it to the status of Papal Basilica Minor. Eight of its 18 towers have been completed, four each above the two facades already finished, illustrating the mysteries of Christmas and Passion to the right and left of the apse. Like two huge altarpieces facing the street, the facades preach the Christian mysteries to the passers-by, to show the people of our time the mystery of God revealed in the birth, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On the centenary of Gaudí’s death, the basilica was to be completed with the Gloria facade and four additional Apostle towers opposite the apse, four Evangelist towers, as well as the tower of Our Lady and Our Lord. With a height of 172.50 meters Our Lord’s tower, would surpass the highest church tower in the world to date, the Ulm Cathedral in Germany, by eleven meters. However, due to the financial collapse caused by the Corona pandemic, completion was postponed.

For the Gothic spirit of Castile and Catalonia, Guerau de Liost (1878-1933), a contemporary of Antoni Gaudí, found the image of fir and beech trees:

The beech, like the fir, is Gothic.
But the fir grows dark, rough,
the leaves sparse, straight the trunk,
for it belongs to the early Gothic. 
While the beech smiles quiveringly
with its transparent foliage, 
in which the squirrel hangs its nest,
for it belongs to the late, flowering Gothic.
The fir, like the beech, is Gothic.
In its high treetop needles
the ray of light is refracted.
They are the sublime needles
of the eternal cathedrals,
motionless, pale and distant. 

If the beech represents Castile, the fir corresponds to Catalonia, so also to the spirit of the Sagrada Família.

Editor’s note: This article is the firstpart in our special series, A Symbol of Rediscovered Faith: The Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona. You can click here to see the full series.

image: TTstudio / Shutterstock.com

Sagrada Família, still under construction / Nomadic Julien on Unsplash

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Dorothea and Wolfgang Koch write regularly for Catholic magazines in Germany. They are particularly interested in the idea of Christian democracy and the devotion to Our Lady that has shaped post-war Western Germany in the Adenauer Era. Their book Konrad Adenauer: The Catholic and His Europe is popular among German Catholics. Wolfgang Koch, a physicist, is Chief Scientist at one of the Fraunhofer Institutes and a professor of computer science at the University of Bonn. Their five children are now grown up, and Dorothea Koch, a chemist, works to spread knowledge about Konrad Adenauer from his home in Rhöndorf, a German National Historical Site.

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