I have grown tired of hearing people of good will claim time and time again that a church building is nothing more than a place where the Church gathers.
I am certain that I am not the only person upset with these claims so I thought I might reflect on the nature of a church building.
There is some truth to these claims because “the church building houses the community of the baptized as it gathers to celebrate the sacred liturgy” (Built of Living Stones, 46).
However, quite contrary of the claims of those with too much of an emphasis on the earthly dimension of a church building, the Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly teaches: “These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (1180).
While it is true that the Church is the People of God journeying on their pilgrim way to the New and Heavenly Jerusalem, it is also true that “From early times the name ‘church’ has also been given to the building in which the Christian community gathers to hear the word of God, to pray together, to celebrate the sacraments, and to participate in the eucharist” (Ceremonial of Bishops, 864).
Furthermore, “it is in these churches that the Church celebrates public worship to the glory of the Holy Trinity, hears the word of God and signs his praise, lifts up her prayer, and offers the sacrifice of Christ sacramentally present in the midst of the assembly. These churches are also places of recollection and personal prayer” (CCC 1199).
We often enter a church building without much thought. We ought to be more careful and recognize that “to enter into the house of God, we must cross a threshold, which symbolizes passing from the world wounded by sin to the world of the new Life to which all men are called. The visible church is a symbol of the Father’s house toward which the People of God is journeying and where the Father ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes’” (CCC 1186).
If there should remain any doubt that the church building is much more than a simple roof over our heads, let us look at the Code of Canon Law: “By the term church is understood a sacred building designated for divine worship to which the faithful have the right of entry for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship” (Canon 1214). The church building, then, is the place to encounter God because “That building is both the house of God on earth (domus Dei) and a house fit for the prayers of the saints (domus ecclesiae)” (Built of Living Stones, 16).
Looking at many of the churches built under the “gathering space” or the “worship space” mentality, one would be very hard pressed to identity such a building as “the dwelling of God with men.” One might much more readily recognize either a theatre or a living room than the house of God or the house of the Church.
It must not be forgotten that, “besides its primary role of providing a suitable place for the celebration of the liturgical rites, the church building also offers a place to which individuals may to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and in which groups of the faithful may gather for a rich variety of devotions expressive of the faith life of a given culture, region, or ethnic community” (Built of Living Stones, 47).
How then does a church show forth the reality of the God who dwells among his people? The law of the Church reminds us that “our visible churches, holy places, are images of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, toward which we are making our way on pilgrimage” (CCC 1198). “As visible constructions, churches are signs of the pilgrim church on earth; they are images that proclaim the heavenly Jerusalem, places in which are actualized the mystery of the communion between God and man” (Built of Living Stones, 50). As such, “the church building is a sign and reminder of the immanence and transcendence of God – who chose to dwell among us and whose presence cannot be contained or limited to any single place” (Built of Living Stones, 50).
If the actual constructions themselves are to foster this awareness of the faithful, they must be truly and truly beautiful; that is, they must show forth the ontological reality of the building, namely, the Heavenly Jerusalem. If there is any doubt what this New City looks like, consult the book of Revelation.
A very simple question might well be posed to those who consider the church building as nothing more than a place for the Church to gather: “If what you say is true, why does the Church go through such great efforts to dedicate new church buildings, and why does the Church insist that such building be, at the very least, blessed if not dedicated?”
Should there be any doubt that a church building should dedicated, you might point them in the direction of the Ceremonial of Bishops: “When the building of a new church begins, it is desirable to celebrate a rite to ask God’s blessing for the success of the work and to remind the people that the structure built of stone will be a visible sign of the living Church, God’s building that is formed of the people themselves” (840).
Here they might well latch onto that last phrase. If they do, remind them that we are sacramental people (we are Catholic). It is fitting, then, that we erect buildings to the glory and worship of God.