What makes a Catholic church Catholic?

Therese Bussen

Catholic churches in the past were immediately recognizable by their exterior grandeur as well as their interior parts; today, that may not be as true — but there are still very distinctive parts that make them Catholic. And perhaps the most important part of the church is beauty.

According to Deacon Robert Hoffman, director of construction and planning for the Archdiocese of Denver, emphasizing beautiful design is something they’re working toward.

“What do you identify as a church, and what does that bring out of you from a faith standpoint?” Deacon Hoffman said. “I know one of the things the Archbishop is very in tune to is the beauty of the church.”

And a beautiful design is extremely important — it’s the most important way to identify it as a Catholic church.

“I think there’s this element of recapturing the church architecture from previous centuries,” said John Miller, director of liturgy at the Archdiocese of Denver, who assists in the construction process. “When you build a church, it needs to be immediately identifiable as, ‘This is a Catholic Church.’”

There are several other parts that are essential to making a church a Catholic church.

The altar is the focal point of every Catholic Church. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“The center focal point of every church building is the altar,” Miller said. “The tabernacle is in the center, and there’s an image of Christ crucified…preferably in the center focus…a center aisle with pews, a baptismal font in the nave. Those are kind of the key things.”

The structure of the center is important — the altar, tabernacle, crucifix — because it’s there that the most important action takes place: the sacrifice of the Mass. This takes place in the sanctuary. The other parts of the church building include the nave, the main body of the church; the sacristy, where the priest prepares for Mass; and the narthex, where the faithful enter the church and gather for fellowship after.

“The narthex is a space for gathering, greeting, and it also has a liturgical function. In the rite of baptism, you are greeted at the front doors of the church, in the narthex,” Miller said. “From there you are then led into the threshold into the nave, into the church itself. [For funerals,] the body of the deceased person in a casket typically is in the narthex and then is brought into the church, is brought to the baptismal font and is sprinkled with water.

“It’s also the place where the priest or the deacon greets the bride and groom to welcome them into the church to celebrate their marriage. It does have a functional purpose, a place of fellowship, or greeting,” Miller added.

The nave of the church is where the congregation gathers during Mass and other liturgical functions. It is the main body of a church. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

Another key part is also the reconciliation chapel.

“[Another important] part, too, is the reconciliation chapel, room, confessional,” Miller said. “It is a room with a partition, which allows for anonymous confession and allows for face-to-face meeting, and accessibility. It needs to be sound-proofed, and needs to be a safe environment.”

Catholic churches also have an ambo, which is a stand for lectors and cantors and a pulpit where the priest preaches and reads the Gospel. There is a space set aside for the choir. Statuary and stained glass are also important, as they help raise the minds and hearts of the faithful to God.

Once a church remodeling or building is completed, Archbishop Aquila dedicates and blesses the building and ground.

“At the end of the day, the Archbishop comes out and dedicates the space or the existing space that was renovated. The architects come, the construction workers come, it is a huge event in the life of the parish. It is big,” Miller said. “It’s such a joy to go with the Archbishop for those, to be with the parish and celebrate, and to see the joy on the people’s faces. They take great pride in their building.”

COMING UP: Make Church art great again

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Make Church art great again

How artists and the Church can work together to evangelize the modern world

Therese Bussen

Art in the Church is not what it used to be.

But in the past, particularly during the Italian Renaissance, the Catholic Church contributed some of the greatest works of art the world has ever seen.

While the Church has lost some of its cultural influence in the arts, many Catholic artists, such as Father Peter Mussett, pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder, are asking themselves how to change that.

Father Mussett believes that one of the best ways to change this is for artists to take honing their skills seriously and simply “make stuff.”

“The solution isn’t merely just patronage,” Father Mussett said. “I just encourage [any] artist to make, and try to put myself out there in the reality of who I am. It’s really hard to make things.”

But it isn’t enough to just create for the sake of creating something — it won’t be effective without beauty. There is a distinction between art and beauty, and both need the other.

The necessity of art and beauty in the New Evangelization

Father Mussett learned from a young age the importance of art, which is skill, and beauty, which is truth, he said.

“Art is the proper way of making. It’s skill. It’s reverence to materials,” Father Mussett said. “Beauty is reverence toward God, yourself, your neighbor, creation. Beauty is truth. Beauty is meaning — even if it’s ugly, beauty still has meaning.”

Father Mussett gave the example of art without beauty, skill without truth or meaning: The summer blockbuster.

“It’s very exciting [in the senses], but where’s the spirit? Where is it speaking about the truth of human nature?” he said.

On the other hand, beauty can still deal with “ugly” things but still have a deep sense of truth and meaning — something Catholic artists should not be afraid of.

“Catholics need to stop being afraid of how grisly reality is, how their own lives are grisly — but there’s still meaning, it’s not nihilism. Everything always ends in Jesus Christ,” Father Mussett said.

Combining art and beauty is the necessary way to speak to culture in the New Evangelization, according to Anthony D’Ambrosio, co-founder of Catholic Creatives, an up-and-coming online community of Catholic artists.

Art is the proper way of making. It’s skill. It’s reverence to materials. Beauty is reverence toward God, yourself, your neighbor, creation. Beauty is truth. Beauty is meaning — even if it’s ugly, beauty still has meaning.”

“Beauty is the experience of the true,” Anthony said. “The Church is unfortunately in a place of not being able to speak the truth to culture because truth has already been dismissed. [The Church is] already dismissed because of the impression the world has of the Church.”

The solution? Change our methods of communicating.

“If we just keep batting down modernist arguments with our apologetics, like homilies and teachings that are just philosophical, we’re playing a losing game,” Anthony said. “That’s not the way God spoke to his people, it wasn’t the way Jesus spoke, and somehow we got pulled into…focusing on trying to defend ourselves rather than trying to actually give people an experience of God. And beauty is the only way to do that properly.”

Beauty, Anthony said, “reprograms us” — our experiences of sunsets, for example, are proof of that.

“That is the language of God, it’s how he speaks to us. If we want to be able to make a big change in the world, we have to start speaking in the language of God, and show his face to the world, not just telling his face to the world and describing it,” Anthony said.

Catholic Creatives: One resource for artists and the Church

In order to “reach the ends of the earth” in the New Evangelization once more, there is a great need for Catholic artists who are committed to taking their craft seriously to glorify God through their talent and to effectively communicate the Gospel in new, innovative ways in a language the world can understand — and many of them exist in Catholic Creatives.

What began just two years ago with a Facebook group (which now has over 1,500 members) is becoming a resource for artists looking to be challenged and grow in their skill with other fellow creatives, and is inviting other Church members to look to the group as a resource for their projects.

It all began with twin brothers Anthony and Marcellino D’Ambrosio, who, two years ago, found themselves “complaining about the state of art, beauty and creativity in the Church.”

“And then we asked ourselves, ‘What if we could actually do something about that? What if we could actually change the culture of the Church and make it incredibly creative?’” Anthony said.

The brothers then hosted an event for other creatives to put their heads together to tackle one creative problem: Church bulletins.

Anthony (right) and Marcellino D’Ambrosio (left) started Catholic Creatives, an online group of artists.

“The value that came out of that conversation made all of us feel like we could actually do something,” Anthony said. “The Church doesn’t always have to be ugly, or cheesy or cheap. And that sense of empowerment really poured into [Catholic Creatives]. And we’re just beginning to see the real power it can have in the Church, I think.”

This year, the group held a summit in Dallas with attendees from all over the country, which propelled the group forward even more.

“It’s interesting to brainstorm with other people…what the Church could be if we had more influence in the world,” said Kate Hazen, a summit attendee and Denver graphic designer. “It made it more of a possibility rather than just [having] an image of being a creative Catholic.”

Anthony said that the theme for the summit was “New Renaissance,” how to bring the Church back into “being a leader in the arts, culture, education, science and politics in the way that it was in the Renaissance.”

“The Medicis were a giant clan in the Italian Renaissance who were behind a lot of the culture that was produced. So we see Catholic Creatives as being the connection point that gives the artist proximity to each other and also proximity to financiers,” Anthony said.

“We’re at a similar junction to where the early Church was with Rome. There was this new infrastructure of roads and commerce. Because of the Roman network, Christianity was able to spread through the entire known world. Right now, we’re looking at a new network, and it’s a digital network,” Anthony continued. “So what the early Christians did at the speed of walking, if we did in the same level of intensity, with the same speed the early Christians had, we could [evangelize] the world in 50 years.”

Catholic artists and the Church need each other

This goal of creating a “New Renaissance” doesn’t necessarily mean a sudden surge of more paintings and sculptures — although it does include finer arts.

The work of creatives in the Catholic Church is more broad and includes “new media” methods: Graphic design, creative marketing strategy, video, photography and other methods.

But in order to create in these various mediums well — with beauty — both artists and the Church have to work together.

To work toward this goal, Catholic Creatives recently rolled out an initiative on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform, where artists can support another and financiers can invest in artists.

And support, particularly in the form of money, is a crucial part of the creation of truly good art.

Quality and beautiful Church art is a key part of reaching souls in the New Evangelization, and as such, the Church is in great need of artists who take their craft seriously. (Stock photo)

“The Church needs to realize these people…need to be paid a livelihood. If they’re going to be making art that’s worth being made, that’s at the standard of the rest of the world, they can’t just be volunteers doing it on the side,” Anthony said. “As long as the Church thinks those people should be giving as a volunteer, we’re going to let our artists flounder, and when we let our artists flounder, our art flounders, and when our art flounders, we’re not able to connect with the culture.”

But financing isn’t the only way to support artists, as Father Mussett said. He also encouraged parishes to promote art education both in churches and in the seminary, which is “spreading the tools of the skills, which are seeds.”

Catholic Creatives also encourages support beyond money as well.

“Catholic Creatives wants to be the place that connects your resources to the artist,” Anthony said. “Connect us with people [that could finance], pray for artists, and speak to your priest.”

“Ask [your pastor] to hire someone who knows how to design well. Having those conversations can be an ally for artists and pave the way for them,” Anthony said.