Great places — Chicago’s Catholic architecture

When I was a choirboy, one of the most ethereal motets we sang was Anton Bruckner’s setting of a text from the old Mass for the Dedication of a Church, Locus iste a Deo factus est (This dwelling is God’s handiwork). Once, there were no shortage of Catholic churches where Bruckner’s Locus iste could be sung without a sense of irony. That’s no longer the case, alas, given the train wreck that is Catholic church architecture in America these past two generations.

I am not nostalgic about the pre-Vatican II liturgy. It was often celebrated in execrable Latin with saccharine music and little sense of ritual propriety; “lost like a Jesuit during Holy Week” was a happy put-down of rubrical incompetence that, in truth, applied far beyond the Society of Jesus. Still, sloppy liturgy was often celebrated in magnificent churches: embodiments of the conviction that this place was, indeed, God’s handiwork, and that here the human met the divine in a singular way.

Nor is all the bad architecture we find in today’s Church a by-product of the Second Vatican Council. St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota, is a case in point: designed in a brutalist form of the International Style by Marcel Breuer, it was begun in 1953, when no one imagined a Vatican II. And for all that St. John’s Abbey has given the Church in America, Breuer’s composition strikes me as a telling example of how certain architectural forms simply do not lend themselves to Christian worship, because they cannot convey a sense of the transcendent or of this world’s permeability to the transcendent. Of course, measured against the Pizza Hut-imitation churches that now clutter the U.S. Catholic landscape, St. John’s Abbey Church has a certain…distinction. But that is damning with very faint praise indeed.

All of which is by way of grumpy introduction to something splendid: a wonderful new book, Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago. The text, by Denis McNamara of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, explains how Catholics built magnificent urban churches, once upon a time, and why those churches are decorated the way they are; James Morris’s stunning photographs bring the results to light for those unfortunate enough not to spend enough time in the Great American City.

Heavenly City is so beautifully illustrated that I can imagine using it as a source of prayer — as many Catholics pray with icons today. It would be fatuous to pick a favorite from the riches that McNamara and Morris lay before the reader. Suffice it to say that they offer almost seventy examples of churches, built in various styles over more than a century, which testify to their builders’ belief that a church is the domus Dei et porta coeli (the house of God and the gate to heaven), not simply the domus ecclesiae (the house of the Church).

And that, I suggest, is the key to understanding the demise of church architecture in our time: like much else that has gone awry with the once-bright promise of mid-century liturgical renewal (which was rarely taken more seriously than in some of those Chicago churches), the idea that the liturgy is something we do, rather than our privileged participation in something God is doing, is the nub of the problem. Or as one prominent liturgist recently wrote, “If material edifices have any intrinsic meaning, it is because of the community who assembles there and what they do when they are gathered — namely, hear the Word of God proclaimed, break that Word for one another, and celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the various sacramental rites.” In other words, it’s all about us. Or mostly about us, with the occasional nod toward the incarnate Word of God, whose Body and Blood we receive in the Most Holy Eucharist.

Heavenly City reminds us that, because our churches are homes for the Blessed Sacrament, it is God himself who gives those buildings their real and full depth of meaning. If we remembered that, we might start building beautiful churches again.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.