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Is a church more like your mom’s house or more like the Temple?
The question is particular relevant each Nov. 9 when the Church celebrates the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica — the Mother Church of the Catholic Faithful, the oldest and highest ranking basilica in the world.
That’s also the question Denis McNamara answered when he was a remote guest on the podcast of the Kristus Aman chapel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, called “Unboxing the Faith.”
McNamara is the Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and he sees it as his mission to remind people all over the world of the deeper meaning of church architecture and what it teaches about our relationship with God.
“Some think that the first century was the most authentic time, when people worshiped in their homes. In the 20th century many said ‘Oh, the church is just a house.’ So they chose wooden floors and big windows and houseplants for their new churches.”
“The early Church couldn’t build big churches because they weren’t permitted, but when it was permitted they built big Churches.” The basilica of St. John Lateran dates to the early 300s.
“There’s an argument about whether or not a church is actually a solemn public building or is it just the living room of God,” McNamara said. “There’s a big break there between some Protestants and Catholics … about whether it’s just a domestic buildings or a solemnly consecrated building. So there are two streams of thinking. One is the synagogue and one is the Temple. Catholics are much more comfortable with the Temple — which has priests and sacrifices and incense and vestments.” McNamara went on to explain that Catholics are inheritors of both the synagogue, evidenced by the Liturgy of the Word, and the Temple, evidenced by the sacrifice of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Just as sacraments transform matter for a divine purpose, churches speak spiritual truths with material components.
In their wide ranging discussion the host, whose group is building their own chapel, had lots of questions. The Lateran Basilica has a cruciform shape. Does a church need to be cruciform?
“The cruciform plan is not mandatory,” McNamara said, noting that “some of the earliest Churches in Rome had more of a ‘T’ shape plan, the tau cross rather than a full Roman cross.”
Why? “It got developed especially in the Middle Ages of the forming of the people into the shape of the body of Christ, with the people in the temple together with their head symbolized by the priest. And if you assemble them into the form of the cross, then they actually are more fully signifying what they’re actually doing liturgically.”
The host also pointed out that the chapel Kristus Anan is building needs to be part of a larger facility that serves several functions. The Lateran Basilica itself includes several adjacent structures with various purposes, but there was no shortage of space where it was built.
“It’s a challenge when you don’t have a lot of space,” McNamara said. “It all has to be crammed together in one place.”
He pointed out that in the 1920s, urban congregations like Chicago’s Methodist Temple and others in New York City, Christians built “skyscraper churches.”
“At the bottom you’d put an arched door and preserve the entrance with stained glass windows. Anyone walking by would see a Church entrance, but looking up you would see a skyscraper.”
McNamara also explained that “we also have a phenomenon here in the U.S. called Newman Centers, where college students have a chaplaincy at their universities. They often have a small lot in the middle of their campus. The Newman Center in Madison, Wisconsin has a church “at its center, with rooms for other activities build around it in one building.”
McNamara is the author of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. His new book is Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty.
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Image: Sonse, Flickr