church beauty

Today’s feast of the Dedication of the Roman basilica of St. John Lateran might seem like a strange focus for a feast. It is however a timely feast for our Christchurch diocese embarking on the rebuilding of Catholic churches destroyed by the 2010 / 2011 earthquakes.

It was the emperor Constantine who built the first basilica on the Lateran site in the early fourth century. At least a couple of times since it has fallen into decline, most especially during the 14th century years of the Avignon papacy. In the early 18th century the facade was reconstructed and the entire building re-dedicated to “Christ the Saviour, in honour of Saint John the Baptist and Evangelist” as the inscription and statues atop the facade proclaim.

This Lateran basilica is the Cathedral church of the bishop of Rome who is the pope.

When Church architect James McCrery visited our diocese in last year, and  Denis McNamara visited in August 2013, they helped  to restore our understanding of the potential of a Catholic church building (if it is truly beautiful) to be a compelling revelation about God.  After each visit, a number of people commented to me that no one had ever taught them this stuff. They were inspired and uplifted by the beauty and potential of the building project that lies before us.

One of Denis’ most inspiring books is titled Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. He begins his introduction:

The time of image is the time in which we live, a time when we come to know God through sacramental forms which present earthly images of heavenly reality. It is in the Church, founded at Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit, that God communicates himself to us. Every revelation of God is clear, whole and ordered. In a word, it is Beautiful, True, and Good because God is himself Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. We know God as he reveals himself: through his Son, in the material things of this world, transformed by the Holy Spirit to become transparent of heavenly things. And we call things beautiful when they reveal to us their inner essence, their reality as understood in the mind of God, who knows no untruth and inspires people to act toward the Good. Any book about liturgical art and architecture therefore must be a book about Beauty, Truth and Goodness because liturgical art and architecture are about a compelling revelation of God which moves us to grow in conformity to him. Since Beauty is the compelling power of Truth, its splendour and attractiveness draw us out of ourselves to approach and investigate a beautiful thing. We can then be transformed by it. pg.1

I doubt there is another parish in the world that has six churches as beautiful as our Hurunui parish churches. One example is the noble and simple beauty of the Waiau church (above). Our churches include some that are among the oldest in the diocese and the most lovingly maintained. In a couple of our communities people ensure that the church is open for prayer all day every day.

The visibly wide-open door of a church is a powerful sign and an attractive invitation to people who need an opportunity to spend a few moments in a place of peace where they know that God will gaze on them with love.

Here is the collect from the Mass of today’s feast:

O God, who from living and chosen stones
prepare an eternal dwelling for your majesty
Increase in your Church the spirit of grace you have bestowed,
so that by new growth your faithful people
may build up the heavenly Jerusalem.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the holy Spirit.
one God, for ever and ever
Amen.

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