church architecture & Ignatius

Jul 31, 2010

This morning I was at the burial place of St Ignatius of Loyola for Mass to celebrate his feast day, 31 July, the anniversary of his death in 1556. The Church of the Gesu is a magnificent temple to the glory of God. It was clearly built by people who rejoiced that Ignatius had helped them to know God’s presence with them and God’s love for them.

Next door to the church is another structure which is built around the rooms where Ignatius lived the last years of his life on earth. You might remember that I wrote about these rooms in an earlier blog reflecting on “perspective“.

As I spent time in the Church this morning during Mass, and later in prayer at Ignatius’ tomb. I couldn’t help but think that Ignatius (in his human life) might have been a bit uncomfortable with the sumptuous decoration of his burial place. I think I heard someone making a similar comment many years ago and the comment stuck in my mind.

But this morning, while praying in the midst of an example of the ultimate beauty that humans can create, I had a sense that Ignatius would be very comfortable with this place. Of course he would be happy because he is now savouring the fulness of life with God. But he would also delight that in this beautiful church humans were giving to God what belonged to God. Ignatius would rejoice that here was a place where humans could taste something of eternal life.

For most of the last century there has been a growing sense that a church building should be a simple structure with little ornament. There is evidence of this even around our own Christchurch diocese. People argued that the church is a gathering space, a house for God, therefore it should look much like our own homes. It needs to be comfortable since people like comfort; carpet, padded chairs, precise climate controls etc. This movement has been fed by the idea that Jesus was born in a stable therefore it would be wrong for a church to resemble a palace.

Take a moment to think about churches that were built more than 100 years ago in New Zealand. The ones that survive are (mostly) beautiful buildings. I think of the ‘old’ churches that have been a part of my life: St Patrick’s in Oamaru, Sacred Heart in Timaru, St Patrick’s Waimate, Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch (interestingly all designed by the same architect Francis Petre).

Each of these churches was built at significant expense and sacrifice. People who lived in poverty gave extraordinarily generously to fund these ambitious building projects. Each church would have cost well over one hundred times the average house price at the time. The Catholic’s who built these churches knew that, while they could not live in luxury themselves, they could participate in the building of a appropriate home for God in their midst.

But this house for God was not to be just an ordinary house. It was not an enlarged living-room, or simply a “gathering-space.” The churches our ancestors built, they built to be sacramental signs for their present and their descendants’ future. It was essential to them that whenever a passer-by saw this church, they would know it was a church. In some way, even in a passing glance, their mind and heart would be raised to God. For those who passed through the doors there would be no doubt that, their bodily senses were tasting a heavenly reality.

Many of the churches built in the past fifty years cost about as much as a dozen houses. It is significant to note that while the fabric of new churches is brick and plaster with carpet and beige gib wall interior, the more affluent suburbs in Christchurch feature private homes with design and materials once the domain of churches: columns, stone and marble, natural material interiors and art. There has clearly been a shift of priorities.

A Church building does not exist to blend into a secular landscape. The church is not simply an expression of the present trends and priority. Instead people need a church to be what a church by definition always was; an anticipation of our heavenly future. A church building must give a sense (literally a taste, sight, sound, smell, and touch) of a reality that is beyond our earthly human routine and struggle. If a church does not do this, why would anyone go there? If the Liturgy of the Church does not activate these senses of heaven, I might as well spend Sunday morning in bed or at brunch.

Ignatius of Loyola knows all of this now better than he ever did on earth. It was good to spend time at his grave this morning and allow my own priorities to be reset by God. I’ll give Ignatius the last word here, especially since this best-known prayer of his is the prayer of one who seeks to give all to God:


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