church building 101

Aug 2, 2014

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In his letter to the priests of his diocese this week, Bishop Barry Jones (Bishop of Christchurch NZ) announced that he is about to publish a document entitled “The House of God.” This document, the bishop writes, “articulates the theological understanding of Catholic church buildings.” The bishop adds that another document outlining “the diocesan process for building churches, including the critical moments of communication between the parish and the diocese throughout the process” is also being prepared.

Most significantly the bishop concludes that “in line with the recommendation of Dr. Denis McNamara, we want the skills of architects who have a proven track record for building Catholic churches in a traditional style, Local architects will considered on their ability to build traditional churches.”

The bishop’s documents are especially timely with a number of parishes about to build churches to replace those destroyed in the February 2011 earthquake.


The word “tradition” gives rise to a variety of responses and emotions. Some people rejoice in what is traditional. Other people are more cautious and even antagonistic, thinking that tradition requires leaving the present reality to nostalgically time-travel to a past era.

However the word tradition conveys much that is both beautiful and essential. Even the non-conformist modern family will have a cake with candles at a birthday party, and a cake-cutting moment at a wedding reception. The same family might also stack carefully wrapped presents under their decorated tree in the days before Christmas, and put a stocking beside the child’s bed in the expectation that Santa will come down the chimney and fill the stocking with treats. They might ceremonially cut the ham after Midnight Mass and leave some for Santa before heading for bed. These things are little, important and widespread family traditions.

Each family will also have its own ancestral traditions. My family would sit together at the table for every meal, except on Sunday evenings. Even if someone forgot and set the table, someone else would shout, “No, it’s Sunday”, and the table would quickly and without argument be abandoned!

Some family traditions are more significant. Perhaps it’s a visit to the cemetery on the anniversary of the death of a loved one to clean the headstone and place flowers. Mothers’ day might be traditionally begun by serving mum with breakfast in bed.

You will already be thinking of many of your own family traditions.

Some traditions are more communal. As the 2014 Commonwealth Games draws to a close we think of the gold medallists who have been joined by the crowds in standing for the playing of their national anthem. There is no law that says that everyone must stand for the anthem, but to remain seated is a strong and unwelcome statement of disapproval. To throw a country’s flag to the ground is likewise greatly disrespectful, and is still an offence of treason in some countries.  On Anzac Day (Memorial Day) a silent procession is always the heart of the ceremony with the laying of floral wreaths and the playing of the Last Post. These are important and widely respected traditions within many communities. Even the most non-conformist citizens respectfully and enthusiastically participate in these traditions.


Let’s take a moment to look now at some Catholic traditions. I wonder if many people see Catholic traditions in the same positive light as they do their family and secular traditions? I suspect that when most people read Bishop Barry’s call to “build Catholic Churches in a traditional style,” they will consider this to be an old-fashioned and out-dated way of thinking that will result in church buildings that do not speak to the contemporary soul.

The etymology of the word “tradition” is significant. A tradition is a “statement, belief, or practice handed down from generation to generation.” I am reminded of the opening scene from the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye, the chief protagonist of the story announces: “How do we keep our balance, that I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”… Because of our traditions we’ve kept our balance for many many years…because of our traditions, everyone of us knows who he is, and what God expects us to do.”

Tevye, speaks to us today from the pale of imperial Russia at the dawn of the twentieth century (1905). His advice is timeless since “every one of us [needs to] knows who he is, and what God expects us to do.” The great news for us twenty-first century pilgrims is that we do not have to invent a persona since we are created beings, each of us made and gifted (as Cardinal Newman prays) by God who has formed every one of us for some definite service. Each of us have some mission which is unique, and is not given to anyone else. And more good news, while it might be nigh impossible to discover who I am alone, friends and family today can help me, along with past generations who have sought to know themselves across the centuries. Put simply, it is Tradition that helps us to know ourselves. This is very helpful since one of our deepest human desires is to know who we are.


A few years ago I led some sessions helping New Zealand Catholics to prepare for the Revised Order of the Mass.  (ref. ChCh Press 2010) Many people at these sessions were deeply concerned and even angry that the new Mass texts were a more literal translation of the original Latin texts, and that the use of some Latin at times was even encouraged at Mass.

I was puzzled by the strength of people’s emotions on the matter. To help us to reflect together, I asked how we might feel if a 7 year old nephew stood at a large gathering of extended family and sang a song in Gaelic after explaining that a recent class project had invited each child to research the songs that their great-great-great grandmother would have sung in her home-land and mother-tongue 200 years ago. Would we respond to his singing with negativity, explaining that great-great-great grandma was now dead and we no longer lived in Ireland or spoke Gaelic? Would we encourage him not to return to the past in this way, but to learn modern songs with up-to-date themes?  Not a chance!  More likely we would be moved to tears at such a powerful, visible and audible connection with our ancestors.  That’s tradition!

Returning to my home parish after these sessions, I decided to tell this story and encourage parishioners to view Catholic Tradition and traditions in a more positive and life-giving way. The parishioners, for the most part, responded enthusiastically and we began to sing each Sunday the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) in Latin Gregorian chant as our Catholic ancestors would have sung for 1500 years. Then we learnt some Greek since for the first 300 years of the Christian community this was the language of the Mass, and on Sundays we then sang at parish Masses Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy). I thought we might make these optional and sing them only once a month, but before long some parishioners, suspecting that I might leave them out, would take the initiative and begin the chant which would then be enthusiastically picked up by the congregation. Chanting these original texts in their ancient languages, using traditional chants, helped the people of Our Lady of Victories parish understand who they are as Catholic disciples of Jesus today. That’s the power of tradition.


Perhaps this example of language and music make these vernaculars an ideal metaphor for building a Catholic church which by definition has its own vernacular language. If a Church is traditional then it will be the fruit of what is “handed down from generation to generation.” This does not mean that the building will be of a specific architectural style for example Romanesque, Byzantine, Renaissance or Gothic, but it does mean that those who build a church will have a sound knowledge of and respect for what a Catholic church is in its essence, that is, its “ontology.”

For the moment you might find this short video clip from Dr. Denis McNamara a helpful introduction to the process of church building.


Clicking on this text will take you to a Christchurch Press interview with Dr. Denis McNamara during his visit to Christchurch in August 2013 

Books by Denis McNamara at this link.



  1. hi john

    thanks for your reflection on the process of church building. when i reflect on the word traditional and tradition i am drawn to the elements of the faith and worship journey that are contained within the physical structure that is the church, and not tradition locked in the the historic cruciform shape of our older style churches. As we know that physical structure itself can contribute to worship, for though we can as people of God worship him in many places, buildings, elements, and imagery can uplft our spirit to towards God. Having experienced a range of denominations across NZ and a style of building from beautiful inspiring places of worship (OLV is such a church, and Futuna Chapel in Kairori was also one such church) to converted halls (my brush with methodism) which did little to “move me towrds worship”, i am concious of my spirits repsonse to spiritually uplifting spaces. However the counter to that experience is that we cannot rely on the place and space to create worship for us, for that is something we must experience within ourselves.

    Within that wider context the architectural presence of the church both within and to the community it faces is also important. The catholic church has had a strong history of creating captivating and stong statements of faith and worship in their buildings , which internally also capture and respect the elements of our faith tradition. it is my hope that in the rebuild of christhurchs catholic churches the bishop and his advisors seek to find new and challenging physical spaces that reverently encapsulate the traditions of the faith, while moving us in awe and wonder towrds worship; afterall as we know from the use of song in worship, our hearts desire is the bring things of beauty in our worship and our buildings are part of that tradition as well..mike,

    • Thanks Mike for your comments. You got me thinking some more!

      As I was writing I was wondering if the design of Our Lady of Victories represents “traditional” church architecture. While most people would quickly respond that it is not (opposing traditional with modern and calling OLV modern architecture), I would suggest that there is much about OLV that is handed down through the Christian generations, and therefore it is quite traditional. It is these “traditional” aspects that give the church its beauty. It is significant that people who seek to build beautiful houses employ an architect who understands the principles of classical architecture, and they also make sure that good materials are used – interesting that many of these builders choose to also use slate, marble, hardwood, columns etc.

      Our Lady of Victories was lucky to have a good architect who understood the basic principles of classical architecture. The building carefully follows architectural principles of proportion and space giving it beauty. When viewed from the outside or inside it is clearly a church. The building serves to raise the mind and heart to God. As you put it well, the building”reverently encapsulates the traditions of the faith, while moving us in awe and wonder towards worship.”

      Charles Thomas also appreciated that the altar, tabernacle, lectern etc were not simply the furniture added to a building, but that these sacramentals would be a part of the church fabric itself, seeming to be a part of the structure itself.

      It is unfortunate that Charles was instructed to change some of these central aspects of his plan before the building project commenced. The tabernacle was moved to the side altering the planned position of altar and tabernacle on the central axis. The Lectern and chair were never completed as he had planned. Over the forty years since it was built a number of changes were made to the building which altered some of the traditional elements of the original plan. In the 2008 restoration Charles did his best to correct some of the changes.

      Of course this does not mean that everyone will want a church to look like Our Lady of Victories, in the same way that not everyone wants a church that looks Gothic or Byzantine, but at least a Martian who landed across the street would say of OLV, “wow, this building is an important one”, and once they got inside the front door, they would immediately be able to tell what was important to the people who built the place…


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