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The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal by Duncan G. Stroik

February 2, 2013

The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal

by Duncan G. Stroik
The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man’s genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.-Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 122
How can we recover the sense of the sacred in our temples and shrines? We seem to have lost the ability to make new buildings which exude that ineffable sense of the “sacred” which can be rightly called the presence of the Almighty. Why is it that few of our churches built in recent decades intimate that the church building itself and the celebrations taking place within it are sacred?
Recent church structures often seem “of this world” rather than “otherworldly,” “down to earth” rather than “heavenly,” more secular than sacred. In this increasingly secular age our houses of worship, by blending in with contemporary architecture, are in danger of becoming mere theaters and assembly halls rather than sacred and prophetic places.
Yet why should we seek to promote and restore sacred architecture if it has been lost? We seek to restore the practice of a sacred architecture because it is part of our Catholic patrimony, in the same way that images of the Annunciation, Last Supper, and Crucifixion are. They are a catechism in paint, mosaic, and stone. Yet, to compare even the most critically-acclaimed modern churches with typical early Christian or Renaissance examples is to call into question any notion of progress in the arts. How will our ecclesiastical works be judged in relation to our forefathers, who were able to create great works of art in spite of their limited resources and rudimentary technology?
The Cathedral of Reims 
The great appreciation shown for classical and medieval churches by pilgrim and art historian alike strongly indicates that these buildings continue to be relevant to contemporary culture, and that modern man still has a sense of the sacred. As long as Medieval churches and ancient basilicas continue to be places for the liturgy and devotion, sacred architecture cannot be lost. In fact, today we are witnessing a growing number of enlightened patrons and talented architects who are bringing about a new renaissance in sacred architecture, promoting the sense of the holy in our houses of God. Continue reading
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