I don’t think that I am a shallow person but I know my kids and my wife say that my humor is sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not erudite either (had to look that up by the way). I just know that when it comes to church architecture, I like that which blends beauty with constancy. This “bias” has rubbed off to my eldest daughter who is now in her senior year and thinking of taking up classical architecture and restoration. There is one setback in her plans though, no school offers that specific course in this country. Oops did I mention that we live in the Philippines? Anyway, this is not about asking advice on what to tell my daughter, we’ve got our battle plan for that.
This is about my rant on church architecture and Fr. Dwight Longnecker has an excellent short blog on this. I agree with him. It’s about beauty, because beauty is ageless and beauty is eternal. Something beautifully built has a certain elegance which outlasts trends. They become an heirloom or a heritage if you will.
On a recent trip to Rome, I made it a point to visit the mother church of the Jesuits, the Church of Gesu. The facade was not particularly magnificent but what this lacked in magnificence was more than compensated for by the interior of the church. A friend put it this way when he said; “if the mere awesomeness of the interior does not compel you to kneel, then you must be dead.” Having just been there I have to say that I agree with him. The majestic beauty of the interior announces one thing; that this is where heaven and earth meet everyday.
Now I am a product of a Jesuit education and I still treasure that but what I cannot understand about them (okay there are a lot of things I no longer understand about them) is how they agreed to build a church of that, that eww, s…s… style at the Loyola Heights Campus of the Ateneo and call it none other than, ta-daa… the Church of Gesu. Compare it to the other Gesu churches in Milwaukee, Cleveland (another eww) and Miami It looks like it would be better used as a museum for Egyptian antiquities, a branch of the Louvre or an auditorium. The interior is sparsely decorated and instead of a holy water font, they have a holy water-rock-fountain-of-sorts at the entrance, I am not kidding. Knowing my beloved Jesuits, they have some nature-based explanation for this choice of garnishing for the church. This was built, I suspect, at a time when many religious orders were infected by the bug of the pantheistic nature craze. You know the Gaia thing with mother goddess earth, and nature is a breathing living being and god-is-in-all-of-them kind of thing. That is what happens when you base architectural design on a fad, it looks funny after that fad is over. I hope that in another ten years they will still be proud of this structure.
I know, I know a consecrated church is nothing less than a house of God where our Lord Jesus Christ is enshrined in the tabernacle. But could it not have been possible to make the “shrine” look identifiably Catholic? This brings me again to the article of Fr. Longnecker on church architecture and the book by Michael Rose, “Ugly as Sin.” Rose’s title is a bit harsh but honestly I love it! Sometimes you just have to call what is ugly, well… ugly. Mind you there are really some ugly designs in there! Here in the Philippines, we have our share of them too. I have given one example, the Church of Gesu. Another is St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Bel-Air in Makati. For those who have not seen it, it’s the one that looks like a clam (according to my wife). Something that looks like a stage where “The Little mermaid” should be shown, although the Church office claims that the design is a butterfly. Butterfly or clam what’s the diff, inappropriate is inappropriate (charity man charity). Unfortunately since it was designed by then architect and now National Artist Leandro Locsin, the chances of demolishing it and building a more appropriate looking house of God looks nil. Not that anyone has come forward to give a bunch of cash for it but even if I do win the lottery and decide to bankroll it, I probably won’t be allowed to do so.
Aside from the issue of beauty, church architecture, like attire, readily gives others an idea of identity. I have a theory that the Philippine Jesuit’s (and Philippine priests in general) lack of adherence to clerical attire outside of church is partly responsible for the failure to attract new vocations. Let me put it this way, if priests dress and want to be treated like “one of the guys”, why would a single man be attracted to being just “one of the guys”. The thought may go something like this: “Father, I am already ‘one of the guys.’ You mean I will only be ‘one of the guys’ and …and be celibate …ewww!” I don’t mean to imply that priests must be set apart in a snobbish way or should not mingle, that is not the point. Consider a priest who dons his cassock or his Roman collar when he is outside, there is something otherworldly that expresses a special sense of purpose (like being able to celebrate mass and consecrate perhaps?) and commands a certain respect and attraction that an Izod shirt just can’t. It is rumored that the founder of Iglesia ni Manalo …err Kristo, used to wear a cassock during the Japanese occupation in World War II to avoid being harassed.
Architectural style is the same thing. If a building looks like an auditorium. a clamshell, a butterfly or an Egyptian museum but is actually a church, it fails to evangelize to the faithful it’s eternal and other-worldly mission. It fails to say; “This is where God lives and this is where you are going.” (For heavens sake, the Mormons and Iglesia ni Manalo …err Kristo get it, I don’t understand why we don’t!) Ugly architecture reeks of temporariness and banality, both of which are contradictory to the Church’s mission which is to bring us to the eternalness and magnificence of heaven.