Friday, December 11, 2015

American Catholicism in the 21st century: Some of our churches are ugly and poorly designed, but God still resides in them.

I once had a Canadian friend who grew up Catholic in Nova Scotia. He told me that a nun who taught in the parochial school once told the school children that Christ is actually  present in the Eucharist and that if one were to scratch a communion wafer, it would bleed.

It was not long before a little boy tested this thesis by pocketing a  wafer during Mass and taking it home with him. Expecting to see blood, he scratched the wafer but was disappointed when it merely crumbled.

The parish priest, when he heard this story, had only this to say. "It is a terrible thing," he lamented, "when Catholics don't know their faith."

And of course this is true. But unfortunately, the Church itself often makes it difficult for people to know their faith because Church leaders do careless and thoughtless things.  For example, my parish, Christ the King, built a new church around 15 years ago to accommodate the growing Catholic community on the LSU campus. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was designed so that the Tabernacle resides at a side altar at the back of the church instead of the front of the church, where it is traditionally placed.

Sunday after Sunday, I see parishioners genuflecting to the Crucifix, not realizing that the tabernacle is not where it is supposed to be.  A few people are aware that the Tabernacle is in the back of the Church and they genuflect in the appropriate direction, but it is awkward.

Likewise, the Stations of the Cross at my parish church are merely 14 Roman numerals.  In the older churches, the stations of the cross are depicted pictorially. Thus, at a traditional Station VI, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, we actually see Veronica wiping Jesus's face. 

Some of the traditional Stations of the Cross are works of art carved in wood or stone, but I recall visiting a mud church in the Tanzanian highlands, where the Stations of the Cross were made of construction paper and merely tacked to the mud walls. These primitive Stations were quite moving. Who cared enough, I wondered, to see the Stations of the Cross in their proper place that they created Stations with paper and crayons? But at my parish, all we see are Roman numerals.

And these are not my parish church's only deficiencies. The sanctuary contains no niches whatsoever for the saints, although a space was reserved for a statue of Mary at the back of the church.  St. Joseph is nowhere to be found at Christ the King parish church because literally there is no place for him. And surely that is a poverty.

Nevertheless, the beauty and majesty of our Catholic faith always overpowers the thoughtless construction of our modern Catholic churches, and we are strengthened by the Eucharist, even when we encounter it in ugly surroundings. Sometimes for me, the tactile sensation of the wine and the host are almost like a physical jolt, and I am flooded with gratitude that God called me--the most unworthy of people--to the supper of the lamb.

After I partake of communion, I kneel with the other parishioners and watch people go filing by to receive the Eucharist.  At my parish, I mostly see LSU students, people in their twenties. But there are older people too, some quite elderly; and there are children who are too young to take communion but who come forward to receive the priest's blessing.

We Catholics often stumble, but we keep moving forward, century after century, people of every race and color. Through the Eucharist, Mary's prayers, and the intercession of the saints, we experience the power of God and his presence in our lives. "Look not on our sins, but the faith of your Church," the priest says at every Mass; and he might also add, please overlook some of the ugly edifices we constructed as our worship places.


Michael Rose. Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001.

No comments:

Post a Comment