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Churches that point to God

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As Father Donald J. Planty flipped through photos of churches in the slideshow, he encouraged the audience to see the beautiful places of worship as a foretaste of the beauty of heaven. The pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington spoke to a crowd of 100 at St. James Church in Falls Church about sacred architecture Aug. 22. The event, sponsored by the young professionals group at St. James, was filled with people of all ages. 

Beginning in the Old Testament, God called his people to set aside a special place for worship — first the Tent of Meeting, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, and later the temple built by Solomon. Since Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, Christians have been building churches around the world, said Father Planty. 

The Second Vatican Council document “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” says, “When churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful.” Though those aims are paramount, sacred architecture is about more than functionality, said Father Planty. 

“If the only purpose of sacred architecture is to build a place where you celebrate the Mass, all you need to do is to build a box, slap a cross on it and call it a church,” he said. Instead, churches and the art inside are meant to point to God. 

Sacrosanctum Concilium” notes, “Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world.”

Due to the time and place they were built, Catholic churches around the world can look very different. Though styles come and go, said Father Planty, beautiful churches all have certain elements in common. 

The first is symmetry. “Heaven is balanced. It’s not awkward and out of balance,” said Father Planty. That’s why symmetrical shapes such as rectangles, crosses, circles and octagons classically have been found in churches. 

Beautiful churches also have verticality, said Father Planty, which raises the mind and body to God, as well as luminosity. Churches typically are built with windows to let in light, a reminder of the light of Christ. Father Planty discussed the famous Parisian chapel Sainte Chapelle, which is nearly all stained glass. “It’s like being inside of a jewel,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve been in a more beautiful interior space anywhere in the world.”

Churches also are built with religious imagery or iconography. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 declared that creating images of God or holy people was permitted. “All of our devotion to sacred art is based on the Incarnation,” explained Father Planty. “From the moment that the eternal son of the father becomes visible in and through our humanity and could be perceived with the senses, then he and other holy persons and things can be represented. The reason we put all these images up is because by doing so, we are inspired by them,” he said. “We’re called to greater holiness.”

The final element is permanence. “(A church) is not something you can throw together out of drywall or sticks,” said Father Planty. It should be built to last. He pointed to St. Ann Church in Jerusalem, which was built in 1138, survived the Crusades and still stands today.

St. Ann Church in Jerusalem, built in 1138, is an example of permanence. Adobestock.com

st ann

Father Planty said the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington was built with time-tested masonry techniques. “Everything that supports it is stone and brick. There are no steel girders supporting any of this. It’s solid,” he said. “This, God-willing, will be standing in 2,000 years.” 

All these elements combine to form heavenly churches that bring people closer to God. Father Planty closed with a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments: namely the saints the church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019