The Beautiful Church: Why Must Catholic Churches Be So Ornate?

Posted: February 17, 2013 in Catholic Worship, Church History, Uncategorized
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Offending Judas

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for many fundamentalists is the beautiful but opulent churches that are so commonly associated with the Catholic faith. 20130217-194846.jpgThe common refrain goes along of the lines of “look at all that money they wasted on building a church when they could have put it to use helping the poor.”

“Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people? “Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” (John 12:3-8 NASB)

Those who would criticize the Catholic church for its supposed vast riches and it’s use of large sums to built huge, ornate churches sound very much like the Apostle Judas, who criticized Jesus for allowing himself to be “pampered” with scented oil. Specifically, Judas lamented the fact that the oil could have been sold and given to the poor. That argument sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it?

Now, in full disclosure, there was a time early on when I was pondering my reversion to Catholicism that I, too, saw the opulence of Catholic Churches to be a hindrance to my faith. Once I made the connection between the real presence and the church, though, I quickly took an opposite view. Amazingly, I have come to wish that more of our churches were as spectacular as those sprawling cathedrals of old.

It’s quite a change of heart, I know, but remember, as Christians we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God. It only makes sense, then, that the places in which we worship Him reflect His royal status.

A Kingly Palace

Many protestants and fundamentalists argue that God is everywhere, and that He is not limited to a church building. A building, after all, is just that. For protestants, this is true. For Catholics, though, it’s not. A catholic church building is the House of the Lord, not only figuratively but literally.

Catholics believe that during the Mass, the bread and wine truly become the physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In the Mass, Jesus is spiritually present, yes, just as he must also be in a Protestant service since He promised that wherever two or more are gathered in His name He is in their midst. But in a Catholic church, He is also physically present. With this in mind, I’ve grown to believe that many of our churches are not near ornate enough.

Abhorrent to God?

So many times, I’ve heard the accusation levied that those wonderfully ornate churches go against God. Words like disgusting, evil, and abomination are all thrown around to describe just how off track Catholics have gotten with their churches. It was even suggested to me upon my reversion to the faith, by someone very close to me, that if Jesus returned today He would destroy the Vatican.

But would He? Does God abhor ornate church buildings? I have come to the conclusion that the overwhelming answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” A quick glance at 1Kings, chapter 7 would seem to suggest just the opposite, describing intricate workmanship, a golden altar and cherubim and pillars of copper or bronze for His temple. In fact, God was quite pleased with His house as His cloud settled into it and dwelt there.

And even more grand than King Soloman’s first temple was the temple Herod renovated in the time of Jesus. It was massive, and it was magnificent. And Jesus loved it. When he was 12 and went missing for days, Mary and Joseph found him in this same rich, ornate temple, which He called His Father’s house.

Giving All for the Temple Upkeep

When Jesus returned to Jerusalem with His Apostles, he witnesses scores of of rich people flaunting their blessings and making a show of giving huge gifts to the temple. He also saw a poor widow place two small copper coins, all that she had to offer, into the temple treasury. He made a point to make the apostles aware of this and said that she had put more into the treasury than all of the rich people, because she gave everything she had:

“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4 NASB)

The temple treasury existed for the upkeep of the temple itself; it wasn’t a poor box or place for almsgiving. It existed solely for the purpose of maintaing this opulent house of worship. And yet this Jesus, whom some would have us believe would hate the grand basilicas of the Catholic Church, commended the poor widow for giving all she had to this purpose. This flies in the face of the notion that big, beautiful churches are evil or are somehow abhorrent to God.

It also flies in the face that churches somehow exploit the poor by asking for donations for votive candles or other offerings. I’ve never heard of anyone being turned away from lighting a candle or receiving a blessing or prayer because they could not pay, and I’ll bet you haven’t, either.

At the same time, it takes money and resources to run a church, as any non-catholic minister or elder can certainly attest. Should the church, then, turn down the gifts and offerings that are freely given? Of course not. It should use these gifts to continue to do its good work.

Some may be inclined to point out that immediately after the incident with the woman in the temple, Jesus warned those who were commenting on it’s beauty that it would soon be torn down. The implication, they may say, is that Jesus was telling us that these houses of worship, beautiful as they may be, were doomed to destruction. And they would be right. They are the creations of man, made of earth and stone, and cannot stand forever.

But it would be too much to infer that Jesus disliked the temple all together. It’s one thing to point out their temporary nature, another entirely to suggest it is evil. Moreover, in the context of the coming new covenant, and in history, which soon bore out this prophecy, it becomes quite clear that Jesus is warning us to place our focus where it truly belongs: on God. And that is exactly what Catholic Church buildings help us do.

All For His Glory

Of course, all of this talk completely ignores the important purpose that beautiful and ornate churches serve in the first place. Where many non catholic Christians see money wasted on bricks and glass, I see acts of devotion and love of God. Where others choose to see what they call greed, I see droves of illiterate and uneducated faithful learning about the love that Christ had for us all.

First of all, let me ask an important question: who lives in a church? The answer, of course, is no one. What purpose, then, would such massive sanctuaries serve someone who is greedy? Churches do not bare the names of the people who donated to their cause. They can’t possibly benefit a distant Pope who will never see it.

Certainly, a priest or bishop can appreciate the opportunity to celebrate Mass in such a beautiful building. In the middle ages, though, these churches took so long to build that the bishops who commissioned them very often did not survive to see their completion.

Therein lies the beauty of the dedication it took to build those churches. These are true monuments to God, the very best work human hands could offer. People poured their money, their hearts and their souls into building those wondrous cathedrals and basilicas because they loved God. In the middle ages, before the reformation and the enlightenment, society truly was centered entirely around God. Everything that was done, by and large, was done for the Lord.
These churches weren’t built for the glory of man, but of God. Walking into one of these sanctuaries with the proper frame of mind can leave one awestruck. Instantly, there is sense that you are in a special place, one that requires reverence.

For Catholics, who believe that the communion bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, it is unimaginable that, when able, we would not build the most splendid of homes for the blessed sacrament. Just as God desired His temple to be splendid, so too do we wish to give him the best we have to offer in everything we do, including in where we worship Him.

The Church as Teacher

There is another, more practical purpose at work here, as well. For the vast majority of the history of the world, and including that of Christianity, the general population was entirely illiterate. Only a very small percentage of the people were able to read. Most of those were the exceptionally wealthy members of the leisure class or were clergy already. For the rest, working to survive took precedence over reading.

The ability to read was respected, but not highly valued by the masses. The truth of the matter was that some things, like life, were more important. To compound this fact, reading did little good for most people because it was quite possible to live one’s entire life without ever laying eyes on a book.

This is the precise reason for those beautiful stained glass windows and yes, even those priceless statues and paintings. They are beautiful, yes, but even more so because they were the vehicle through which people were able to learn the great stories of the Bible and especially of the life of Christ.

Making Disciples of All

Those ornate, expensive stained glass windows depict stories from the Bible. They tell of Jesus’ ministry, of His life, death and resurrection, so that even a child who cannot read, or read well, can perceive an idea about who this Jesus is and what He did. They teach to those who cannot teach themselves, who cannot read for themselves what the Good Book says. Every image and every statue is an opportunity to learn and to start a conversation about God. “Oh,” you might find yourself saying, “if you think this church is beautiful, made with human hands, imagine how much more glorious Heaven must be!”

One of the first questions one of my children asked when we began attending Mass was about the Stations of the Cross, which adorned the walls of the church building. After 10 years in a fundamentalist community, he had not been made aware of exactly what Jesus had gone through for us on earth. In one 30-minute session of the stations, though, he was made intimately aware of the depth of God’s love for us and nearly wept when he realized the full reality and impact of the cross.

The fact is, these brilliant and beautiful churches serve a purpose, and it’s not to glorify man. It’s to point to God. There is immediately a sense of the sacred, of the Holy, that is communicated upon walking into a richly ornate church building. The images and statues around the interior, the crucifix at the alter, the tabernacle, the candles, all of these create an atmosphere that demands reverence. All of this serves a purpose, and all of it is pleasing to God.

Image courtesy Andre Moreaux via Creative Commons

  1. catholic1net says:

    Fantastic. Reblogging!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the article defending the building and maintenance of our beautiful churches. I was searching for responses to those who make comments such as you have described and have found my material to use in defense of our church and our faith. Thank you…again.

  3. Jorge says:

    I’ve always seen the catholicism as a faith that is filled with symbolic overtures. where colors and materials are codified to represent grand things (like the red cloaks that represent the blood of the martyrs), so that the opulence of the churches represent the awe inspiring power of the lord, the manor of the house. it should make you feel the grandness of god.

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