Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does "beauty" matter?

Think of this as Extreme Makeover: Church Edition. Church renovations can be a touchy thing. We've all seen lots of well-meaning church "renovation" projects go very, very, bad and disintegrate into "wreckovations". In the 1970s, in fact, church wreckovations became a cottage industry in the U.S. and, for a while, it seemed that no pre-1970 church building was safe from being gouged of anything of worth or beauty. Thankfully, this seems to be changing and some older and historic churches have fought hard to preserve (and or to restore) their original splendor (I'm thinking especially of St. Mary's Basilica in Natchez, among others).

As someone who did not grow up Catholic, let me let you in on a little secret: many non-Catholics are disappointed when they enter a Catholic church for the first time. Yep. I'm not speaking specifically about their impressions of the Mass (that's for another post, perhaps) or the homily, but just their initial impression of the space itself. Movies have led us to think that all Catholic churches are teeming with beautiful works of art and a very classical sense of architectural dignity. People expect to see columns, arches and spires, statues and frescoes, beautiful ceilings and floors - a veritable feast for the eyes. So, needless to say, they can be quite disappointed (though they certainly won't say so out loud) to find that many parish churches have succumbed to a minimalist approach to interior design, with walls that are bland, boring and artless; ceilings and floors that would look more at home in a community center or public school than in a place of worship. In a nutshell, many of our parishes look, well, institutional, not beautiful.

But beauty does matter. When it comes to sacred spaces such as a church - it is of upmost importance because it sets the tone for our entire experience. Beauty can make an immediate impression on the newcomer. Think about it: We look for certain cues as to the importance of a place when we enter into a new building. If the new surroundings lead us to a sense of awe, wonder and sacredness, then we know we have entered a place that is to be reverenced and is worshipful in its intent. On the other hand, if we enter a new place and it feels sterile and no different from other large buildings such as an office building or a shopping mall, we immediately devalue its contents. Truth is, we owe it to God to give him our absolute best in all that we do - not the least of which includes building the houses of worship that will shelter his very Body and Blood in the tabernacle. It just makes sense. So, I am heartened by the pictures below, of the newly-renovated St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Hackberry, Louisiana (near Lake Charles).

After Hurricane Rita, the parish rebuilt, but they didn't stop there. They took the opportunity to improve upon what they had and to re-construct their church in a way that leaves no doubt about the importance that they place upon sacred worship. I think it is obvious that they gave serious to consideration to this bottom line: they had an opportunity to re-construct a house for the Lord, so they gave him their very best.

What do you think about their work? Does one communicate the sacredness of the space more than the other? Does one "speak to your soul" more than the other? Let us know in the comments! A hat tip to New Liturgical Movement, a great blog on Catholic liturgical things that features "before and after" posts such as this regularly.



Closeup of the newly-renovated Sanctuary