What is a church, that we should be mindful of it?

I found myself crying, as I watched Notre Dame burn. I’d only been there once; why was I crying? I cried as I watched the people gathered to sing the Hail Mary as they watched the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris burning. Why? What is this church, that it should inspire such a reaction?

Usually, when theologians discuss the definition of church, they’re talking about the body of Christ, the communion of believers, the ecclesial community, the ecclesiastical institution, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” object of the Creed. Today I’m going to talk about the building. Not Notre Dame specifically, but the genus of which Notre Dame is an instance: a church as Catholics make churches, and particularly a great church, that expresses the fullness of this genus of church.

A church, first of all, is embodied prayer. Everything about its building is prayer, especially so during Christendom. The money donated to build the church is an offering to God by the donors, through whose goodness they have these financial gifts to offer, an offering of thanksgiving or petition. The justly compensated labor of the architects and artists is an offering to God, as they turn the creative gifts with which God has endowed them to create works that glorify God. The justly compensated labor of the carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, and every other skilled or unskilled laborer involved in the complicated task of raising a building is the prayer of workers in the vineyard who answer Jesus’ call to come into the fields to gather in the plentiful harvest. A church is a great, intricate, persistent tapestry of prayer.

A church, secondly, is a sacramental:

an object that aids the faithful as we try to grow in holiness and closeness to God. A church whose beauty points to the glory of God, whose art instructs us in the Christian life, whose chapels and shrines and stations help us focus our prayer, whose acoustics support proclamation that is clear and sacred song that literally surrounds and moves through us like the breath of God, is a church that properly disposes us to receive the sacraments, that their grace may bear fruit in our lives.

Thirdly, a church is not just a shelter, but a home, for the Christian community that gathers in it for worship, prayer, study, works of mercy, and the practical matters of planning, organizing, and paying the bills. However transcendent the art and architecture may be, and no matter where the church members reside, there’s an intimacy that arises from living and working in a place every day or every week. This familiar intimacy, not just with the place but with the people, can deepen the spiritual experience during the times of formal prayer and worship.

Catholics know that matter has something to do with holiness: it’s in our sacramental theology, our holy water and blessed medals, our relics and our pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Surely, it is also in our churches. Churches that have lived for centuries, churches in which generations of believers have encountered God through prayer and sacrament, must surely be sanctified by such enduring proximity to the pursuit of holiness. When I visited Avila, it was meaningful to me to pray in the church where St Teresa prayed: despite the workmen clattering on the roof as they repaired it, I reflected on her life and work and writings while I was in, perhaps, the very pew she had prayed in. There is a plaque on one of the pews in the chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary, at the place where St. John Paul II had knelt in prayer on his visit there: this is surely a meaningful place to pray for those who admired and seek to emulate his holiness. Churches that have lived for centuries have certainly formed and sheltered hundreds, thousands, of the humbler unknown saints that we celebrate on All Saints Day. Our prayers are strengthened and our spiritual lives are enriched by proximity, spatial if not temporal, to those holy people.

One reason I cried, as I watched Notre Dame burn, was the thought of the generations of Catholics who had worshiped there, been formed in the faith there, and the fear that it would burn to the ground and we would lose all that.

As scripture has it, the baptized faithful are living stones building up the heavenly temple that is the body of Christ. But the literal stones (or wooden beams, or slabs of glass or concrete) of a church building make up the body, the incarnation, of the church community that lives and works and worships in it. Our bodies are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; our churches are indwelt by the ecclesiae. If the church is the Body of Christ, then the church building is the body of that Body.

It is by means of this incarnate character that a church is a herald (somewhat in the sense of Avery Dulles’ “Models of the Church”), standing in the public square bearing witness to the gospel and the glory of God. Its visible presence is evidence that there are, or have been, Christians in this place, who may otherwise go unseen: a Christian community, moreover, whose dedication was such that they raised such a church to glorify God, and to shelter and shape their lives of faith. A church is a reminder and an invitation to the faithful, and (at least potentially, at least in theory) an offer of help for those in physical or spiritual need.

At least in theory: a critique that could be applied to much of this essay. Isn’t this all rather idealistic? you might be thinking. Given the scandalous evil of clergy abusing children and vulnerable adults; given the even more scandalous evil of the coverup; given the daily struggles of the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the migrants, the marginalized in cities that house these great churches; given the historical and present injustices perpetrated by the institutional church: how can I write such things?

It’s a fair question. And it’s part of what appeals to me about this incarnational metaphor.

Because incarnation blows purity out of the water. Embodiment falsifies binary thinking, insists on the both/and characteristic of Catholic thought. Jesus didn’t just eat and drink and breathe and speak; he also belched and pissed and farted and shat. We know this because he was human, and humans are embodied souls, ensouled bodies that do all those things. This is the mystery of Christ’s dual nature: that the glory of divinity and the dirt of humanity are intimately joined, the one not cancelled by the other.

One final thought: both as herald, and as simple presence, a church is a member of the community in which it resides. It shapes, and is shaped by, that community. It reflects the changing sunlight, casts shadows, rings bells. It can be a navigational landmark, a photo op, a tourist destination; a place that hosts worship and weddings, AA meetings and soup kitchens, community gardens and childcare. It responds to the community (or chooses not to…) and the community responds to it.

It’s been over a month since Notre Dame burned, and the conversation now is about how to rebuild. Let’s deepen that conversation by asking how to rebuild in a way that will most fully express the vocation of this great church as prayer, sacramental, home, herald, and neighbor.


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