Once You Understand the Architecture of a Church, You’ll Never Look at It the Same

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“A foretaste of the Heavenly Liturgy”¹

Several years ago I stumbled upon a video of a lecture given by Denis R. McNamara, that blew me away, and has subsequently traveled with me, so to speak, in my meditative, Mass-going, beauty-loving journeys as a Catholic. Every time I visit a Church, I am inevitably affected by its architecture, whether I mean to be consciously attentive to it or not.

Dr. McNamara is a renowned architectural historian, liturgical design consultant and assistant director  at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake / Mundelein Seminary. In episode 1 of a 10-part series of short videos (you’ll want to watch them all!), McNamara asks, Is there such a thing as Architectural Theology?”

So much more than “do I like it or not?” – Church Architecture is loaded with meaning.

Catholic Church Architecture Theology

McNamara continues:

“…How can we just begin to get behind the ‘I like it / I don’t like it’ argument, and say, ‘what’s the Truth about Church architecture, and therefore what’s Good about Church architecture, and how can we use beauty to make that truth and the goodness attractive to the people of a parish and people who visit a church?”

Designing and building a church (or, perhaps, blessedly, restoring one that was wreckovated in the 70s, 80s, or even more recently) is not comparable to any other kind of architectural project. A Catholic Church is inherently unique among man-made structures, given its purpose – a house for the Holy Mass. Lex Aedificandi, McNamara suggests, the “law of building,” must actually be discerned biblically! But what’s interesting to me is that I think it’s obvious… you don’t have to be a bible scholar OR an architect (in other words, you don’t have to be a credentialed expert!), or belong to the upper crust, to know in your gut when a Church is beautiful or ugly.

“How to design a church is not “who are the most famous architects these days, what’s on the cover of the architecture magazines, what’s coming out of the studios in New York City, what do I like, what does somebody else like, what does the architect tell me we must have… The fundamental question is, what is the sacramental reality that this building should reveal to us? That notion, we can call “architectural Theology.”

If you’d like to learn more, follow Dr. McNamara’s series here. And here’s the long but amazing video from McNamara I mentioned above, a lecture he gave at a fundraising dinner for the University of Nebraska Newman Center’s recently completed new church.

¹Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963

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