An Architecture of Pardon and Consolation

Volume 50, Issue 3 :: Michael E. DeSanctis

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Hiawatha, IA. Photo: SEAS, Farshid Assassi. Used with permission.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Hiawatha, Iowa (2010) by BVH Architects.

Embodying the meaning of Pope Francis’s recent “Year of Mercy” in the language of brick and mortar.

At the outset of 2016, as part of a comprehensive plan to revive and reform the Church for which he serves as universal leader, Pope Francis declared the Roman Catholic faithful beneficiaries of an Extraordinary Jubilee—or so-called “Year of Mercy”—intended to celebrate the saving action of God in each of their lives and, by means of their involvement in the world, the hoped-for redemption of the entire human race. Though the jubilee, like every public gesture in Francis’s whirlwind-of-a-pontificate, has been scrutinized by observers of the Church of Rome for its theological, ecclesiological, and even canonical implications, nothing has been said of the impact this prolonged reflection on the immensity of divine love might have on the very places in which ordinary Catholics daily implore God to “have mercy on [them], forgive [them] of [their] sins, and bring [them] to everlasting life” (Penitential Rite, Roman Missal, 2011). What, in fact, would places of sacred worship look like, no one in Catholic circles seems to have asked, were they to embody in an explicit way the same appreciation for God’s limitless mercy that inspired Pope Francis to convoke the jubilee in the first place?

Such a question remains pertinent to the designers and users of Catholic church buildings today, one would think, months after a ritual resealing of church doors in parish communities everywhere signaled the conclusion of the jubilee, along with the sealing-up of homily notes tailored to Francis’s belief in a God as “forgetful” as he is forgiving (Papal Homily, March 1, 2016, Vatican Chapel at Casa Santa Marta). Of what would the basic grammar of Catholic church architecture consist, in fact, were its primary task to convey the proximity of God to his people and the clemency he so freely extends them, as opposed to a the sort of heavenly aloofness or “justice from afar” so neatly captured in sacred environments over the centuries through the shorthand of vaulted ceilings? The churches in the photos that accompany this article might be interpreted as just such environments.

Sacred Heart Church, Erie, PA. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

Sacred Heart Church, Erie, Pennsylvania (renovation, 1994) by Crowner King Architects.

The pope himself, one could argue, may have been offering clues to creating an architecture of pardon and consolation even as he opened the great Porta Santa at St. Peter Basilica back in December of 2015 to inaugurate his Holy Year. As is customary on such occasions, Francis positioned himself at the portal’s outer threshold before splaying its doors with the force of papal tradition dating back to the 14th century. The pope then entered the basilica, the first of millions of visitor-pilgrims in Rome that year expected to do likewise, confident of finding within its vast interior some semblance of heaven’s own grandeur and the storehouse of grace to be discovered there. To the astute observer, the underlying “liminality” of Francis’s action was unmistakable, though the term and its meaning were likely lost on the many Catholics and others who, in crossing the Porta’s threshold during the Holy Year, were not inclined to think of the countless other “thresholds” they had crossed in life, spiritual or otherwise. Neither, probably, were they apt to consider what symbolism lay in the Porta’s immense panels having been hung to swing inward as they always have, a subtler gesture than that to be found in the outstretched arms of Bernini’s famous, twin colonnades, which have invited visitors to enter St. Peter’s Square since the 17th century and gently embrace them there. In the language of buildings, however, the action of the Porta doors evokes something of the vulnerability each of us risks when daring to welcome strangers into the protective sphere of our own embrace. Modern fire codes in this country, of course, generally prohibit public buildings of any size from having comparable, inward-opening doors. Nevertheless, one assumes that American Catholics along with their co-religionists universally might discover other means of conveying through various aspects of the places set aside for liturgical action the same hospitality Francis himself offered the world simply by rendering Catholicism’s most famous landmark a little less formidable.

Making their places of worship as inviting to visitors as they would want their own homes to be is a virtue the Catholic laity hears less about nowadays than it did, say, in the decades immediately following Vatican II, when the Church’s reform-minded leadership was acutely attuned to the so-called “horizontal dimension” of its rites. No explicit guidelines for creating sacred settings attractive to the curious no less than the pious by any means other than proper liturgical order can be found in Built of Living Stones, for example, the instruction on sacred art and architecture issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000. Neither does one hear much speculation from the pulpit lately on the degree to which the Church’s stated commitment to “the New Evangelization” necessitates some fundamentally new and dynamic conception of the buildings Catholics charge with making God as real to non-believers as to those whose faith is sound and sure. At a time when many dioceses throughout the US are scrambling just to keep the ageing infrastructures of inner-city parishes intact and their newer, suburban counterparts from receding into a landscape of commercial banality, the Catholic episcopate, for example, seems less inclined to offer specific recommendations on the matter of sacred spaces per se than to lament how empty they are on Sunday mornings compared to the countless other sites with which they now compete.
What would constitute an architecture of mercy and forgiveness in step with the greater “Franciscan Revolution” underway in the Church, of which the jubilee is part? Maybe something like this:

  • an array of buildings in all shapes and styles that proclaim “The Lord be with you!” to all who cross their thresholds, unambiguously, gratuitously—with absolutely no presumption of response (“Our doors are always open to you!” such places would say);
  • buildings whose most striking quality isn’t cost, or size, or the expression of clerical authority so much as an ability to help users of all kinds feel welcome, safe, and capable of holiness by virtue of their very proximity to the holy;
  • architectural environments in which the Church’s ancient habit of penance is taken so seriously as to deserve fitting accommodations for the sacrament—not dark and drafty broom-closets or architectural afterthoughts but places bespeaking the warmth, protectiveness, and the clemency of Christ himself;
  • buildings that lend proper reverence to Christ’s unique mode of dwelling within the tabernacle while promoting the “Real Presencing” in space and time of every member of the Mystical Body of Mercy gathered within them;
  • environments that preserve the Church’s long history of liturgical and artistic expression while making room for new and original ways of proclaiming the Gospel.
Mount Saint Benedict Chapel, Erie, PA. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

Mount Saint Benedict Chapel, Erie, Pennsylvania (2008) by BCDM Architects.

Nothing I have described here should seem particularly novel, a half-century after Vatican II began the process of rejuvenating the Church’s ritual life through its books and buildings. Nevertheless, the Catholic faithful face a challenge today that the council could not have anticipated, namely, to engage a culture so enthralled by the miracles of the Digital Age as to be inured to the effect of page-bound words and place-bound experiences upon the soul. Communion in the hand” has become the prerogative of anyone clutching an iPhone, after all, with no requirement of formal prosody or the sorts of surroundings that have served sacred worship for centuries. Thus, the chatter today among students of liturgy and literature alike concerns the “death of the written word” and, among architects, the threat posed by “virtual places” or “cyberspace” to the traditional art of building.

It is not enough, then, for Catholics to indulge in the fancy retro-styling of churches currently being touted by certain circles of liturgists and architects, a kind of “apologetics by brick and mortar” that enlists traditio to distinguish the Church from a culture seemingly devoid of historical memory. Instead, if Pope Francis’s pastoral instincts are to be trusted, compassio must be the first step in housing their battered but beautiful “field hospital”-of-a-church, an affective bias toward throwing open their tents and temples to those seeking a kind of reconstructive surgery that allows even a sin-weary Church to stand upright “prior to any efforts of [its] own” (Amoris Laetitia, 108). Invitation, not insulation, will need to be the primary impulse of this work, no matter how “cultic,” along with acknowledgement that the buildings Catholic communities erect in praise of their God are ultimately of less benefit to him than to the vast, terrestrial assembly in search of his mercy.

The author is a professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University, Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely on Catholic Church architecture in light of Catholic liturgical renewal.