USML |  Special Feature on Church Architecture: An Interview with Dr. Denis McNamara

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Special Feature on Church Architecture: An Interview with Dr. Denis McNamara

Dr. Denis McNamara, a founding member of the Liturgical Institute’s faculty, is known as an architectural theologian who integrates biblical and sacramental theology with the study of liturgical art and architecture. The author of three books, he speaks frequently in academic and parish settings and works with architects and pastors in building and renovating church buildings. This interview appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Tidings, the Liturgical Institute's newsletter.

What do you think are the most important issues relating to church architecture fifty years after the Second Vatican Council?

The texts of the Council echo the desires expressed by the leaders of the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement that priests and people alike should be aware of what they are doing in the sacred liturgy so that they might benefit more fully from the graces available there. The Council therefore asked worshippers to understand that sacred art is composed of “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” which “achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.” I think it is time that we take these directives seriously, thinking in a deeply sacramental way about the very nature of liturgical art and architecture.

Are you implying that people have not always thought about the sacramentality of the church building and its art?

Well, I suppose I am. The texts of the Council had their first reception in late 1960s and early 1970s when architectural Modernism was at its height and the notion of the immanence of God had somewhat overwhelmed the transcendence of God. Perhaps it was a necessary corrective to pre-conciliar abuses, but we are fortunate to be living in a time when we can think beyond the common slogans of the 1980s which called the church a “meeting house,” proposed that the church building is based on the secular dining room and is merely a skin for liturgical action which need not look like anything else.

What is a church building, then, in fuller understanding?

A church building is first and foremost and image of Christ and His Mystical Body with all that this claim implies. In the Old Testament, the Temple was symbolic building composed of stones quarried by priests which formed the place where God dwelled with His people. Its interior was of mythical time and space, an image of the glorified earth and even heaven itself. In the New Testament, the Christian community is called “God’s building” because they are now members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the place where God dwells with humanity. The church building, then, is a sacrament of God reconciled with humanity, as the Catechism tells us (no. 1180). It is made up of many members such as bricks, stones and steel beams, all arranged with an eschatological glory to provide a place where God dwells with humanity. Just as we say the altar “is” Christ, so we can say that the church building is a great sacrament of Christ’s many members assembled in their heavenly glory. Just like the heavenly liturgy, the church building is centered on Christ, glorified, perfected, filled with angels and saints, radiant with light and an image of the new heaven and new earth.

How can a building be an image of the new heaven and new earth?

Traditionally-designed church buildings are generally made up of two primary parts: sanctuary and nave. The sanctuary is the architectural and artistic image of heaven, which explains why the altar and tabernacle are usually located there and the rear wall of the apse is traditionally the place of a great liturgical image of Christ in glory. The nave is the image of the restored earth, no longer subject to the effects of the Fall. Together they form a unit where heaven and earth “kiss” at the point where nave and sanctuary meet, just as a priest reaches across from sanctuary to nave to distribute communion, the moment when God and human beings “kiss” in intimate union. So if you look at a well-ornamented church, it is very common to see plant motifs all around in sculpture and paintings, indicating the restored earth. Some of the more elaborate murals of the Roman basilicas exemplify this beautifully, where Christ is set amidst a garden paradise indicated by palm trees, flowers and animals.

So it seems that the role of liturgical art is more than simply making a church look “old fashioned”?

Indeed it is! The job of the liturgical artist is to use the matter of creation—paint, stone, gold, glass, whatever—to reveal the “heavenly realities.” Though many people often forget this, the liturgy is made up of many communities beyond the people gathered in the pews. Liturgy includes, first, the Father, Son and Spirit. But it also includes the cosmic liturgy—all creation praising God—including the animals, plants and stars. But there is also the heavenly liturgy composed of the angels, the saints and what the Book of Revelation calls the multitudes that no one could count. So the artist’s job is to use matter to reveal and make present the heavenly realities. This is why Pope Paul VI, who understood art well, told artists in a lecture that they had a ministry very much like priests, whose job is to take bread and wine and give the world the Real Presence. I think we are on the verge of the time when people will take the sacramental role of art much more seriously. It’s really a great time to be building churches! We should thank God that we are the inheritors of the great scholars of the Liturgical Movement and the insights of the Council.

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