What Is a Catholic Church?

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

September 25, 2002



            What is a Catholic Church? Is it just a big space to keep the rain off the people?  I don’t think so.

We have just finished building a new church in our parish.  It has been both a joyful and anxious enterprise.  At times I have vacillated between suicide and homicide. But, praise God, it is done. Now I am so happy that even the tropical storm predicted for our dedication cannot dampen my enthusiasm.

            Our church building experience is not unique.  In fact, these days it is common.  Right now the Catholic Church in the U.S. is in the midst of a building boom that rivals the 1950s. Growth in numbers and the movement of Catholics to the suburbs and to the South and the West means we need new churches in different places.

            I have learned a lot in this building process.

Some of the lessons are practical. Bring buckets of money.  Everything takes longer than they predict.  Respect the crafts man; he knows what he is talking about, maybe even more than the architect or engineer.

But those practical lessons come with any building project.

            The most important lessons are philosophical and spiritual.

            In building churches the Catholic Church takes the long view.  We are not building for contemporary style. We are building for the ages.  Therefore it is worth thinking about what a church is, not just now, but for future generations.

            To get a sense of this long view, it is probably best to go to someone who is used to thinking for the ages, a classical philosopher.

In her book, The Geometry of Love, Margaret Visser gives us a good sense of the philosophical view on church buildings. Her subtitle is “Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church.”

Ms Visser does not look at all churches.  Instead she analyzes one particular church, Sant’ Agnese fuori le Mura (St. Agnes outside the Walls) in Rome, for the meaning it has for believers.

The church of St. Agnes is a good example since it has been in continuous use for 1350 years.  Quite literally it has “stood the test of time” and reflects the use of churches down through the ages.

Ms. Visser’s says St. Agnes tell us something about God, our history and ourselves.

First of all, she says, every church building is a reminder.  It reminds us of the mystical experience of the past, the times when God has touched human life.

“It is a recognition in stone and wood and brick of spiritual awakenings.  It nods to each individual person. ... If the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments.  A church reminds us of what we have known.  It tells us that the possibility of the door swinging open (to mystical experience) remains.”

 A Catholic church is not a theatre, which derives its name from the Greek theatron, a place for viewing. We don’t come to look but to pray.

A Catholic church is more than just a “meeting house” as some denominations call their buildings.

A Catholic church is sacred space. The word “church” comes from the Greek kyriakon, “meaning house of the Lord.” “It is,” Visser says, “a place of encounter between the people and God.”

The very stones have meaning and call for a response.   A church, says Visser, “stands in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience.  It calls us to listen.  The building is trying to speak.  It refers to things beyond it self.”  It refers to heaven, to hope, to faith, and to love.  It refers to the past and to the future.

It refers us, above all, to God.

A church building should do what St. Anselm says prayer should do, “lift the heart and mind to God.”  

That is a lot bigger challenge for a building than just keeping off the rain.