The Vatican is getting tired of Catholic churches starting to resemble multi-purpose facilities--devoid of the beauty and grandeur of classic Cathedrals. So they are clamping down. From the article in the Vatican insider:
"A team has been set up, to put a stop to garage style churches, boldly shaped structures that risk denaturing modern places for Catholic worship. ... Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Benedict XVI, consider this work as “very urgent”. The reality is staring everyone in the eyes: in recent decades, churches have been substituted by buildings that resemble multi purpose halls."
This highlights an interesting tension that is occurring not just within the Roman Catholic church, but within the Protestant Church as well.
While Protestant churches usually do not have the grandeur of Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, many of our churches are realizing that the church is not meant to be an institution or a building. We put a lot of time, work, and energy into sustaining the ministries in the building (as we should), but it has become increasingly clear to many Protestant traditions that the church has to live outside of its walls. We have to engage the community, and be a presence in the world outside. Churches that become insular and inwardly-focused, not only do not grow, but are not that effective at sharing Christianity. Worse they can ghettoize themselves from society.
This is increasingly a well-understood concept in Protestant Christianity.
In the Roman Catholic church however, there has been a longer tradition of priests and nuns doing much of the work outside of the church, and the lay people going to mass in ornate Cathedrals. There has been a bigger disconnect between the outside world and the world within the Cathedral. This has given Evangelical Christianity--particularly Pentecostal Christianity a huge boost in traditionally Catholic parts of the World like Latin America. Roman Catholic churches, in places like the Philippines, Brazil, and El Salvador are finding that they need to act a little more Protestant--even Pentecostal (or at least Charismatic) to keep up with competing churches. Lay people are being used, sermons in mass are more down-to-earth, and yes, the buildings are more for community use than to simply glorify God through architecture.
Is the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to clamp down on ugly buildings an example of once again missing the bigger trends? That in today's world, people are not longing for a glorious institution or building to support, but rather to a support a relevant movement and cause that has a concrete impact on their communities? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Here in Europe, we walk into gorgeous Cathedrals just about every week. A few days ago, I was in a beautiful Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Beirut. A few days before that, in a beautiful one in Greece. Before that, in a number of beautiful churches in France and Spain--most recently, my favorite of all-time Sacre Coeur.
There is something wonderful about these Cathedrals that goes beyond the magnificent architecture and craftsmanship. There is a sense of timelessness in these Cathedrals--a blocking out of the superficial world outside. There may be a Subway Sandwich shop across the street from Notre Dame, but once you walk into that Cathedral, it all points to one thing: the story of Christ's work on the cross--the churches themselves in the shape of a cross.
Building multi-million dollar Cathedrals is not a great option in today's age for a variety of reasons: the extravagance, the global recession, our new anti-institutional age, the scandals of the church, the need for the church to be accessible etc. But I wonder in what ways our own churches and faith-worshipping communities can build structures or programs that point toward transcendence? That point toward the work of the Cross. That point toward a sense of timelessness that blocks out the artificiality of so much of the world.