“The Sacramental Sense of Sacred Architecture in the Mission of the Church”

Homily, Mass of Thanksgiving for 25th Anniversary of Sacred Architecture Journal
October 14, 2023; Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia
Readings: Col 3:12-17; Mk 5:18-20


Our great Covid panic may be gone, but the residual effects of the Covid pandemic are still with us.  Call it cultural “long Covid”: it does seem to be the great “before-after” dividing line, with some still bearing the scars of the trauma that was endured, including those of us who fought for the right to worship when businesses, museums, and tattoo parlors were all allowed to reopen. 

In California each county issued its own health orders, including rules regarding houses of worship.  In those initial weeks when everything was closed, I asked my priests to leave their churches open during the day so their people would at least have access to a sacred space for private prayer.  There was no rule in the local order about this, but I was written up in the local media accused after being accused by city officials of being in violation of the local health order.  Apparently, our government officials never considered a church building as a sacred space for private prayer, but rather, simply a building in which to conduct a worship service safe from the elements.

Such an attitude is emblematic of a very utilitarian and overly pragmatic, or functional, way of viewing not only churches but all of life in our modern and, even more so, postmodern society.  Obviously, such a way of looking at the world stands in stark contrast to our Catholic understanding which the Church has handed down to us from our Lord’s teaching in the Gospels, beginning with the Apostles and down through the ages down to our own time.


One of the many great blessings of this Catholic heritage of ours is the very many and varied saints who provide examples of holiness and heroic virtue for us.  One of the things the saints teach us is that our first priority must be to God, to true worship of the one, true God and giving only the best for God, no matter their personal circumstances in life.

St. Francis of Assisi, patron of my own city, is best known for his love of the animals, of creation, and his fervent embrace of Lady Poverty.  But the saint’s first great task was a building project: repairing a chapel.  About his own priorities, he wrote in his Testament: “Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.”

The Curé of Ars, too, lived in great poverty, but, according to the owners of religious goods stores in Lyon, he was notoriously finicky about these things.  He insisted on only the best when it came to worship.  One of the first things he did (along with spending long nights in vigil) was to repair his church, set up a bell, and start decorating chapels.

This is true holiness: saints who are great examples of poverty and evangelical zeal, coupled with a zeal for the beauty of God’s house – only the best for God.  It stands in stark contrast to what appears to be the priority today, with the primary concern being one’s own creature comforts and convenience, and the state of the house of God and liturgical furnishings and even the liturgy itself being relegated to an afterthought.

While most of us still have a long way to go in reaching the level of holiness of the saints, we can at least learn from their example.  That is what I did many years ago when I was a pastor of a middle-to-low-middle income parish on the Mexican border.  The parish hall was a disaster: holes in the roof, cracks in the walls, and really unsafe to be in.  There was an urgent need to tear it down and build a new one.  But the church building, too, was in a state of disgrace.  Not as serious as the hall, and it was not unsafe to be inside of it, but it was not suited to the worship of the one, true God.  To be honest, I was ashamed of it.  Some of the parishioners balked when I said we needed to repair the church first, even though the hall was the more urgent need.  It was clear to me that we had to give the priority to God if we wanted all else to fall into place and know His blessings upon us.  As it turns out, the transformation of the parish church into a sacred, beautiful space transformed the parish community itself.


All of this speaks to us of the sacramental character of sacred beauty, and especially of sacred architecture: the mediating role of making present the greater, transcendent reality beyond itself that is the holiness of God to which it points.  The purpose of it, of course, is to draw the beholder into that very holiness.  The beauty of the temple of God is to remind the believer of the beauty with which he must maintain his soul, and to inspire him to live accordingly.  This is how the Church Father St. Caesarius of Arles explains it in one of his Sermons:

My fellow Christians, do we wish to celebrate joyfully the birth of this temple?  Then let us not destroy the living temples of God in ourselves by works of evil.  I shall speak clearly, so that all can understand.  Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be.  Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean?  Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins.  Do you wish this basilica to be full of light?  God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us, so that he who dwells in the heavens will be glorified.  Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: I shall live in them, and I shall walk the corridors of their hearts.1 

Holiness means a life of virtue.  The Christian is to bear witness to the higher life of the Gospel by living a life of virtue.  This is precisely that to which St. Paul exhorts his fellow Christians in the ancient city of Colossae.  These virtues are all quintessentially Christian, perfected in Christ and the model for all of his followers: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, all in imitation of Christ himself; and over it all the bond of perfection which is love.  But then how does St. Paul conclude this litany of virtue?  “And be thankful.”

Gratitude, Happiness and Proclamation

Be thankful: gratitude is the key.  There is no happiness without gratitude; it is the essential ingredient.  And this is simply what holiness means: to be happy, to be happy with God in this life and perfectly so forever in heaven.  It is also a quintessential quality of gratitude that it is outward focused.  That is, when you are truly grateful, you want the world to know it, and to know why.  We have the perfect example in the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, of which story we heard the conclusion in the Gospel just proclaimed at this Mass.

You remember the story, it is one of the more colorful and exotic examples of our Lord’s healing power in casting out demons: the possessed man was infested by an unknown number of demons who called themselves “Legion,” so much so that chains and shackles could not hold him; Jesus then commands the unclean spirits to come out of the man and enter into a heard of some 2,000 swine who then rush headlong down a steep bank and drown in the sea; then, when the townspeople see the man sitting, clothed and “in his right mind,” they are “seized with fear.”  What is the man’s reaction?  He wants to become Jesus’ disciple.  This is the clear implication in the way St. Mark words this passage: the man pleads “to remain” with Jesus.  This is the same verb St. Mark uses in describing Jesus’ call to those whom he chooses to be his disciples, to remain with him, or abide with him.  Now, there is something very curious in how Jesus responds to the man’s request: he tells him, “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”

This is unique in the Gospel of St. Mark.  Elsewhere when our Lord performs a miracle, he orders the recipient not to reveal it to anyone, such as the healing of the leper who made his request by affirming his faith in Jesus’ healing power: “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40-44).  Other examples abound, such as the resurrecting of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mk 5:22-24.35-42), the healing of the deaf man with a speech impediment whom the townspeople brought to Jesus “to lay his hand on him” (Mk 7:31-36), and his command to Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor after they beheld the vision of the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-9).  This is what the Scripture scholars call the “Messianic Secret,” the theory being that Jesus had to gradually reveal his true identity and what it meant that he was the Messiah because of the people’s mistaken idea of a political Messiah who would free them from the temporal rule of the occupying Roman forces and reestablish their kingdom has it had been before.

Here, though, our Lord is in the district of the Decapolis, where the man goes off and proclaims what Jesus did for him.  That is, he is in pagan territory.  These ten cities (how appropriate we are holding this gala celebration here in the City of Brotherly Love, as one of those ten cities was ancient city of Philadelphia!) were thoroughly Greek in culture, language and mentality.  So we see here the very small first step of the great blossoming that was to come, a sort of little sneak preview of coming attractions: the Gospel is to be proclaimed to the Gentiles, and it will spread throughout a world dominated by Greek thought and culture, from which a world of a distinctly Christian civilization would begin to develop: the union of Jerusalem and Athens was no accident, as Pope Benedict XVI would say, but an act of divine providence.

The Church Building

With this, we can get an insight into how sacred architecture participates in the mission of the Church itself, a mission which is bidirectional as indicated by the bookends of the Gospel: “come follow me” and “go ye therefore.”  The Church exists to evangelize, Pope St. Paul VI taught us, and the point of evangelization is to bring those far off into the communion of the Church, to be one with Christ and so come to be saved.  It is being sent forth to proclaim, and drawing in to be in communion.

Church buildings have an exterior: part of their purpose is to proclaim Jesus Christ and his Gospel in the midst of the community.  The beauty of the exterior of churches is to draw people into them: the façade especially but also their towers, spires, domes and so forth.  And once inside, people come into the presence of Jesus Christ.  He is there, of course, in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, but the beauty of the sacred space is to teach them this presence: even if they do not understand it intellectually, they can sense it intuitively when the space is truly beautiful and majestic. 

How many conversions have started from people wandering into a church and experiencing a sense of the sacred inside of it?  After all, not only Catholics pray in Catholic churches; our churches provide an oasis for everyone.  An important step in Edith Stein’s conversion was going into an open Catholic church and seeing an elderly woman set her groceries down and have a little conversation with our Lord.

It is for good reason, then, that the Second Vatican Council called for the promotion of sacred art in service to the Church’s mission.  As it states in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

All artists who, prompted by their talents, desire to serve God’s glory in holy Church, should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, to edify the faithful, and to foster their piety and their religious formation.

It is also desirable that schools or academies of sacred art should be founded in those parts of the world where they would be useful, so that artists may be trained.2 

This, of course, is precisely what we are about today: celebrating a refreshingly breath-taking renaissance of sacred architecture pioneered at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and promoted through the Institute for Sacred Architecture and its Sacred Architecture Journal.  It is with genuine sincerity that, on behalf of all of us who yearn for sacred beauty and a restoration of the sacred, I express our profound thanks to Duncan Stroik for spearheading this renaissance and for all of his collaborators who have contributed to its growth, especially through this last quarter century of Sacred Architecture Journal.


Gratitude is the key to happiness, and so we are all very happy today!  This is the happiness that results from the sacred arts fulfilling their sacramental purpose in mediating the presence of God, and so making their unique contribution to the Church’s mission, as also affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which states:

Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art.  These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they 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.  [SC 122; emphasis added]

I founded the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship to further the same task that the Institute for Sacred Architecture has so nobly achieved: renewing what is classically Catholic, because what is classically Catholic works, that is, it bring souls to the Lord.

We need many hands in this vineyard.  We need to appreciate our great artists and craftsmen.  We need to educate our people to see better, more spiritually, and to fire the Catholic imagination.  We need more discerning patrons of the arts.  We need the Church to recapture her place as the mother of sacred art, for as Pope Benedict XVI so memorably reminded us: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”

Everyone here tonight is participating in this great call, simply by being here.  I look forward to the next fruits of this great endeavor.  So I am here to say, once again: thank you.  For this communion and this community, and for all that you all do in this vineyard that is the mission of the Church of proclaiming Jesus Christ and bringing souls into communion with him, I am truly thankful.

And so onward and upward, always for the greater glory of God.  Amen.

  1. St. Caesarius of Arles. “Sermon 229.” Office of Readings for the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, November 9. ↩︎
  2. [SC 127] ↩︎