Disclaimer: I am a socially awkward introvert. The following may not apply to suave extroverts… but they don’t seem to spend much time in the Catholic Blogosphere anyway.
On Sunday, I went to my diocesan catechetical conference. It was at a parish an hour away. The kids had a nasty virus and we had to split Masses anyway, so I decided to go to the conference Mass instead of my home Mass.
The church had been built in 1968, and it looked it. The parish had tried to jazz it up a bit – they added statues and a really nice series of plaques commemorating the seven sacraments. Still, nothing could disguise the fact that the building was part of the “Alien Flying Auditorium lands next to a giant spike” school of architecture. It even had vinyl siding—on the inside. Truly, it was a site to behold.
The angle of the ceiling beams and the arrangement of the pews drew my eyes down, to the people around me. The tabernacle was off to one side, hard to see. The altar was too low to be easily visible in a crowded church. The architect wanted the congregation to focus on each other, and his design was successful.
I’m not often in strange churches, and when I travel I usually have my husband and kids in tow. This was the first time I’ve been alone in a ‘focus on the congregation’ style church. Frankly, it was oppressive. When I visited Byzantine Churches in Greece or the great Churches of Italy on my own, I never felt alone. The art and architecture directed my gaze, and my thoughts, upward and then back down to the altar. They conveyed the message “This is a space where we worship God, here the Son is present in the Eucharist. You are at the altar of the Lord.” In those spaces, I had come alone, but I was not lonely. I was one of the multitudes, praising God.
The squat alien church oppressed me. It drew my gaze down to the crowd of strangers. I literally did not know a single person in the church. I felt alone. The architect was saying ‘here is your community, the body of Christ!’ while making it hard for me to see the one person in the church I did know, Jesus himself.
I’d never really noticed this aspect of the ‘We the Church’ style of architecture before. I’d always encountered these buildings on family vacations, surrounded by children and in-laws. So I’d never noticed how lonely they can make a single person feel.
Traditional Ecclesiastical architecture makes a visitor forget himself. When the focus is on the altar, the message is “This is the same sacrifice the world over.” A stranger can go to Mass in one parish and the art and architecture remind him that the whole church, the world over, is celebrating the same Mass – there is really only one cross, one sacrifice, one Eucharist.
The alien pod-churches focus on the differences, on the ‘uniqueness’ of the congregation. It may be a style that gives warm fuzzies when your gaze is directed to Mrs. McCulludy, your Kindergarten teacher, sitting with her grandchildren who play on your daughter’s soccer team. But for the stranger, who comes knowing no one but Christ, the entire experience can be somewhat alienating.