More Than a Building:
Christ is Our Model in All Things
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . (John 1:1,4)
Any truly Christian anthropology needs to start with the Gospel of John, chapter 1. The incorporeal Eternal Word, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, takes on human flesh and lives a material existence in the world. In a similar (albeit limited and human way) we are composed not only of flesh and blood, but also an immaterial soul that God has created to last for eternity, for an immeasurable time after our earthly bodies are gone. In this, as in other things, Christ is our model.
One consequence of our body/soul composition is that we need tangible things to help us grasp abstract or spiritual realities. That’s why Jesus taught with parables, and with images such as the mustard seed, or salt that has lost its savor. For the same reason we use spoken prayers, liturgical gestures, sacred music and art, and a whole range of sacramentals. No doubt Jesus chooses to use Sacraments as a means of bestowing Grace for this reason as well.
Needless to say, it follows that church buildings are also an important means of communicating, in a nonverbal and non rational way, the truths of the faith. I touched on this idea in last year’s piece, “Has Tradition become a Dirty Word?” I’m returning today to an article I published a number of years ago. I discuss these issues in the context of a particular church, the beautiful Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine.
The Basilica: a Beacon on a Hill
Many a visitor to the old textile city of Lewiston, Maine, experiences surprise when, driving through a run-down neighborhood of shabby old New England triple-decker tenements, he suddenly finds an enormous and beautiful church looming over him. This is the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, formally consecrated in 1938.
Its location is not at all as incongruous as it might at first seem. It was the most natural thing in the world for the inhabitants of those cheap apartment houses to put all their extra money and effort into building the most magnificent church possible. At the time, the parishioners were mostly French Canadian immigrants who had come to Lewiston to work in the dark red-brick mills that lined the Androscoggin River.
And yes, it was those poor laborers, not wealthy benefactors or (Heaven forbid) government grants, that built the Basilica. “Religion is the opiate of the people” is not the least foolish of the foolish things Karl Marx said. Opiates deaden the soul and weigh down the limbs: nobody pushes themselves to the limit to build monuments to those. No, the Faith these humble workers brought with them from Quebec didn’t numb them into acquiescence, it gave them real assurance that they had something worth working toward: admittance to the presence of the living God.
More Than a Building: Enormous Sacramentals
And so naturally it was a Church that they chose as the focus of their devotion. Churches are much more than just buildings. They are enormous sacramentals, consecrated objects that can help connect us to the Grace of a God who is pure Spirit. Churches are iconic representations that teach us at an unconscious level about an ordered Universe with God at the apex . . . or at least they used to be. They are also places closely connected to some of the deepest experiences of our lives, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. Finally, they are places that gather communities together. Sometimes families and communities build these connections over many generations. That’s why the closing of a church is so much more traumatic than the closing of a movie theater, for instance, or a department store. The local church is, for most people, their concrete connection to transcendent realities.
The Basilica of Peter and Paul, fortunately, is still going strong. It no longer draws its community, however, mostly from the immediate neighborhood. People have come from miles away to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form every Sunday since 2008. That’s when then-Bishop Richard Malone designated it as one of two churches (the other being the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland) to host a new Latin Mass Chaplaincy. There is also a Mass in the Ordinary Form celebrated with a reverence that draws worshipers from a wide area, and a French language Mass that is very well attended by French speakers from all over southern Maine. Many other churches, to the great sorrow of parishioners who have been orphaned, have not been so lucky.
The New, New Evangelization
It’s in that connection that this post on Fr. Z’s blog (here), about parishioners in Buffalo who have enlisted the Vatican’s help in their attempts to keep their parish open, first caught my eye. Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone is the same man who, as Bishop of Portland, helped keep the Basilica thriving. Here, he comes off as the Bad Guy of the piece.* As it happens, Bishop Malone also oversaw the closing of many parishes in Maine, a practice he seems to have continued in Buffalo. Unfortunately, that appears to be one of the first lessons they teach in Bishop School these days. In any case, Fr. Z’s post made me wonder. Would it have made a difference if some of those other parishes had thought to appeal to the Pope?
There are bigger questions, of course. Fr. Z asks:
What sort of faith in an effort of “New Evangelization” do we evince if, while chattering about it, we are closing the churches we need to fill in the very places where the “New Evangelization” needs to be pursued?
More Like Evangelists
That’s a good point. Today, all those triple-deckers around the Basilica in Lewiston still overflow with people. The difference is, they are no longer (mostly) people who actually attend the church that dominates their neighborhood. We can say the same of many churches we are decommissioning. The populations around them are (mostly) as large as when the churches boasted full congregations every Sunday. The difference is, they aren’t making up for the shortfall with people from further afield. And, yes, bishops and their staffs around the country should certainly learn to think more like Evangelists and less like Administrators. We lay Catholics, also, (and I include myself) need to do our part. What more we can do to invite all those people on the outside into the Church? If earlier generations with fewer resources but great faith could build the basilicas, could we not at least put enough people in the pews?
*A few years later, sorry to say, Bishop Malone’s tenure in Buffalo ended very badly indeed. Happily, that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.