We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
No Time to Despair
This is no time to despair. Lord knows, it’s a temptation. It’s a great temptation. The last couple of years particularly have forced even the naive among us to face up to the corruption in our society. Government institutions and private institutions alike (and very often, in concert) have abandoned their responsibilities in pursuit of raw power. Even the institutional Church seemed to abandon us. Christianity itself is declining, both in it’s social influence, and in the number of believers. Increasingly fewer people see the need for Jesus in their lives.
And yet it’s not the time for despair, if we really trust in the promises of Christ. None of the things I mention above should surprise us. It’s the way of worldly institutions to be driven by worldly concerns. As regards the Church, it’s far from the first time her institutional side has followed its worldly counterparts instead of the Sermon on the Mount. The downturn in Christian belief is more a cause of concern, but that, too, we have known about for a long time. One of the most well known predictions of the decline came in a radio talk on Christmas Day, 1969. The speaker was a young Catholic priest and university professor named Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI). Fr. Ratzinger famously foretold that “the Church of tomorrow” would be “a Church that has lost much.”
Edifices Built in Prosperity
I discuss Fr. Ratzinger’s radio address at length in another post (“A Smaller, Purer Church?“). I’m just touching on it today because of what follows the line I quote above. Fr. Ratzinger starts to flesh out some of the implications of what it means to have lost much:
She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.
So, what happens to those “edifices she built in prosperity” which she can no longer inhabit? A church is no ordinary edifice. In my recent post on the Basilica of St.s Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, I said:
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.
When A Church Is No Longer A Church
Once one of these buildings no longer serves as a church, it still communicates something of its sacramental character. The Pontifical Council of Culture, in the document Decommissioning and Ecclesial Reuse of Churches, says of these formerly sacred buildings:
Their evangelizing readability remains even if they lose their liturgical functionality. A church building, in fact, cannot be valued only in terms of functional use . . . So the cessation of the liturgical use of a space in no way automatically brings about its reduction to a building devoid of meaning and freely transformable into anything different; the significance it has acquired over time and its real presence within the community are not, in fact, reducible to technical or financial statistics.
For this reason the Church has developed guidelines that govern what happens to a church building once it is no longer a church. This is less of a problem if the building remains Church property. But what if it’s to be sold? According to the Council on Culture document on decommisioning and reuse:
As far as possible and compatibly with the original intention of the building, it is desirable that when it can no longer be maintained as a religious building as such, an effort be made to ensure a new use, whether religious (for example, entrusting it to other Christian communities), cultural or charitable. Commercial for-profit reuses seem to be excluded, while social enterprise usage may be considered. What should be preferred are reuses with cultural aims (museums, conference halls, bookshops, libraries, archives, artistic workshops etc.), or social aims (meeting places, charity centers, healthcare clinics, foodbanks for the poor etc.).
Of course, once the Church has sold the property, no matter how careful the vetting process, she has no control over what subsequent owners may do. I do know of some former Catholic churches that serve as places of worship for other Christian communities. That’s the best outcome under the circumstances.
Not all former churches fare as well. I’m familiar with another retired church building which is home to a youth theater group, which seems to correspond to the guidelines above. But there’s a complication. They have recently painted a very large and bright mural across the entire back wall of the structure. I certainly understand their desire to decorate their premises. And they have every right to do so, since they own the property. The problem is, the building still looks in other respects very much like a place of worship. There’s something jarring about this mural in this location. Even worse, it looks disrespectful to those of us who remember the formerly sacred character of the building.
Sometimes worse things than that happen once a church becomes somebody’s personal property. I know of one that is now a dining and entertainment venue, which definitely falls outside the guidelines for proper use. I got the idea for this post when I saw a picture online of yet another former Catholic church that is now a Masonic hall (you can read the sad story of this particular former church at The Pillar).
Signs of the Sacred
Sometimes, thankfully, a former church finds a happier fate. I wrote about the Basilica of St.s Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, last week. Today I’d like to talk about another building in Lewiston. I attended a meeting a few years ago at a place called the Franco Center, formerly the Franco American Heritage Center. I was a little surprised when I arrived because it looked just like a church. As a matter of fact, for most of its existence it went by the name of St. Mary’s Church. There’s always something sad about a former Catholic church building converted to secular use. This one, however, has retained an unusual number of churchy details.
Its new name, Franco Center, is in part a reflection of its new function as a community center for the large French Canadian community in central Maine. It also serves as a museum celebrating the history of that community. That’s the reason why so much of its formerly sacred function is still on display. It’s commemorating the huge part Catholicism has played in the lives of French Canadians in New England.
It’s quite an impressive display for an ostensibly secular building. There’s a large crucifix, for instance, in a glass case in the lobby. Inside what used to be the nave of the church displays contain, among other historical artifacts, vestments and prayer books. In regard to the structure itself very few of the sacred architectural details have been removed or hidden.
The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail
As unusual as those things are in a secular building, there is something else that took me by surprise when I first visited the Franco Center. In order to accommodate theater-style seating in the central nave, a new floor had been built that sloped up from front to back, until it reached the pointed tops of the Gothic arches that had towered over worshipers in years past (see photo above). When I climbed atop this structure to my seat an unexpected sight greeted me: although the high altar itself was gone, its towering wooden reredos remained (or better yet, this having been a French-speaking parish, it’s retable). The niche for the tabernacle was still visible, the red Alpha and Omega still stood out prominently, and above all, a big beautiful Madonna holding the Baby Jesus.
It was a wonderful sight, but it prompted thoughts both negative and positive. On the negative side, I was struck with the realization that this secular hall still looked more like a Catholic Church than many recent church buildings still being used for that purpose. The ugliness of so much modern church design is deplorable in itself, but also a sign of much that has gone wrong, both in the Church and in society. It’s a tangible embodiment of all those things (see the first paragraph above) that tempt us to despair.
No Time to Despair, Now or Ever
On the plus side, however, it’s a sign that, however difficult things may look along the way, the Gates of Hell will not prevail (see Matthew 16:17). The Christian roots of our culture have a way of showing up in all sorts of places. The evangelizing readability, as the Council for Culture inelegantly but truly put it, remains. Whenever the Church looks to be in danger of losing her way, God raises up a St. Benedict or a St. Francis of Assisi. Our Lord not abandoned us.
This is no time for despair. A baptized Christian may lose his or her faith, but will always retain the mark of baptism. A one-time church, once desacralized, never completely loses its sacred character. A formerly Christian culture will never, however hard it tries, completely forget Christ. Every time you see an apartment building with a steeple, or the outline of a cross on the side of a recreation center, let it remind you: now is not the time to despair. Christ will come again.