By Charles Johnston:
Why build ornate churches? Why did the Catholic Church spend, what would amount to millions of dollars in today’s money, to build Saint Peter’s Basilica? Why do small churches, in small towns, spend so much money on building beautiful churches, when they could easily erect a cheap, utilitarian building and donate what was “wasted” to the poor?
I used to think this way, and it makes sense to a certain degree. We should always look for ways to give more to the poor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless. But should we strip the altars and tear down the cathedrals to do so?
Gospel Account of Expensive Offerings
One of Jesus’ Apostles thought like this. The Anointing of Jesus is recounted in all four Gospels, and the objection to such a costly anointing is also recorded,
And while he was at Beth’any in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the jar and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,and given to the poor.” And they reproached her.
In the synoptic Gospels it just says that ‘some’ were offended by this gesture, but in the Gospel of John we find out that the one offended was Judas. Couldn’t the woman (identified as Mary in the Godpel of John) have used a less expensive perfume to anoint Jesus? Certainly she could’ve, but she used the most expensive perfume as an act of worship. By giving Jesus the most expensive thing she could, as a votive sacrifice, she exhibited how important Jesus was to her.
Old Testament Examples
Going all the way back to Moses on Mt Sinai, we see extravagant decorations for holy and sacred things. When God instructed Moses on how to build the tabernacle and the Ark of The Covenant, He told him to overlay the Ark with Gold, and to make the Mercy Seat (the Ark’s lid) out of pure gold. This, along with golden menorah and the golden table for the bread of the Presense, would immediately impress upon who ever seen it that it was a special place, set aside for a special purpose. (See Exodus 25 & 26 for detailed descriptions of all the fine materials used by Moses)
Skip forward a few hundred years to the time of the building of the great Jerusalem Temple by king Solomon and we see more ornate decorations to give glory to God. In 2 Chronicles 2:1-7:10 we can read all the details of Solomon’s construction and dedication of the Temple.
Solomon even tells us why he is going above and beyond with his building project,
The house which I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods.
2 Chronicles 2:5
He wanted the world to know, when thay came to Jerusalem and seen this Temple, that the people of Israel placed such a high importance on the worship of their God.
People who visit the great cathedrals of Europe come away with one of two opinions, they are either awestruck by the sheer grandeur of the building and it’s furnishings, and see it as a beautiful monument to God, or they walk away thinking it was a waste of money and unimpressed. But if we see them not as monuments to the men that built them, but as fitting expressions of humans worshipping their Creator, then we can’t possibly see them as anything but beautiful.
Like I said at the beginning, I used to feel the same way as Judas did when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume (never a good position to be in) but over the last decade I’ve come to appreciate beauty more and more. I would’ve objected to a golden altarpiece, or marble altar steps, but wouldn’t have thought twice if I seen gold and marble on a mansion in the more expensive parts of my hometown.
We really haven’t lost touch with beauty, we just think it should be reserved for our own personal use, in our cars, our homes, but not in our churches. Maybe this is just an American thing, but if you visit any megachurch you’ll find people driving beautifully expensive cars, but say that Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York is too grandiose for today’s world, and it should be sold to give money to the poor.
I belong to a wonderful and beautiful parish in the suburbs of Phoenix Arizona, and we recently received a new pastor from Uganda. He set about a renovation project to return the Tabernacle to behind the altar (it is currently off to the side, in almost the middle of the pews area) and revamped the area behind the altar to make it more beautiful and fitting for the worship of our God.
The primary purpose for moving the Tabernacle is to symbolically, and literally, make Jesus in the Eucharist the central point in our parish, but even though making the altar area more beautiful is a secondary purpose, it is still a very important one.
This renovation is the catalyst for my writing this piece, it’s because of some of the comments I’ve heard around the parish. Comments that I addressed above, and comments that just a few years ago I would’ve espoused myself.
Not only is a beautiful church fitting for our God, as King Solomon said, but beauty can also be a tool for evangelism. I recently read an article (Story here) that said young people are more likely to convert, or return to, the faith if the the church they are introduced to is a beautiful church. So building beautiful churches is not just giving glory to God, it may also help save souls!
Bishop Barron always says that “truth, beauty, and goodness will lead others to the Catholic faith.” I’ve focused on truth and goodness for a long time, I think I’ll take some time to meditate on the beautiful.
(My parish is right in the middle of our capital campaign, if you would like to contribute please visit this website https://squareup.com/store/standrewchandler Disclosure: I do not work for the parish, the Diocese of Phoenix, or any other entity of the universal Church. I have also not been asked to solicit funds for the capital campaign, I’m just a parishioner that is very excited about these changes and want to do everything I can to see them through.)