Explaining the Eucharist: Adventures in RCIA

I was assigned to give 15 minutes (!) on the theology and history of the Eucharist to our RCIA class last night. Of course, the first thing one has to say: impossible task, all I can give it the briefest outline of an introduction to the topic. I wish I would have thought to say…

Well, that is the topic of this post: what can one say about the Eucharist in about 15 minutes? I’m taking what I did say, cleaning it up and adding a few points I wish I’d thought to say.

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We try to understand the Eucharist, the True Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, with our minds of course, but even more with our hearts. The Church does and always has encouraged questions and thought, but at the same time reminds us that the things of God are beyond the intellectual grasp of us mere humans and can only be known imperfectly in this life. The Eucharist is first among these mysteries, as it is the continued presence of the Incarnate Lord among us, the working out and fulfillment of our salvation as members of the Body of Christ.

When Peter preached on Pentecost, 3,000 people were converted and baptised. Why? What did those hearing Peter understand that made them ready to accept Jesus? Two stories central to Judaism help explain this, and how these early Christians understood the Eucharist.

The first is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. When God tells Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son Isaac, he obeys without question. In the last chapter, he had driven his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael out, giving them only a waterskin and a little bread. Even though God had assured him that He would care for them and make a nation out of Ishmael, Abraham had treated them poorly: driving a woman and her small son into the wilderness would normally be a death sentence. So Abraham has no standing to object to God asking for his other son.

When Isaac says “Father! Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers that God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering. When God stops Abraham and supplies a ram, He is sparing and ransoming not just Isaac but all of Israel, all the children that would come through Isaac. He was providing the sacrifice that allowed Israel to exist.

Thew second story, the greatest story in Israel, is God saving His people from Egypt. The last plague sent by God to force Pharaoh to set the Israelites free is striking down the first born of every household in Egypt. He gives instructions to Moses: have the people get ready to leave. Have them take a yearling lamb, unblemished, and kill and eat it. Have them take some of its blood and splash it on the lintels of their door as a sign to my angel to pass over that household.

Thus, God strengthened His people for their journey out of slavery and into freedom with the flesh of a lamb, and by its blood marked them out and spared them from death.

In these two stories, God supplies the victim which is sacrificed in the place of Isaac for the sins of Abraham, thus purchasing the lives of all his descendents. In Egypt, the land of slavery, He tells them to eat an unblemished lamb and to mark themselves as His with its blood. The flesh of the lamb strengthens them for their journey to freedom, its blood saves them from death.

When John the Baptist sees Jesus down by the Jordan River, he proclaims: “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him Who takes away the sins of the world!” The Jews hearing this would have thought: the Lamb of God? The sacrifice supplied by God to save us? The lamb whose blood spares us from death? Whose flesh strengthens us for our journey to freedom?

Then, in John 6, Jesus expounds further: unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you shall have no life within you. For my Flesh is real food, and My Blood is real drink. These are outrageous claims, and the people who heard it were outraged, and many left. Jesus then asks his disciples if they, too, wish to leave, Peter answers not with any understanding of what he’s just heard, and not with questions or requests for clarification. He’d just heard Jesus emphatically double down in the face of outrage. Instead, he says simply: Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.

At the Last Supper, after the traditional Passover meal where Jesus and the Apostles remembered how God rescued His people from Egypt, at which they had prepared and eaten the lamb just as Moses had instructed Israel in the land of slavery, Jesus breaks the bread and says: this is My Body. He takes the wine and says: this is the cup of My Blood in a new and everlasting covenant. Do this in memory of Me.

Remember, as John says at the beginning of his Gospel, Jesus is the Word through Whom all things were made. When He says ‘let there be light,’ light appears; when he commands the earth to be full of plants and animals and the sea to be full of fish, they are. His Word causes things to be what they are. When He says: this is My Body, that is what it is.

After this, Jesus leaves the Passover meal and heads out to be sacrificed for us, handing over His Body to death and spilling His Blood that we might live. God has indeed provided the Sacrifice. He has indeed supplied the food for our journey into his life and freedom.

From the moment Peter first preached at Pentecost, this has been the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. Those 3,000 Jews who converted on the spot would have understood this, as I’m sure Peter and the Apostles would have pointed it out to any who did not immediately grasp it. But as important as the intellectual understanding is, much more is the touching of hearts: all the pieces of all the stories those people had heard all their lives, all the yearnings and prayers for a savior, all their longing for Emmanuel, God With Us – all the pieces fell into place, and they all knew that Jesus is Lord, that He is with us always, and gave us Himself most intimately for our nourishment and salvation.

Thus, we find in Acts and the letters of Paul already expressed a devotion to the Eucharist. The True Presence is attested to by all the Church fathers. John’s and Paul’s descipe Ignatius of Antioch wrote about it in his letters around 100 A.D. Irenaeus of Lyon testified to it in the 2nd century. The Church has maintained from the beginning that God so loves the world that he continues to send His Son to us, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine.

I blathered on a little more, but this is the gist of what I wished I had said, built on what I did say, which was not this clear or tidy, and left out a few things.

Update: Catholic Education, etc.

Writing posts to this blog, usually between 8 and 20 a month, hs been perhaps my major hobby and creative outlet for almost a decade now. Recently, the need to find some gainful employment has commandeered a large amount of my time and energy; prayers would be appreciated. (And leads – anybody need an expert in corporate return measures, equipment finance deal structuring, or – my real strength – dabbling like a boss? I’m available.) I’ve been scarce around here.

But, in an attempt to manage my sanity, such as it is, I’ve decided to dedicate 3 hours a day to ‘projects,’ chief of which is the on-going Education History Research and Book Writin’ Jamboree.

My lack of scholarly planning is going to require me to reread, or at least skim, many of the books I’ve already read, as I’ve taken few notes outside the references embedded in these blog posts. Some will be fun; many are tedium embodied. To keep my sanity, I’m going to start with a good one, Walch’s Parish School, especially since about a year ago Dr. Walch kindly sent me his most recently revised edition. It’s both a pretty quick read and very well sourced, which has pointed me to so much of the earlier work in the field.

The curse of the internet: Began to research the John Ireland/Catholic Bishops controversy of 1890, and discovered Archbishop Ireland wrote a book The Church and Modern Society. Since I’m painfully aware of the inadequacy of my knowledge of the history of American Church/State relations and the attitudes of Catholics toward the rabidly anti-Catholic Protestant establishment of 19th century America, I found a free online copy of this book and downloaded it. Another +/-500 pages to read.

It never ends. I have to remind myself of the main premise, and view potential source materials through that lens: that the largely unexamined adoption by 19th century American Catholic schools of Pestalozzi’s fragmentation and control theory of teaching, as reshaped by Fichte, conceded the war without a fight, no matter how many battles were won since.

Ireland’s thoughts seem very relevant to this main thesis. He seems, based on the little I know so far and to put it positively, to be very focused on baptising as much of American secular society and conforming the Church’s practices to it as possible. The underlying idea, as expressed most amazingly by Orestes Brownson in his The American Republic, is that the Church Herself is destined, if not already realized, to be most perfectly expressed in America. Inescapably, this requires taking a dim view of how the Church has been realized in Europe, and sows the seeds of condescension and conflict.

Here’s the witch’s brew I think I’ve sniffed: you take a few intellectual leaders like Brownson and Ireland, mix with the eagerness to fit in of the typical immigrant, add a heavy dose of the psychological as well as cultural and physical damage done to the Irish by 500 years of murderous English tyranny, and you end up with a desperation to, on the one hand, accept America as the apex of civilization and (most dangerous and least Catholic) as ‘the Future,’ and, on the other, to ignore or overlook the patent anti-Catholicism of that American vision.

This deal, whereby real Americans agree to pretend Catholics are members of the club so long as they burn just a pinch of incense to their gods, results in many bad things, from Bath House Jim Coughlin running Chicago with the tacit support of the Church while his brothels sell their daughters and his protection rackets corrupt their sons, through loyalty to the Democratic Party while that party shared leadership with the Klan over most of its range, right on down to the USCCB choosing to overlook the party’s rabid support of abortion (and, fundamentally, rabid hatred of Catholicism) in exchange for a few programs and policies that, if you squint just right, can be seen as tools of social justice instead of the naked power grabs they most clearly are.

This scene, whereby a mobster rejects Satan and all of his works while simultaneously ordering a hit on all his opponents, somehow seems appropriate to this discussion.

Floating in this morass is the ready acceptance, back in the 2nd half of the 19th century, of the compulsory age-segregated graded classroom model developed and adopted specifically to destroy family and Church. That this system has since fallen under the control of Marxists and their useful idiots only makes a terrible, evil situation worse.

There are certainly a number of good scholars who have done the general work on the history of education in America and of Catholic education specifically. I can’t hope, in the decade or two of life that may be left to me, to match their lifetimes of work, but I can, I hope, lay out and document this one central thing, and, much more important, provide some guidance for Catholic educational thinking – guidance away from a model meant to turn us and our children into mindless anti-Catholics with no home other than the State.

Also, I’m working on an bibliography of my education resources, to be posted as a permanent page here. It’s a lot of tedious work, but I need to get it done.

Thinking About Free Will

The formal class part of RCIA has begun for this year. I’m the go-to guy for history & theology (how profoundly frightening this is has so far escaped our beloved DRE). All this means is that if anyone wants, or, more likely, I decide on my own that anyone needs, a more formal definition or some historical context, I’m the guy who provides it. Such as I might. This leads to me thinking about how to talk about various dogmas in a way that isn’t too hoity-toity yet gets the essential nature and purpose across.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on Free Will. Where angels fear to tread, and all that.

While we were created in the image of God, God is still very different from us. God’s freedom is part of his eternal Being – it is not so much something He does, bit rather is a fundamental part of Who He is. Nothing outside constrains God; He freely acts in accordance with His infinite goodness and love. Every action of God is utterly free, and completely an expression of divine goodness and love.

While God is not compelled or constrained by external thing, it might be said that He just can’t contain Himself – His loving kindness boils over in His creations. All of creation is a free expression of God’s nature as a loving Father and Creator.

Creation is thus an expression of God’s life and profound joy. It is not like a clock, built once, wound up, and then left to play itself out. Rather, God loves the world into existence at every moment. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. Each of us is a unique expression of His boundless joy.

Out of this joy, God gave man and the angels freedom. This created freedom is a reflection of God’s nature, perhaps the key aspect of our being made in His image. It is a gift from God, loved into being by God, and as an aspect of God, as sacred as God Himself. As an essential aspect of this gift, God will not overrule us.

But to be free in our own little way, our acts must participate in God’s freedom. God’s freedom is always expressed through overflowing love and goodness. Thus, we can only be free when we, too, act in harmony with that divine love and goodness. Acting against God is choosing slavery; once enslaved, we have lost our freedom. Yet God, in His mercy, will always, as long as we live in this changeable world, hold out to us the opportunity to repent, to turn from the slavery of our sins back to the freedom of His will.

An example: A man on the edge of a giant cliff is free to step off the cliff. If he does so, he has lost all freedom: he is subject to the laws of physics, and will fall to his death, shattered on the rocks below. God did not give the man freedom so that he could jump off a cliff. Rather, He gave us freedom so that we, too, could share in His joy as joyful, loving creators in our own little way. Yet that freedom means that we just might choose to step off the cliff.

The moral law, another creation of God, is, in effect, a warning: don’t step off the cliff! As long as we work to avoid sin and repent of the sins we have committed, we have the freedom to act in accordance with God’s loving Will. We stay away from the cliff. Reject the law of God, and we at best court disaster. Without God’s loving guidance as expressed in His law, we will, sooner or later, fall off the cliff of our own free will!

That we are free is a gift and a miracle. The saints, who have surrendered their wills to God’s Will, who have willingly died to themselves, paradoxically enjoy complete freedom. It is when we humbly recognize that we don’t really know what’s good for us and don’t always want what’s best for us that God can show us the Way to complete, joyful freedom.

So, do you think this would be helpful to someone investigating the Catholic Faith?

Music at Masses Review: TAC Baccalaureate & St. Therese Alhambra

Was blessed this weekend to be present at two very beautiful masses, the baccalaureate mass for our son’s graduation at TAC, and a 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning mass at St. Therese’s in Alhambra, California. These masses were both very different and yet very much the same, one a huge celebration in a gorgeous church presided over by a bishop and half-dozen priests, with a amazing choir and organist, and all the pomp and ceremony one could want. The other was a low mass in a pretty parish church, with the only music being the typical Latin commons for the Kyrie (yes, it’s Greek, I know) Sanctus and Agnus. The priest also sang a bit of an old Marian hymn as an illustration of some point in his homily.

Arcade View
Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Ojai, CA

They were the same in their reverence, and in being directed to the glory of God and not the glory of men.

The choir at TAC is amazing. A school of 350 or so students can somehow produce a choir more than worthy of their beautiful church and school. There has long been a frankly shocking amount of musical talent at that school, given that there’s no music program as such (the students study music a little as part of their Great Books program). Yet in the now decade that I’ve been going down to campus, seems there’s always something musically excellent going on. At the family of the graduates dinner Friday night, for example, two different acapella groups founded or peopled by students, or both, performed, and both were excellent.

Interior of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel
Interior.

Saturday morning, the baccalaureate mass began at 8:30 in a packed church. Here’s my one and only complaint about that beautiful building: site lines from anywhere other than the nave are terrible. When it’s a full church, half the people are in the transept or side aisles, and might as well be outside for as well as they can see anything. This obscured vision is a result of the sanctuary being recessed enough to be mostly invisible from the transept, but mostly from a nave and side aisle design in a building that’s not that big. In gigantic cathedrals, it’s often possible to see fairly well from much of the side aisles, as the columns are farther apart and the nave wider. In Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Chapel, all you can see from 90% of the aisle spaces is the columns and the nave – the altar and sanctuary are totally blocked. Of course, for 95% of the masses celebrated there, everybody sits in the nave and it’s no problem, so this is a minor complaint, really.

The Mass began with Come Holy Ghost while the faculty and graduates filed in, followed by the chant Introit while the clergy and Bishop Barron processed in and the altar was incensed. The mass commons were some lovely polyphony I didn’t immediately recognize, most likely Palestrina, perhaps – one of that crowd. They also did motets for offertory and communion including Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and more chant propers.

For the recession, the choir sang the hymn tune from Jupiter from Holst’s the Planets – an extreme case of redeeming some beautiful secular music, in this case, from the hands of a goodball gnostic astrologer. Lovely.

Or it seems you can just listen to it – here. Audio is a bit spotty, but you will get the gist. Bonus Bishop Barron homily.

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St. Therese of Lisieux, Alhambra, CA, interior.

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we – my wife, mother-in-law, our 15 year old son David, freshly-minted graduate Thomas, elder daughter Teresa, who lives in Alhambra, and our younger daughter Anna Kate who flew in from New Hampshire to surprise her big brother, gathered for the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Therese’s and brunch afterwards. Younger daughter also is graduating, in one week! She had handed in her senior thesis Monday, defended it Thursday, then flew out Friday, flew back Sunday in order to take her finals! Insane, but typical – those two are only 20 months apart in age, and were often thought to be twins growing up (and fought like cats and dogs). Despite needing special permission to defend her thesis early so that she could leave Friday, and despite having to try to study for finals on the plane, she was not going to miss this.

Our older daughter Teresa helped arrange all this, picking up Anna Kate at the airport and putting her up, and driving her to the graduation. I love our kids! There are far better than I deserve, that’s for sure.

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Modern-ish, but lovingly executed and not unlovely. It’s heart, and the hearts of all those involved, are in the right place.

Mass was what you’d expect early on a Sunday morning – very low key. The people, which included a passel of Sisters of Charity (they always look so happy!), knew the chant propers and sang them well. Quiet, reverent and of course efficacious.

We may not often get to have the 90+ minute high sung mass celebrated in a great church by competent, devote people, but I’ll take a revenant low mass celebrated by people who care any day of the week. I’m grateful to all the people who helped bring about both masses, even and perhaps especially those whose devotion helped to transmit a culture in which such things can take place.

Music at Mass Nano-Review 5/5/19

Due to scheduling requirements, we went to a Children’s Mass this morning that we almost never attend.

There’s nothing that elevates the spiritual experience of the Holy Eucharist quite like having a gaggle of pitchy tween girls sing praise tunes in a reverby box of a church building with rock band level amplification.

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The girls were darling, of course, which I suppose is the point. Have a nice Sunday!

Odd Lenten Hymns

In the comments to the last post, J. J. Griffing asked for examples of the sort of traditional Lenten hymns that are out of vogue in my little corner of the world, tunes which I find a little odd, but also miss. The oddness consists of two factors: dirge-like hymn tunes, and graphic descriptions of suffering and penance often described in archaic language. Some hymns have one, some the other, some both. Here goes:

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Sunbeams scorching all the day;
Chilly dew-drops nightly shed;
Prowling beasts about Thy way;
Stones Thy pillow; earth Thy bed.

Should not we Thy sorrow share
And from worldly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Strong with Thee to suffer pain?

Then if Satan on us press,
Jesus, Savior, hear our call!
Victor in the wilderness,
Grant we may not faint nor fall!

So shall we have peace divine:
Holier gladness ours shall be;
Round us, too, shall angels shine,
Such as ministered to Thee.

Keep, O keep us, Savior dear,
Ever constant by Thy side;
That with Thee we may appear
At the eternal Eastertide.

The tune here is very much a dirge, and the lyrics speak for themselves. I like it! Hymnody.org has this to say to say about the composer: George Hunt Smyttan. The tune is attributed to Martin Herbst, who died in 1681. Other verses have been added by other poets over the years, generally with the same flavor.

Here’s a cheerier tune:

The Glory of These Forty Days

  1. The glory of these forty days
    we celebrate with songs of praise,
    for Christ, through whom all things were made,
    himself has fasted and has prayed.
  2. Alone and fasting Moses saw
    the loving God who gave the law,
    and to Elijah, fasting, came
    the steeds and chariots of flame.
  3. So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
    delivered from the lions’ might,
    and John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
    the herald of Messiah’s name.
  4. Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
    full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
    our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
    and give us joy to see thy face.
  5. O Father, Son and Spirit blest,
    to thee be every prayer addressed,
    who art in threefold name adored,
    from age to age, the only Lord.

This is great song, good tune, nice lyrics. Tune can go down the dirge road, although a musician with any sensibility would sing it at a decent tempo with a slight lilt, saving it from being a wade through molasses.

Honorable mentions include Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days, which always cracks me up – the Lord doing a little clean up, tossing an extra 40 days that were cluttering up the place, and the classic and wonderful O Sacred Head Surrounded, which does get sung, but usually just on Good Friday. Now those are some graphic lyrics.

Stuff just came up. This will have to do for now.

3/31/19 Music as Mass Review: Improvements

It has been years since I’d attended a Sunday evening mass at our parish, because the last time I did, the amatuer rock band composed of aging ex-hippies sort of failed to provide the kind of liturgical experience with which I am most comfortable. To put it gently.

Yesterday, because I forgot that I was up for leading the Candidates and Catechumens out after the Scrutinies, I needed to catch a later mass – I usually catch an earlier one. So, off to the evening mass I headed.

And – the rock band was gone. The congregation skewed a bit younger, maybe, with more college-age and young adults. Otherwise, looked like the usual UN subcommittee meeting we get at our parish – here comes everybody. Pretty sure all the inhabitable continents were well represented, although I’m a bit unsure about Australia.

But I knew something really different was in store when a woman went up to read the first reading – in a mantilla. Whoa. I think the elderly boomers in the band heads would have exploded, had they been there. Then, we sang the common Latin Sanctus and Agnus. It was good and peaceful. I was and am grateful.

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Not like this Although if you’ve got it, work it, ladies.

Unfortunately, we sang modern, marginally appropriate songs for the other musical spots in the Mass. Many of the traditional Lenten songs are frankly a little weird, as in Volga Boat Song style dirge-like melodies and perhaps uncomfortably direct language to the modern ear. I’m cool with them, myself, but can see how they might not appeal to people with more conventional sensibilities, especially as many people younger than 50? 60? have probably never heard them.

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More like this, just a wee bit more understated.

Nonetheless, a lovely, respectful mass with at least a little appropriate and good music. Seems things can change to the better, thank God.

A Cultivated Mind

Just kidding! I think!

Here I wrote about how I’m trying to help this admirably curious young man for whom I am RCIA sponsor on his intellectual journey. I’m no Socrates, but I do know a thing or two that this young man is not going to pick up at school, that would be helpful to him and, frankly, to the world. Any efforts to get a little educated and shine a little light into the surrounding darkness seems a good thing to me.

I figure I’ll give him a single page every week or so when I see him, with the offer to talk it over whenever he’s available. Below is the content of the second page; you can see the first in the post linked above. We started off with a description of Truth and Knowledge. I figure the idea of a cultivated mind might be good next. We’ll wrap it up with a page on the Good and one on the Beautiful, and see where it goes from there.

Any thoughts/corrections appreciated.

A Cultivated Mind

A cultivated mind can consider an idea without accepting it.

What is meant by a “cultivated mind”?

Like a cultivated field:

  • Meant for things to be planted and grown in it
  • Weeded of bad habits and bad ideas
  • Is cared for daily

A cultivated mind

  • is what a civilized and educated man strives to have.
  • is not snobby or elitist.
  • Is what is required to honestly face the world.
  • Is open to new ideas, but considers them rationally before accepting them.

How do you cultivate your mind?

Reexamine the ideas you find most attractive:

  • Have you accepted them because you like them, or because you examined them and believe them true?

Carefully review all popular ideas:

  • Have you accepted them because to reject them might make you unpopular?
  • Have you really examined them before accepting them?

Double your efforts to be fair when considering ideas you do not like:

  • Can you restate the idea in terms that people who accept it would recognize and agree with? If not, you are not able to truly consider the idea.

NOTE 1: To engage ideas, listen to and read what people who hold those ideas say, especially when you don’t like them or already disagree. Hear and understand what the idea really is before you can consider it.This takes discipline and time.

NOTE 2: This is a life-long project, always subject to revision. Guard against over certainty, avoid exaggeration. Do not pretend to know what you do not know. Acknowledge that some things are difficult, and can only be known partially.

Follow the Dominican maxim: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.”

Image result for monsters vs aliens B.O.B totally overrated

“Forgive him, but as you can see, he has no brain.” “Turns out you don’t need one. Totally overrated!”

 


Concrete Sins: Update

In the comments to the previous post, Richard A linked to this, this, thing, playfully nicknamed Our Lady of Minas Morgul, and I had to share:

I’m somehow not surprised that this is a real Catholic church building, St. Francis de Sales (who is doing 1,000 RPMs in his grave at the moment) in
Muskegon, Michigan. I was surprised, although I should not have been, that googling this structure yielded many articles *praising* this building. A fine example of Bauhaus, Modernism, Brutalism – you know, just what the typical Catholic in the pews wants in his church building.

While a comment at the above link mentions the obvious goal is evangelization of the orcs, I had to surf around a little to find some pithy, real world reactions, such as these from reddit:

  • “It looks like the Borg assimilated a group of Lutherans.” (I laughed)
  • “This looks like where you fight a final boss”
  • “This could literally be a building in 1984”
  • “Looks like exactly the type of place you would serve the flesh and blood of someone to others.” (ouch!)

Going back a few posts to those discussing the heresy of Americanism. In 1899, Archbishop Gibbons answered the Pope Leo XIII’s concerns about Americanism with firm assurances that nothing of the sort was going on; by 1964, a parish in Michigan is hiring a famous Modernist architect to design its church. (Aside: where does a parish get the money to hire a famous German Bauhaus architect? And the money to build the monstrosity?)

I’m sure there’s no connection.

Here’s a slightly more flattering picture of the interior:

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And a quotation from William Torrey Harris: “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world. ” The purpose of school is, according to Harris, making obedient automata out of the students. So, what is the purpose here, in an environment so suited to Harris’s ideal?

As for praise, no less an oracle than Concrete Construction Magazine assures us that this building “fully demonstrates the architectural potential of cast-in-place concrete construction.”   Who could doubt it?

So, any of youse guys got anything ‘better’ than this?

Concrete (and Wood and Steel) Sins

May God forgive us for modern church architecture.

Have we turned the corner on terrible church buildings yet? I sometimes think we have, but that may be just me putting the blinders on so I don’t have to look at this:

There is nothing to recommend this building. It is preposterous and ugly by any standards. That it claims to stand in the line of the many noble and glorious cathedrals around the world is an insult to our intelligence.

Or this:

Image result for san francisco cathedral
This building, on the other hand, is not so terrible in and of itself – it would make a daring convention center – and has been enholied by the beautiful masses celebrated there, especially by the current archbishop. But in and of itself, as a church? Not so much.

Or this:

Oak Cathdrl 1.jpg
Wouldn’t this make a great Apple Store? The bomb-shelter greenhouse look will come back into vogue some day, eventually, and we’ll be ready for it! Not so ugly in and of itself, but insulting when compared to the thousands of much-beloved churches around the world.

and pretend they are anything other than hideous abominations, insulting to both God and man.

Ya know? Or this:

Image result for newman hall holy spirit parish
Berkeley Newman Center. If it weren’t for the sign out front, you’d be hard-pressed to identify it as a church. Looks like a detail from rejected plans for the Maginot Line.

The bomb shelter look was big. I remember reading about the Los Angeles Cathedral, how they took care building it to last 500 years at least. This is achieved by deploying thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Unlike many ugly parish churches, which probably have a 50 or so year life expectancy before the repair/tear down calculations starts to get (mercifully) interesting, these monstrosities are built to last. If the goal was to burn through the Church’s money while saddling her with repulsive buildings for generations or centuries to come, the outcomes would not have been any different.

The L.A. Cathedral is in a class of its own – there’s just no redeeming it, artistically. It is a giant, $200,000,000 middle finger to the Catholics of L.A. To get rid of it is almost impossible. I fantasize that a billionaire might come along, buy land next door, and build a huge beautiful Neo-Gothic or Romanesque Revival church, seamlessly incorporating influences from Mexico, the Philippines, Asia, Africa and so on in order to honor the remarkably world wide nature of L.A.’s Catholics, and then offer it to the diocese. The underlying tensions would thus be exposed. And L.A. would get a nice church.

At least in San Francisco and Oakland, one gets the feeling they were trying for something good, even if they went about it under the constraint that whatever was built must rebuke the pre-Vatican II church. The unhealthy compulsion to be different, which has lead to many bad fashion decisions and questionable tattoos on a small scale, leads to stuff like this when writ large:

These are a few of the approximately 800 louvres, I guess you’d call them, that make up the walls of the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Louvre mania! And an imposing image peeking past the cables and braces!

These features appear to be slabs of laminated 2 x 12s, bolted to laminated uprights(1) with some seriously industrial looking galvanized hardware and bolts. They would make excellent work benches and picnic tables. Here? Oh, I’m sure there’s an artist’s program somewhere that describes how they are meant to let in the light in some deeply meaningful way that only a uncultured peon would fail to understand.

The effect is just weird. Like I say, not irredeemably ugly, just – weird. With 2,000 years of church architectural experience to draw on, this is what you do? Only if hell-bent on rejecting all that collected experience and wisdom.

I cherish my visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, and my many visits to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College, as both buildings are very beautiful and built in the last decade or so. Beautiful and appropriate churches can still get built, if people want to build them.

Obligatory note: over the centuries, many people have pushed and pulled church architecture in many different directions with greater and lesser success. Gothic, after all, was an innovation at one time. I’m not wedded to any particular style or approach, as long as it strives to embody the true, the good and the beautiful. For a century now, many architects have actively rejected those ideals. Such should not be let anywhere near a church design project.

Final funny (at least to me) moment: Youngest son and I were visiting the Oakland Cathedral for a Boy Scout function, when a mom came up to me (I was just sitting there! Minding my own business! I swear!), pointed at the huge image of Christ Enthroned, and asked: “What is He doing with his right hand?”

Somebody thought a 70 foot tall heavily pixelated image of Christ partially obscured by structural members was a good idea, the dominant and central statement of the building. Right.

I answered honestly that he was giving a blessing, and that such images – Christ enthroned giving his blessing – are quite common. She was hesitant to accept this, but eventually gave in. “I thought he was flashing a peace sign. I was afraid they’d gone hippy on us.”

“I have no comment.” I smiled.

  1. I have to think the external frame, or a steel core to the uprights, or most likely both, are actually holding this thing up. Those louvres have got to be heavy.