Of What Use are Church Buildings in Times of Calamity?

Church Buildings have historically been considered as sanctuaries in difficult times. What meaning do they have when people are barred from entering them?

Those Emmanuel readers with a special interest in Italy, even before the tragic turn COVID-19 recently took through that overwhelmingly Catholic country, may have known it as a place where devotion to the parish-neighborhood of one’s baptism claims a hold on the popular psyche. For all their apparent worldliness in the areas of, say, fashion, art, or literature, the Italians are a people of exceedingly local affections. Their self-identities are inherited, in part, like the keys to a family home or business that has occupied the same site for generations. Hence, their connection both to history and to place, a habit of the heart sometimes described as “campanilismo.” Metaphorically, at least, the Italian man or woman never roams far from earshot of the bells in the belfry (campanile) of the parish church of their youth, which beckons them to the place they most regard as home.

I found myself thinking of this belfry-centered notion of personal geography on Easter morning this year, prompted by a TV news account of how Catholic parishes in my diocese were expected to ring their bells each Sunday at noontime for the length of the Easter season. The bishop himself had encouraged the bellringing, not only to announce the customary joy of the season, but to remind the quarter-million Catholics in his care of their solidarity with the entire People of God. In the trendy, fractured-screen fashion of a Zoom conference, the report captured the sights and sounds of churches throughout the diocese, which were bound to inspire those Catholic viewers who for weeks had been dutifully watching televised or live-streamed celebrations of the Mass.

The sound of the bells lifted my own spirits, until I remembered how much I missed the grounds and buildings of the parish in which my wife and me are members, as much as the community that enfolds us when we worship. Surroundings considerably nobler than the makeshift place for “COVID liturgies” we had staked out in our living room.

In a terrible coincidence of history, of course, it was at Eastertime only a year prior that Paris’ famed Notre-Dame Cathedral had been devastated by fire. What saddened Catholics and others as that tragedy unfolded was the realization that a building beloved for its sanctity, beauty and history — and trusted as a sign of the “permanence” of religious belief in our age of doubt — had been stolen from us, literally overnight, by a natural calamity we were powerless to stop.

“How could anything be worse?” we asked ourselves, never dreaming an answer would arrive as Lent began this year and it developed that not just one place of worship cherished by Catholics might be lost to us but all of them, at least temporarily. A second conflagration consumed our thoughts and threatened to ruin all our fine Easter rituals, sparked by an invisible microbe-of-an-enemy the medical experts said would “spread like wildfire.” Though never orphaned by reason of a Pentecost promise made long ago (John 14:18), the universal Church nevertheless found itself homeless for a time, atomized, unable to call its members together in their accustomed centers of ritual. This point was made most poignantly, perhaps, by those March 27th pictures of Pope Francis praying before a Saint Peter Square emptied of everything but rain.

Where Does a “Virtual Church” Dwell?

My hunch is that Evangelicals in this country — and possibly many American Protestants in general — fared better through the church closings caused by the pandemic than did most Catholics in their circles of friends and relatives. Religious programming offering options to Sunday worship and accessible from the home has been a staple of Protestantism in the US since its emergence via radio in the 1920s. The automobile-friendly “drive-in churches” of the 1930s and 40s, mechanized twists on the classic tent revivals of the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions, and the televangelism to emerge in the 1950s, likewise have offered Protestants opportunities for spending their Sabbath mornings someplace other than in the brick-and-mortar churches of their predecessors. The high-production spectacles proffered by today’s so-called “Electronic Church,” whose reach by means of the internet is vaster than ever, further advance mainline Protestantism’s conversion from an “Old Time” religion to one with an appetite for screen time.

To be sure, the value of Christian fellowship persists among Methodists, Presbyterians or Congregationalists reasonably convinced of the Savior’s presence in the “two or three who gather in God’s name” (Matthew 18:20). But many a Protestant imagination no longer conceives of corporate prayer in strictly spatial terms. Freed of the constraints of place, it has metamorphosed into something wholly ethereal, light enough, at least, to be borne on transmission waves.

A Baptist colleague, during my days of teaching courses on the theology and art of sacred worship at a Catholic university in northwestern Pennsylvania, liked insisting in sufficiently Calvinist style that there really were no places of special importance to the Bible-believing Christian — “no sacred spaces,” in his words, “only a sacred people.”

The liturgies we watched should have carried the disclaimer attached to motion pictures reconfigured for digital consumption: “This rite has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV.”

Not one to debate a matter that has divided Protestant and Catholic followers of Jesus for centuries, I’d routinely invite him to join me in a half-day’s car ride to the battlefields of Gettysburg or, closer still, to the swath of nondescript farmland near Shanksville, Pennsylvania that now doubles as the National Flight 93 Memorial. At such sites one confronts the palpable residue of the sacrificial act, of blood’s ability to hallow soil one would ordinarily tread underfoot — realities that make the people drawn to them behave more like religious pilgrims than tourists.

There is a hesitancy, nevertheless, among some Christians given to an exclusively Scripture-centered approach to revelation, and fundamentally suspicious of a world deformed by sin, to reverence any corner of their earthly surroundings. Inasmuch as they likewise eschew ceremony in preference for modes of worship built of preaching and hymn-singing, they may find value in a pulpit, some sturdy pews and an organ, but little else in the way of place-furnishings. For these, any adornment of person or place only encumbers the soul’s progress toward salvation.

Whether such predilections amount to a kind of “Protestant aesthetic” as much as a more fundamental ideology of worship influenced still by this country’s historic ties to Puritanism is a matter for considerable speculation. Nevertheless, one can easily conclude from the pandemic-related behaviors of US Christians belonging to “middle” and “low” liturgical traditions — or with no wit for formal worship at all — that a dematerialized form of worship was welcomed into the Protestant household as receptively as were the cyber classrooms or video conference platforms on which other parts of its daily affairs came to rely. In the eyes of some Christians, in fact, the teams of “media ministry” experts or “worship AVL” technicians so crucial nowadays to the functioning of Evangelical churches deserved a measure of the hero status granted the nation’s front-line medical personnel. The website of ChurchTechToday, for example, which bills itself as the nation’s “#1 church technology [resource] for pastors, communicators, and leaders,” used the pandemic to elevate their importance to the modern Christian congregation, which it asserted must “[learn] how to host worship and fellowship online instead of in the sanctuary.” Along with such competitors as MinistryTech, eChurch and Disciplr, the site offered its visitors timely advice on everything from podcast preaching to the proper disinfection of microphones and other e-media tools necessary for the virtualization of the Sabbath experience.

By all accounts, the “virtual Church,” whose growth the pastors of mainstream Protestant congregations began to monitor with trepidation a decade or two ago, burst fully into bloom just as the national culture was coming to terms with a pandemic-sized threat of a different sort.

We Roman Catholics, too, turned to electronic media to maintain the rhythms of our faith as the COVID-19 event intruded on a Lenten season well underway. The bishops of our Church, individually and through no less an authoritative body than the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), had encouraged us to do so. Beyond this, however, our experience with electronic options to regular church-going bore little resemblance, I would argue, to what religious people of other traditions had embraced, including those who identify as Christians.

A Longing for the Tangible and Sacramental

Shut out of the buildings where we restore our ecclesial identity most tangibly and encounter in action and object the really-present Christ of the Eucharist, we Catholics became not only a people displaced for a time but one left hungering for a source of nourishment not even the techiest of TechyChurch resources could help us fabricate. My own wife, a family doctor by profession and recent convert to the faith, complained of suffering from something like stomach pangs, so serious was her withdrawal from the Eucharist. She lamented, too, not being able to celebrate the Easter Vigil — what she calls her “Cathoversary” — as fully as she would have liked. We were both disappointed by the shrunken versions of the Vigil livestreamed our way from a variety of sources, a rite that ordinarily utilizes more space in and around a Catholic church building than any other. We agreed that even the liturgies we watched from places as impressive as Saint Peter Basilica in Rome or the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception fell flat, shrink-wrapped as they were by necessity. They should have carried the disclaimer attached to motion pictures reconfigured for digital consumption: “This rite has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV.”

Nothing simulated by electronic means during our time of sequester could make up for the sensual-spatial character of worship in the parish to whose belfry the two of us answer in our nod to campanilismo. We longed not merely to “watch” Mass on the e-tablet atop the coffee table that doubled as our domestic altar but to absorb the unfolding of its parts in three-dimensions, to smell the flowers that adorned its celebration, the incense, to embrace our fellow worshipers and consume — as only the webcam clergy could for the moment — the salvific meal for which we longed.

The services livestreamed from our parish in which we did our best to “participate” inevitably felt like throwbacks to the Church’s way with the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council. Its priests engrossed in actions all their own and its lay witnesses following along from a separate space entirely. The pandemic had confined the Catholic laity to another edifice altogether — to countless other edifices, in fact — effectively removing them in any substantive way from the altars that appeared on their TV and computer screens. The “spiritual communion” with Christ assured them by tradition and the pastoral instincts of their priests and bishops may have assuaged their desire for the real thing. Yet, they still missed the materiality of the Eucharist, the fleshiness even under sacramental appearance of the Paschal Lamb they would normally “behold” and consume at Mass — acts that implied a kind of savoring rendered impossible in a time of hygienic distancing.

What Use are Church Buildings During a Pandemic?

Serious questions remained, however, concerning the buildings the laity were required to abandon for the sake of public health. Of what real use were they, in the end, sitting dark and silent during the pandemic while the outlets of a juggernaut cyber-Church, poised in some people’s minds to render the whole of Church architecture obsolete, hummed along quite nicely? What value lay in any location deemed sacred by the Church of Rome, one could ask, while it stood empty on Easter morning itself?”

Though the primary purpose of many large public architectural structures is to provide sites where users might engage in rituals they consider life-giving, their secondary function as public monuments is to remind people of why the civic ritual matters in the first place.

Too flippantly, perhaps, one could argue that the Catholic Church has made extraordinary use during its lifetime of a vacant tomb. It has found value in an approach to architecture that regards even the humblest of church buildings as providing not only containment for its rites but confession of their underlying meaning, as well. The Catholic church building is both symbol and stable, signum et stabulum for God’s flock (1 Peter 5:2) in the world. In a sense, the pandemic forced Catholic places of worship to assume the role that concert halls, museums, and ball parks routinely play in our communities when closed to the public for more benign reasons. Though the primary purpose of such structures, always, is to provide sites where users might engage in rituals they consider life-giving, their secondary function as public monuments is to remind people of why the civic ritual matters in the first place.

Even with their doors closed, landmarks like Lincoln Center in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Yankee Stadium succeed literally in monumentalizing the cultural deposit they help preserve. So, likewise, a religious landmark like Saint Patrick Cathedral, which, to a Catholic, embodies a sacramental character that transcends even this.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that the raison d’etre of every Catholic church building is its altar and the assembly gathered around it. The parish church or cathedral building exists primarily to house the sacrificial action by which Jesus Christ is rendered as present to his people as they are to each other. Herein lay a problem that pandemic-related social distancing posed to American Catholics from which most other Christian bodies were spared: Unable to gather at their altars, the Catholic faithful were barred from drawing close to the Christ they perceive in the elements of the sacrifice as much as they were from visiting other loved ones in their lives.

The practical effect this had on our churches was to push to the fore their historic role as places of divine enshrinement, true “Houses of God.” Absent users, they remained sites of safekeeping for the Blessed Sacrament entempled there for purposes beyond the celebration of the Mass. They could no longer be entered into by those wishing to embrace Christ’s extra-liturgical presence through some private or corporate act of adoration but only gazed upon from afar. As the faithful gradually took again to the streets, however, there emerged spontaneous forms of “drive-by piety,” as I labelled it, harkening back to an era when it was the habit of Catholic men in this country to remove their hats when passing a church or of believers of both sexes to cross themselves out of reverence for the sacramentalized Christ residing within.

As I write this essay, the USCCB is in the process of devising a post-pandemic plan for the reopening of churches. One can easily predict the practical challenges that large numbers of laypeople back into even a single place of worship will pose for pastors, who must balance the demands of liturgical propriety against the health of their parishioners. Initially, at least, the process of “going back to church” for Catholics is bound to be a clumsy, trial-and-error affair. Our skill at negotiating the postures, gestures and objects of ritual, perfected over centuries, will come in handy. Whether anything graceful and cohesive can be made of face masks and hand sanitizer — let alone the stand-apart likeness of anything resembling an “assembly” — remains to be seen. With Pentecost 2020 in sight, the bells of our churches are calling us home. It is good that the familiar presence of Christ awaits us there, unchanged by time or earthly tumult. We will need that to cling to, no doubt, as we adapt to a manner of worship whose style and setting may seem equally foreign.


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.