How Traditional Catholic Architecture Better Fulfills the Plan of God

092313Catholics have often endured the charge that we are an unbiblical Church. Strange accusation, really, for the Church that collected the Scriptures, determined the canon of Scripture and preached it for 1,500 years before there ever was a Protestant denomination. The fact is we are quite biblical and often in ways that are stunningly powerful.

For the Church, the Scriptures are more than merely ink spots on a page. The Scriptures are manifest and proclaimed in how we live, how we are organized hierarchically, our sacraments, our liturgy and even in our buildings.

Long before most people could read, the Church was preaching the Gospel. And to do so, she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older builds are a sermon in stone and stained glass.

The Scriptures come alive in our art, statues, paintings, and majestic stained glass windows that soar along the walls of our Churches like jewels of light. Even the height and shape of our older churches preach the word. The height draws our sights up to heaven as if to say, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 3:1). And the shape of most of our older churches is the shape of a cross. As if to say, May I never glory in anything, save the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).

My own Parish Church is a sermon in stone and wood and glass. It is designed around the Book of Revelation, Chapters 4 and 5 in which John is caught up into heaven and describes it in detail. The fundamental design of the sanctuary drawn from Revelation 4 and 5 includes the throne-like altar (Rev 4:2), seven tall candles around the throne (Rev 4:5), the four living creatures in the clerestory windows above the altar (Rev 4:6-8). At the center of the altar is the tabernacle wherein dwells the Lamb once slain who lives forever, Jesus (Rev 5:6). Around the throne (altar) are seated the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4:4) symbolized by the 12 wooden pillars on the back sanctuary wall and the 12 stained glass windows of the Apostles in the transept windows. The multitude of angels who surround the throne (Rev 5:11) are symbolized by the blue and gold diamonds on the apse wall.

I have assembled pictures of these details along with the scripture texts from Revelation in the following PDF document: Holy Comforter Church in Washington DC and the Book of Revelation

In effect the builders of my Church (built in 1939) were saying, when you walk into this church, you have entered heaven. Indeed, it is a replica of the heavenly vision of John. And when we celebrate the liturgy it is more than a replica for we are taken up to heaven in every Mass where we join countless angels and saints around the heavenly altar. There we worship God with them. We don’t have to wait for some rapture, we go there in every Mass.

But there is more! For what John saw in heaven is none other than what God had prescribed to Moses. Moses was told quite explicitly by God how to construct the ancient sanctuary, the tent of Meeting in the desert. The layout, materials and elements are all carefully described.

And, having given these details God says, Now have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. (Exodus 25:8-9) And again God later says, See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain (Ex 25:40). And yet again God repeats: “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain (Ex 26:40).

The Book of Hebrews, commenting on this pattern says why God insists on the following of the pattern so exactly: They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. (Heb 8:5). In other words, the Ancient Temple was a replica, or a pattern really of the heavenly sanctuary.

Most older Catholic Churches maintain the basic pattern of what Moses was shown. Note this diagram, comparing the layout of the sanctuary in my parish church, Holy Comforter St Cyprian (HCSC) with the layout temple:


In the photo just below, you can see the remarkable similarity more visually. The pattern is even etched on the floor of my church which echoes a detail about the layout of the temple that Ezekiel described:

So there were four tables on one side of the gateway [of the sanctuary] and four on the other–eight tables in all–on which the sacrifices were slaughtered. (Ez 40:41)

Here below (on the left) is a depiction of the setup of the Tent of Meeting as it was when the people were still in the desert, next to a picture of my parish church sanctuary showing the remarkable similarity:


Note the way the scroll work on the floor of my parish (right) matches the four tables on either side in the sanctuary where the animals were slaughtered. The fiery square and horned altar in the photo of the temple (left) is represented by the horned square on the floor of my church (right). In the photo on the left of the ancient sanctuary, the holy place, and the holy of holies towers in the back, as does the high altar and tabernacle in my parish church on the right.

Simply put, the builders of my parish church remarkably depict the ancient temple and also the vision of heaven in the book of Revelation. This is what Church building should do: exemplify the heavenly sanctuary, a plan which God himself gave. Sadly, modern architecture has departed from the plan significantly. But in recent years, there has been something of a return, a trend for which we can only be grateful.

The Catholic Church is surely a biblical Church. My very building shouts the Word! We Catholics preach the word not only with ink and speech, but also in stone, wood, glass, liturgy and the arts, all to the glory of God.

Here is a video of some of the details of my parish.

27 Replies to “How Traditional Catholic Architecture Better Fulfills the Plan of God”

  1. Msgr:
    Have you ever considered publishing your columns in a book, maybe year by year? It would be a bestseller, and would be handier to have and organize than my pile of printed papers. Thanks.

      1. Thank you. I also send copies to my daughter, a Dominican Sister. The Sisters use them for holy hour meditation. It would be much easier to send them books.

  2. I was fortunate enough to attend Mass at Notre Dame in Paris. This will sound crazy but there is a beauty in the complexity of the traditional architecture. So many churches now seemed to be reduced to only gathering around a table. The altar and and The Sacrifice is essential don’t get me wrong but the added layers of beauty that can come from increasing the complexity of the architecture to present more of God’s full creation. The whole building in the shape of a Crucifix is not small. The starting point for our salvation was the Sacrifice on the Cross so let’s make this the essence of our church is incredible. You look at church built centuries ago and those people who began the building and ;aid the first stones knew they would never see the finished church in their life but their great great grandchild would. The stained glass windows, the flooring the carvings, the statuary all build up the express the love of generations of men and women for God and for their children. We come together to worship God but it should also be a “multi-media” experience without electronics. What is True, What is Good, What is Beautiful. Being together is part of that of course but let’s not leave off the other parts.

  3. How can so beautiful a structure of worship not bring us into the deeper realm of the Love of GOD? If we can build so grand a house of worship here on earth, what more can our heart build a grand house of worship deep within our souls which will someday be heaven? Quam dilecta tabernacle tua DOMINE! GOD Bless you, Monsi

  4. By faith we know we see that we are in heaven at Mass. If we get to heaven and see God face to face . . . now that will be something to behold. Very beautiful, anyway.

  5. Excellent post.

    The Vatican website has 360 virtual tours of each of the four major basilicas in Rome. The tours were created by technologists at Villanova University near Philadelphia. The virtual tours are magnificent:

    Obviously, not every Catholic church can or should be as lavishly decorated as the major basilicas. However, I think we can and should do better than modern church buildings with no more decoration than minimalist stations of the Cross and a crucifix or two.

  6. I think the strongest argument for traditional Catholic architecture is the centrality of what is most important.

    In a traditionally-designed parish church, every arch in the sanctuary somehow points to the high altar and tabernacle. There is order. A Marian side altar on the Gospel side, and a Saint Joseph side altar on the Epistle side. A communion rail separating the sanctuary and nave. The pulpit is not the central focus like the sacrament-less protestants; the altar and tabernacle are the central focus. The sedilla does not face the congregation, for the seated priest and altar boys are not the primary focus; the high altar and tabernacle always are the focus in a traditional church.

    It is interesting to see, across the river, the Diocese of Arlington begin to return to order. For decades, some of the most radically modernist churches were built there, causing brides all over the region to scramble to find another church in which to be married. The past decade or so has seen several partially-traditional churches constructed, led by solid pastors there. Hopefully the Maryland portion of the Archdiocese of Washington will follow this lead!

    When in doubt, ask a random child what is beautiful and pleasing to God, and what is ugly. My guess is he will always favor the traditional over the modern design.

    1. A number of days ago I saw an online article about the begining to the transformation of the former Crystal Cathredral out in Orange, CA into the new Cahtredral for the Orange, CA diocese. It will be very interesting how that happens.

  7. Some architecture is and should be “priestly,” giving us a sense of order and comfort. Some architecture should be “prophetic,” challenging our preconceived notions, our self-congratulations, and our apathy.

    If, when we enter a church building or worship space, we are not challenged in some way by the design or the decoration of the space, the prophetic aspect may be lost.

  8. When you stated, “when you walk into this church, you have entered heaven,” I was surprised you didn’t quote Genesis 28:17

    “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

  9. Notre Dame publishes Sacred Architecture I believe twice a year for less than $10.00. It’s well worth it. Great article above. Catholic architecture is awe-inspiring!

  10. Consider reading Denis McNamara’s book “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy” for good material sympathetic with this reading of church architecture.

  11. Can anyone identify the accompanying music, the text and the choir? This piece sounds modern; maybe by an eastern European composer. Thank you very much!

  12. Thank you, Monsignor. I continue to be edified by your columns. I always wondered what those little stars signified in the apse at my childhood Church. Now I know. Gloria in excelsis Deo!

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