Sacred building

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Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal by James O’Donnell    Photo: Neil Howard

Before making any comment on the state of present church architecture, I would like to take a brief look at the essential aspects that make an ordinary building a church.

Canon Law defines the church as “a sacred building intended for divine worship, to which the faithful have right of access for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship”. As simple as this definition may sound, it implies a number of points far more difficult to apply in practice than to explain.

First of all, the same Canon Law explains what a sacred building is a place where only things serving or promoting worship, piety and religion are permitted to and where “anything out of harmony with the holiness of the place is forbidden” or “anything which is discordant with the sacred character of the place is excluded”. This means that even the needs of the liturgy itself are subsidiary to the needs of the faithful (“Sacramenta propter homines”) and that the church should first and foremost be aimed at turning man’s mind to God.

Next, the main form of divine worship is the liturgy representing the exercise of the priestly office of Christ. The culmination of this sacrificial action is the Eucharist which is the source of Christian life and the sublime cause of the union with the divine. Therefore in church architecture, the tabernacle, that is the place where the Eucharist is reserved, should be positioned in a distinguished location easily identifiable, clearly visible, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer. Canon law also gives indication on the nature and the properties of the material of which the tabernacle should be built: immovable, made of solid and non-transparent material.

The altar on which the eucharistic sacrifice is celebrated also has a special place within the church building. It is usually to be attached to the tabernacle, expressing the relationship between the Eucharist and sacrifice. Traditionally the table of the altar is made out of a single natural stone while the base can be made from any material.

There are many other aspects to consider in ecclesiastical architecture, however I believe it is best to analyse them against built examples. This I hope to cover in my next posts.

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