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Architecture & The Mind of the Church – Part I

Part I Part II

St. Louis Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, MO. Photo by William Haun.

In this first of what will be several posts on liturgy and architecture, I wanted to discuss church design from the perspective of the Catholic Church, on the heels of completing my first Masters in Liturgy summer session in Chicago. While some of the principles below may appeal to Christians from different backgrounds, it should be stated that they are primarily presented from a Catholic view of sacramental theology and viewed in light of the implications they bear for our work as architects with Catholic clients.

“...the language of the architecture of a church building should be in harmony with the language of the Church.”


Physical objects communicate to us on several levels. A scientist might tell you that an apple and its parts are made up of specific molecular structures. A a basic level for most people it is just food, but it is also a symbol: health, original sin, an extremely successful tech brand… Fr. Douglas Martis, Director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, uses water as an example to explain the various layers of symbols in the sacraments: "When the Church says 'water,' she doesn't just mean the chemical formula H2O. She means the waters of baptism, the waters of creation, the waters of the flood, the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan, the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ, and the living water flowing from the throne in the book of Revelation – and she means all of that, all at once, all at the same time." Architecture is no different. Buildings are composed of parts that can be seen as the materials from which they are made, but they also serve a purpose and represent ideas that are central to our faith. Architecture speaks. Architects and designers are responsible for determining the message every building they design communicates. The language of the architecture of a Catholic church building should be in harmony with the language of the Church herself. Gaining an understanding of this language – how to see and hear sacramental language with the eyes and ears of the Church – requires education, not only for those involved with the planning and design process, but also for the ministers and the lay faithful who will celebrate the liturgy within a church building. This way of understanding with the mind of the Church is an essential part of our Christian tradition and a source of life for our participation in liturgy. If we hope to point people to beauty inherent in every Mass, we must provide something tangible to do the pointing.

“…we believe that things set apart for a sacred purpose are themselves sacred; they are an extension of the sacramental life of the Church.”


Understanding church architecture from an ontological perspective means that we want a church building to express what it already is: a physical representation of heaven on earth. The Mass already is heaven on earth, so everything that surrounds the liturgy should point our attention towards it and tell us, "look, this is really special." The Mass possesses inherent beauty as the highest form of prayer and the presence of Christ's redeeming sacrifice for all mankind. Liturgical architecture is one of the languages with which we describe that beauty. Liturgy is inseparable from its built environment, the church building, in the same way Baptism is inseparable from water. We need an altar and candles. We need to see the myriad of angels and the communion of saints depicted as uniting in prayer with us. The Church has always understood these ideas as central to the celebration of the Eucharistic mystery. Material objects are an essential part of all of the sacraments. God chose not only to create the material world and to breathe his very life into it, but also to indwell what he created, elevating the nature of being of all created things; most perfectly, humanity. Because of this, we believe that things set apart for a sacred purpose are themselves sacred; they are an extension of the sacramental life of the Church. Just as we are by definition both matter and spirit, the sacraments too contain a necessary material component that is sacred and exists alongside the spiritual reality.


Liturgy, or communal worship integrates both vertical and horizontal aspects to our faith. Both the temple (vertical axis) and the assembly (horizontal axis) are important scriptural images in symbolically representing the underlying realities of the Mass, yet tension over articulating this point through design has polarized architects and liturgical consultants for years. Both elements in the theology of Christian worship – the one, true, and perfect sacrifice in the holy of holies (the sanctuary proper), and the gathering and organization of Christ's mystical Body that participates in that sacrifice, are indispensable and are interwoven into our 2,000 year tradition. Not only is Christ's sacrifice participatory, but it is precisely in that participation that we are made more of what we are as baptized Christians: members equal in dignity but distinct in function, united in the Body of Christ. Each plays our part to act on behalf of Christ the head, according to St. Paul. The ordained priest acts in Christ's stead here on earth, guiding the Body in worship, which is a function that differs from the common priesthood bestowed upon and to be exercised by all lay faithful. To review, our faith reflects a vertical sacrificial dimension to God and a horizontal unifying dimension for humanity. As we assemble to celebrate the Mass, we physically mirror the Body of Christ, of which we are all members, and of which Christ himself is the head. It is through this process that we become more like God. A beautiful prayer typically prayed silently by the priest in preparing the gifts sums this up perfectly: By the mingling of his water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. The goal of the liturgy is to become divinized, to become like God to share in the eternity of his divine life.

“When physical beauty, representing grace, lends awe to our sense of the Mass, we are led to an awe of God as the giver of that grace.”


While the subtleties of the beautiful image of the mystical Body of Christ are often overlooked by the average Sunday Mass-goer, the effects of their presence (or absence) are no less powerful at a deeper level. Subconsciously, buildings are capable of underscoring or undermining the message of the actions performed within. Each of us has been formed by our environment and carry with us memories and impressions from actions tied to the place in which they happened. For millennia architecture has played a vital part in human culture, and our faith upholds this important role. Sacraments visibly show us an invisible reality: the work of God. Sacramentals aid the sacraments in doing this and show us something of how God does this work of salvation: statues, paintings, holy water, incense – these things all help our feeble human senses to grasp just a tiny bit more the immense mystery and superabundant gift that is God's grace and mercy. Just as with Fr. Martis' example of water, all of the things in a church that depict water reference these events and lend to the fullness of the symbol. When physical beauty, representing grace, lends awe to our sense of the Mass, we are led to an awe of God as the giver of that grace. How we experience the liturgy can determine how we experience God. In addition to this symbolic understanding, we also must understand the sacraments to be efficacious signs that actual bestow the grace they symbolize; we are being changed through our participation. A poorly designed church risks omitting one idea in favor of the other, lacking either the fullness and dimensions of the representative symbol or the spiritual reality it represents.

Mosaic dome in the Baptistry of Neon, Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Jill and Ian.

“Buildings are capable of underscoring or undermining the message of the actions performed within.”


We properly understand the sacraments as both sign and reality; God's work that in turn bears fruit in us. This is one of the places where many Christians find themselves at odds, and for the Church, a wonderful example of the Catholic ‘Both/And’ that is key to thinking with the mind of the Church. Missing the crucial aspect of the Mass as a holy and perfect sacrifice by over-emphasizing its symbolic and communal nature is missing the sacramental nature of the Eucharist itself. A sacrament is always a sign that points us to something deeper. Too easily the supernatural reality of God's presence is reduced to a mere symbol of community if we do not treat it with appropriate reverence. Conversely, an over-emphasis of the sacrifice in which we take part, disconnected from the horizontal dimension of the active assembly, deprives those present of seeing the sacramental life fruitfully lived. It is the via media, the middle road, that the Church asks us to walk in prayerful consideration of the physical environments we create to house this sublime action of liturgy. A well designed church fully communicates the richness of the symbol and teaches about the reality that is symbolized – that Christ is truly present with angels and saints and the hosts of heaven, and through partaking of the eucharistic celebration, we become part of his Body, sharers of his divine life. By virtue of our baptism we are called to continue the missionary work of Christ and to take his presence out to the world. That is the vision the Church has for her architecture.

written by Michael Raia.

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