So Many Buildings Built on Backs of Catholics: Custom Seems to Demand That They Put the Arm on Parishioners to Fork over Money for the Building Fund While Older Churches Are Demolished or Sold

Article excerpt

In the way that ideas casually tossed our way sometimes stick and settle in, I have been unable to forget a brief remark by Sr. Jose Hobday, writer and speaker on things spiritual, who was on the program at a conference I attended about a year ago. Native Americans, she said, have a tradition of creating sacred space within the natural environment and then "giving it back."

The idea intrigued me, caught up as I was in reflection on a building fetish that leads ever-mobile Americans, Catholics included, continually to put out money for new church buildings while so many other compelling social needs vie for resources.

In many suburban parishes, an inordinate amount of time and money seems to go into building or expanding structures that, contrary to the demands of faith, contribute to the isolation of modern life.

Arguably, suburban churches do little if anything architecturally to add either beauty or dignity to our lives, while socially they contribute to the isolation of modern life. Most are graceless constructions compared to the architectural treasures left behind in the inner cities. Yet they spring up wherever people settle, giving tacit support to our flight from the problems those cities represent.

As I recall the liturgical experiences that have been especially memorable, however, those that come to mind have been held not in suburban churches, where I have attended countless Masses. Rather, they were held either in facilities designed for a variety of purposes or in active inner city parishes.

A few examples. One recent year, I took a break from journalism to teach religion in a Catholic high school. The school had a small chapel, too small to hold the entire student body, so all-school Masses had to be held in a temporarily converted gym. The bleachers came down; extra chairs were set up; an altar, a painted backdrop and a piano were rolled in. Students distributed music books as students filed in, and for the better part of an hour, the gymnasium became sacred space.

In the hours that preceded and followed the Mass, young men and women vented their energy, dribbling and shooting, shouting and sweating, developing and testing their athletic skills. We borrowed the space for worship and we gave it back.

Some staff members, including a nun serving as assistant principal, bemoaned this dual use of space and lobbied for construction of a new chapel, one large enough to hold the entire school population. Meanwhile, a priest who served as the school's chaplain waged a campaign of his own to prevent the school's small chapel from being used for nonreligious purposes, such as class meetings.

Without question, the motives of these two religious leaders were sincere. But looking at it in another way, is it just possible that such a dual use of space -- worship in the gym; meetings in the chapel -- might represent a healthy step away from the division between flesh and spirit that has historically afflicted Christian thought and practice. As feminist theologians so often remind us, the Augustinian split has led to other wrongheaded dualisms: good and evil, male and female, church and world.

Another memorable liturgical experience, this one concretely uniting church to world, occurred on Palm Sunday at a Catholic Worker house in Kansas City, a building devoted to solidarity with and service to underprivileged people in the spirit of Dorothy Day. Participants in the priestless liturgy carried palms in procession around the inner city neighborhood, making preplanned stops at various "stations" for prayer.

One station was on the sidewalk outside a home where inhabitants were suffering from AIDS; another at the site of a recent shooting; a third at a vacant lot where an apartment building had been demolished, leaving many residents homeless; a fourth at a home ravaged by fire. For a few moments, each of these stations was sacred space. …