Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Of the World: A Series of Paintings Depicts Old Churches in the Modern World as More Than Landmarks-And a Church Still under Construction

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Of the World: A Series of Paintings Depicts Old Churches in the Modern World as More Than Landmarks-And a Church Still under Construction

Article excerpt

The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World begins by underscoring the church's humanity and empathy:

"The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts" (Gaudium et Spes).

Promulgated over 50 years ago, the insight that believers cannot exist apart from "the people of our time" and the "genuinely human" continues to challenge those who identify as Catholic.

Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Father John Christman explores the Council's admonition in a series of paintings named for this text. Each of Christman's surfaces employs a similar vocabulary: a church building, an activity, and a portion of a pattern. The depictions of these structures that house the church (the people of specific local communities) act as bridges between a hierarchical understanding of the church and the Council's emphasis on the dignity of all believers. This might be a church less doctrinally sure of itself, more comfortable to see itself as mystery.

The ecclesial architecture illustrated has European roots. Neither St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York nor St. James Church in Chicago represents a distinctly American style. Santa Cruz Church in Manila, destroyed with the rest of the city in 1945 and rebuilt in 1957, resurrects Spain's colonization of the Philippines (1521-1898). Likewise, St. Joseph's Cathedral in Beijing records the presence of foreign powers struggling to establish their rights to Chinese goods and markets and the religious system that accompanied them.

These buildings document political posturing, cultural hegemony, and a theology tied to both place and era. All are celebrated regional, national, or international monuments. They also encode a church whose buildings were designed to impress rather than welcome, to separate into ranks rather than indicate unity. Could these buildings be proposed in 2017? Not if new construction projects seek to draw from current architectural language a way to express the Council's comprehension of the church's mission in the world.

This presumes several capacities. One of these, the ability to think of one's culture as good, is more elusive than it might appear. Decades after Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) taught that "the church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity ... rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples," architectural templates from other places and times are preferred, at times, because "looking like a church" becomes the determinative criterion.

Such choices are reminders that our colonized past and our biases live within us, that we struggle to see the present as a time of blessing. Author Annie Dillard dissuades us from such an assessment: "It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time ... but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less" (For The Time Being, Vintage).

St. Sulpice itself stands as a witness to interrupted plans and changing visions, a pastiche of styles and ideas triggered by everything from the French Revolution to a succession of architects. Christman superimposes a construction crane upon the building's likeness, a reminder the second largest church in France was finished by the proverbial writing straight with a crooked line. …

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