September 2013

The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal.  By Duncan G. Stroik. Liturgy Training Publications. 224 pages. $75.

No one has done more to promote the renaissance of traditional church architecture over the past 15 years than Duncan Stroik. As founder and editor of Sacred Architecture, he has produced an impressive body of writing on the subject. Stroik, a professor at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, recently gathered 23 of his own Sacred Architecture essays under one cover to produce this phenomenal retrospective, illustrated with 170 photos, plans, and charts.

Not only a primer on church architecture, The Church Building as a Sacred Place is also a testament to Stroik’s contribution to the renewal movement — through his writing, yes, but arguably more so through his impressive portfolio of proposed and built work, which includes the spectacular Thomas Aquinas College chapel (it is larger than many cathedrals) in southern California, All Saints Church in northern Kentucky, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin. Dennis R. McNamara, assistant director of The Liturgical Institute in Chicago, recognizes in his foreword that this book is a “narrative of hope.” Stroik not only explodes the popular canard that it is impossible to build beautiful churches today, he presents a body of evidence that serves to kindle that hope.

In one of the most enlightening essays of the collection, Stroik dispels a number of other common myths and misconceptions about Catholic church architecture. One particularly pervasive myth, perpetuated by the post-conciliar liturgical establishment, is that the Second Vatican Council requires us to reject the traditional churches of past centuries in order to embrace new, modernist forms allegedly better suited for the arrangement of the New Mass. Oddly, as Stroik points out, this myth is based solely on what Catholics have built over the past 50 years rather than what the Church has taught in that time. The church architecture over these decades, he says, has been “an unmitigated disaster.” Much of the repertoire of modernist experimentation since 1978 has been predicated on the now-infamous and dubious “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” a manifesto of sorts written by iconoclasts under the auspices of a subcommittee of the U.S. bishops.

Another distressing myth Stroik explodes is the pervasive belief that our beautiful, old churches must be renovated in order to bring them into “alignment with Vatican II.” The fact is that the Second Vatican Council had very little to say on the subject of sacred architecture and exactly nothing about renovating church buildings to strip them of their sacramental nature. Fortunately, in recent years, as Stroik points out, there has been a strong movement toward re-renovation — that is, returning renovated churches to their former glory by restoring altars, baldachinos, statuary, and other sacred art. We’re witnessing a renewed sense of the sacred after suffering through five decades of cultural amnesia.

In addition to all the theory and theology, Stroik’s volume also includes invaluable practical resources, such as a bibliography of all canonical documents pertaining to church architecture, and an illustrated appendix that provides comparisons of the size and features of the world’s most famous Catholic churches.

Yes, the book’s cost may be a little steep for most pocketbooks, but this volume is a keeper — an invaluable reference for the layman, the liturgist, the architect, the priest, and the bishop. After all, Catholic churches are owned by the bishops, built by the priests, and paid for by the parishioners. This resource ought to be accessible to every Catholic.

- Michael S. Rose





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