The nature of church buildings

Archbishop Eijk of Utrecht has written an interesting letter to the parish councils in his diocese. It discusses the use of church buildings outside Mass and prayer services. Essentially, the archbishop implements what he has done in his previous diocese, Groningen-Leeuwarden.

The entire letter can be read (in Dutch) here, but I would like to share the following section:

“The main assumption is […] that a church is primarily a house of God, intended for divine service. Virtually any other use, no matter dignified, is therefore essentially excluded. The only exception allowed is the use of the church for concerts of sacred and religious music.

“According to tradition […] the church building is the place where the people of God assemble […] to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, to celebrate the Eucharist and adore the Eucharist as a continuous sacrament in that place. The church building can therefore not be considered as a normal public space which can be used for all sorts of meetings. It is a sacred place which is continously dedicated to the worship of God through the consecration or blessing it has received. The church building is a sacred place, also outside liturgical celebrations.”

In my opinion, and from some limited experience, this makes all the difference between a Catholic church and a Protestant one. I’ve always noticed, when stepping into a Protestant church, that it was just a building. Sure, it can be well-built, beautifully furnitured and inspirationally decorated, but it is a building. It receives meaning from its use by whoever is in it at a given time.

A Catholic church, on the other hand, is more than that. The actual presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (something which Archbishop Eijk curiously does not mention in his letter) assures a sacred focal poitn for the entire building and consequently of the people there too. And many people realise that, if often subconsciously. Just look at the hushed tones in which most of them speak when entering after curiosity got the better of them upon passing the open doors.

We, as ‘users’ of the building, have a task to assure the continuous sacred nature of our churches. That task comes directly from our faith and our awareness of in Whose presence we are. People must therefore be educated in that. The subconscious awareness that the building is something special must be nurtured and eveloped into a mature sensibility. That in turn will feed our faith, helping it to grow and mature.


Unexpected resignation

As in other countries, the Church in Germany also suffers under the abuse crisis. One of the men in the centre of attention is Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg and the German military. Accusations against him do not deal with sexual abuse, but physical violence. Bishop Mixa has admitted having sometimes slapped pupils under his authority when he was a priest in a childrens’ home in Schrobenhausen between 1975 and 1996. He also said that an occasional slap was not considered abnormal at the time, something which will hold some truth. His accusers, however, talk of serious beatings they received, although Bishop Mixa claims not to know at least one of said accusers.

In a rather unexpected move, Bishop Mixa has now offered his resignation to the pope. Such resignations are usually always accepted. Why do I find this unexpected? Well, I was under the impression that Bishop Mixa was quite adamant about the inaccuracy of the allegations against him. But his resignation is perhaps understandable for the good of the Church in his diocese and in Germany as a whole. He has, rightly or not, become controversial.

But this affair also points to a disturbing trend: judging past events by modern standards. Slapping children in school is nowadays not done, and rightly so. In the past, and a fairly recent past at that, that was different. Of course, regular beatings are always unacceptable, at whatever time they happened. But a clip around the head is surely something different?


Marriage 101

They replied, ‘Moses allowed us to draw up a writ of dismissal in cases of divorce.’
Then Jesus said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard hearted that he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and the two become one flesh. They are no longer two, therefore, but one flesh.

This passage from the Gospel of Mark (10: 4-8) was used  in the faith evening I attended in the parish last night. Our topic was the sacrament of marriage, about which much may be said. Time was limited, so we didn’t get beyond the basic of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and related issues. But the above Gospel passage stuck with me, because it, and a passage from Genesis which we’ll get to, illustrates very well what God’s intentions were when he created humans man and woman, and that marriage is the oldest sacrament, instituted at the time of creation.

The Gospel passage follows a question from the Pharisees who wanted to test Jesus about His knowledge and loyalty to God. They asked Him if a man could divorce his wife. Jesus then asks them what Moses taught them (Moses in this case being very much the father of Judaic law and moral teaching). Their answer and Jesus’ subsequent explanation show that divorce is only allowed because people are stubborn, because they are unwilling or unable to follow God’s intentions with creation. Because sin has come into the world.

But it was different in the beginning. That beginning we obviously find at the beginning of the Bible, in one of the two creation stories (Gen. 2: 23a-24):

And the man said: This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! […] This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh.

These lines follow the creation of Eve, the equal companion to man. Adam’s words show an innate knowledge that the two, man and woman, complement each other, that become not just attached, but one flesh, one life. This is the institution of marriage (a sacrament, by the way, not administered by God, but by man and woman together). It is clear that this is what Jesus refers to in the Gospel of Mark.

Summarising my conclusion from last night: no one can do it alone. In order to live a full life, full according to the the intentions of God, he or she must become one with another. This most fully achieved in marriage, the union of man and woman who complement one another. Other vocations also achieve this: a priest is united to God, as is a hermit. Religious men and woman are united to God and to the community they live in.

Marriage really is rather unique sacrament. It spiritually and mentally unites a man and a woman, it bears visible fruit in the form of children and it is entered into out of free will and administered not by a priest, but by the man and woman themselves. Considering this unique nature, it is no wonder that God chose to include it in creation from the very start. The other sacraments followed later as circumstances dictated, but marriage was intended to be an integral part of the makeup of humans.