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.

2 thoughts on “The nature of church buildings”

  1. Protestants feel the same about Protestant Churches: it’s just a building. You can also use it for parties and such.

    Catholic Churches are different and even tourists notice that, is my experience. It’s telling that when I sit in the back of the cathedral as a church warden (kerkwacht), you see people starting to whisper and changing their behaviour without anyone telling them to when they enter. This even happens to non-believing tourists.

    I guess if you are sensitive to it, you will FEEL the difference. But it’s nice that Bishop Eijk points to the obvious in his letter too. There are quite a number of people who desensitised themselves to the sacred in daily life.

    1. That change in behaviour you notice as a church warden is exactly what I was referring to. Not that all people change their behaviour… Ask our local hermit for some stories 😉

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