The Catholic University of America

May 4, 2010

Tradition and Innovation of Catholic Churches Discussed at CUA

Cardinal Justin Rigali Delivers Keynote Lecture at Symposium

  CUA's Michael Patrick and Notre Dame's Duncan Stroik speak with symposium attendees.

CUA's Michael Patrick, left, and Notre Dame's Duncan Stroik, right, speak with symposium attendees.

More than 125 architects, artists and religious and lay people of a diverse array of related disciplines attended “A Living Presence: Extending and Transforming the Tradition of Catholic Sacred Architecture,” a two-day symposium exploring tradition and innovation in church architecture held April 30 and May 1 at Catholic University.

The symposium was presented by the Partnership for Catholic Sacred Architecture, a collaborative effort between the schools of architecture at The Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame.

“The symposium sought to follow the call of Pope Benedict XVI that, as in liturgy, the art and architecture of the Church would be an organic growth of the tradition,” said Michael Patrick, chair of the partnership and visiting lecturer at CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning.


In speaking at the symposium on innovation versus imitation, Duncan Stroik, professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, said, “Architecture is not about producing copies, but of producing children. [Architects should] Learn from the examples of the past.”

Stroik discussed how principles of traditional church architecture — cruciform design, bell towers and domes, for example — can be included in innovative and current designs.

Photo of Denis McNamara  
Denis McNamara

On Friday night, Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, delivered the keynote address. In the lecture, he noted that “the Church has not admitted any style as her own.”

The cardinal reflected on three principles. Sacred Scripture “testifies” that the role and mission of architects and artists arise from the very nature of the plan of God, he said. “While the work of architects and artists is both a science and an art, it is first an exalted mission,” he said.

He also noted that the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI affirm that the work of architecture and art takes place in and through dialogue with the Church. And finally, he said the architect’s and artist’s mission, which is based in sacred Scripture and conducted in dialogue with the Church, authentically develops only along the path of true beauty.

“Beauty changes us,” Cardinal Rigali said. “It disposes us to the transformation of God. Everything related to the Eucharist should be truly beautiful.”

Many speakers at the symposium talked of how churches offer a connection between earth and heaven and that churches are a continuation of Christ’s presence on Earth.


“Great churches, beautiful churches, both large and small, can offer a glimpse of a world to come,” said Randy Ott, dean of CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning, in his welcoming remarks. “[Churches] are the windows which remind us that there is something — something beautiful — outside the town, the village, the city, the world in which we live.”

Similarly, “a church building allows us to see heaven with our eyes,” said Denis McNamara, assistant director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. “Art and architecture can allow us to perceive otherwise invisible spiritual realities.”

  Craig Hartman discusses the design of Christ the Light Cathedral.
  Craig Hartman discusses the design of Christ the Light Cathedral.

The symposium’s final lecture was delivered by Craig Hartman, design partner of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of San Francisco. Hartman spoke about how his team designed the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Calif., by exploring concepts of light as the symbol of Christ.

In addition, the team explored the metaphorical transformation of Oakland culture (the shape of the cathedral is drawn from the idea of fluidity as expressed in the movement of fish in water, since those elements are a major part of the local economy) and ideas of elemental human habitation (wood in a simple framework — as in a primitive hut — was used as the main building structure, relating current worship to religious desire as a basic human experience). These themes woven together became a light-filled “lantern” reflecting God’s presence, noted Hartman.

Following their presentations McNamara, Stroik and Hartman participated with the audience in a vigorous discussion, which revealed both agreement and disagreement on how best to extend and transform the tradition of Catholic sacred architecture.

“The symposium was held with the hope of finding a path acknowledging — and building upon — what is good in diverse approaches; unified by a love for God and a desire for service to the Church,” Patrick says. “Based on comments by participants, it succeeded as a first small step in this large and profound task.”

The event was the first of what is expected to be a series of symposia on the subject in coming years by the Partnership for Catholic Sacred Architecture.

Other speakers at the conference explored topics including theology, philosophy and the law; fundraising; and the interrelationship between sacred music, art and architecture.

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