A Living Presence… Symposium on the Development of Catholic Church Architecture
Jun 15, 2010

A Living Presence… Symposium on the Development of Catholic Church Architecture

Online Edition: June 2010

Vol. XVI, No. 4

A Living Presence… Symposium on the Development of Catholic Church Architecture

Design by Daniel DeGreve, first-place winner in the symposium’s design competition.

by Michael Patrick

“While the work of architects and artists is both a science and an art, it is first an exalted mission.

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

— Cardinal Justin Rigali, Keynote Address


For the first time, two major Catholic universities, The Catholic University of America and The University of Notre Dame, collaborated in presenting a symposium on Catholic church architecture. “A Living Presence: Extending and Transforming the Tradition of Catholic Sacred Architecture” was held at The Catholic University of America (CUA) School of Architecture and Planning on April 30 and May 1.

The event was organized by the Partnership for Catholic Sacred Architecture, whose four directors are Professor George Martin of Catholic University, Professor Duncan Stroik of Notre Dame, and Michael Patrick and Eric Anderson of Patrick and Anderson Partners in Architecture. The symposium was the vision of Professor Martin, whose desire was that these great universities would work together for the good of the Church in the important mission of creating beautiful sacred architecture.

More than 125 people from around the world attended the symposium. The schedule was tightly packed with presentations of academic papers and professional work, including a keynote address by Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, workshops, and a tour of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception hosted by Curator Dr. Geraldine Rohling.

More than fifty presenters from across the United States — and from Italy, Spain and Hungary — contributed, with a final panel discussion featuring presentations by Denis McNamara, Assistant Director at The Liturgical Institute, Duncan Stroik of Notre Dame, and Craig Hartman, Design Partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill and designer in charge of the recently completed Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Nearly forty church designs were submitted for the design competition, and included entries from as far afield as Mexico and China. The jury — comprised of Bishop Barry Knestout of the Archdiocese of Washington, Ed Keegan, editor of Architect Magazine, and James McCrery, architect — deliberated on Thursday morning before the symposium to choose the winners, who were announced at the Saturday evening closing reception.

Inspiration for the symposium

The symposium was envisioned by the organizers as a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s call for what he termed “organic growth” in the Church. His views of the importance of the role of art and architecture in the nourishing of the faithful — as in his homily in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and his recent meeting with artists in the Sistine Chapel in Rome — was an inspiration for the event. In addition, Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists provided ample assurance that the artistic tradition of the Church remains of great importance to its leaders — to the successors of Peter, the rock on which Christ founded the Church. The Partnership was very pleased that Pope Benedict addressed a letter to Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, in which he extended “to all taking part in the symposium” an “Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of joy and peace in the Risen Lord”.

In particular, it seemed to the Partnership that the development of Catholic church design since the Second Vatican Council had become unmoored from the Church’s history and tradition — a result almost certainly not envisioned or intended by the popes or the Second Vatican Council, as seems to be clear in its Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, for example, in which liturgical development is assumed to be gradual and keeping in mind always a continuity with what came before. The call for an organic growth in church building design and construction therefore became the cornerstone for development of the symposium, and would be its theme.

The event represented a growing wave of church design conferences around the country and an increasingly articulate call by Catholics for improvement in Catholic church design. The potential for the symposium to become a regular meeting and a known reference point for Catholic church design and construction was recognized by many. We are beginning plans for the next Sacred Architecture Symposium for 2012.

The nature of the symposium

It was essential to the organizers that the symposium be interdisciplinary in nature, including among its contributors and participants artists, musicians, academics, practicing architects, philosophers, theologians, liturgical consultants, and members of the clergy and religious life, to bring together those with different gifts as well as with divergent views on tradition and modernity. Faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church and to Church doctrine, and an understanding of the existing guidelines for church building design, was held to be central to the design of Catholic church buildings by the Partnership, but the symposium proposed that a fruitful dialogue could be held with those of differing views in the hope of creating a unified sense of mission and service to the Church. The symposium sought to identify church design as a continuous response to the living presence of Christ throughout history and today.

Speakers and presenters

“Great churches, beautiful churches, both large and small, can offer a glimpse of a world to come…. (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”, said Dean Randall Ott of the CUA School of Architecture, in his opening remarks in the Koubek Auditorium in the Crough Center for Architectural Studies.

The first symposium session, “Case Studies”, moderated by Adnan Morshed of CUA, initiated a dynamic conversation about the nature of church design, including the development of church design in Eastern Europe since Pope John Paul II and the fall of the Soviet Union; understanding the varied development of church architecture in Spain; and gaining a perspective on how to create new church architecture by looking at the unlikely precedent of Calvinist church architecture in Venetian culture. This dynamic interplay of proposals characterized the entire symposium. Throughout the rest of Friday and Saturday sessions such as “Beauty and Abstraction”, “Tradition and Sacred Architecture Post-Vatican II”, “Theology, Philosophy and the Law”, “The Image, Representation and Sacred Art”, and “The Parish Church” proposed fascinating analyses of and directions for Catholic sacred architecture. A full list of presenters may be found on the symposium web site and video of all sessions will soon be available.

Two workshops — “The Matter of Money — Fundraising and Capital at the Service of the City of God”, and “The Making of Sacred Buildings, Design and Construction of the Eternal City” — established the precedent for the symposium to have working groups to address real issues involved in the renovation and construction of churches. We encourage everyone to consider these as a resource for the practical development of great church architecture in the United States.

Principal presentations at lunch on Friday and Saturday, by renowned sacred artist Anthony Visco and Dr. Leo Nestor, Director of the Sacred Music program at CUA and advisor to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on sacred music, firmly established that church buildings are a collaborative effort of all the arts, and that great church architecture integrates itself with great art and music. The speakers inspired symposium participants with their beautiful work, their practical knowledge and their passion for the liturgy and the Church.

In his keynote address on Friday evening, Cardinal Justin Rigali established three principles for the architecture of Catholic churches: one, that “Sacred Scripture testifies that the role and mission of architects and artists arise from the very nature of the plan of God”, two, “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 three, that “The mission of the architect and artist which is based in Sacred Scripture, and conducted in dialogue with the Church authentically develops only along the path of true beauty”. Cardinal Rigali’s presence underscored our intent to be faithful and of service to the Church in our exploration of an architecture — or many kinds of architecture — that can serve the modern world in continuity with all of our history. (Cardinal Rigali’s complete address is available online: http://archphila.org/rigali/cardhom/exaltedmiss2010.htm)

The symposium culminated in the panel discussion between Denis McNamara, Duncan Stroik, and Craig Hartman. This event purposely brought together Professor Stroik, with his unabashed extension of the classical tradition in churches such as Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, All Saints Church, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe; Mr. Hartman, whose commitment to modern design is beautifully evident in his recently completed Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California; and Dr. McNamara, whose depth of theological insight was a tremendous foundation for the discussion.

Each of these principal speakers gave a short presentation, which was followed by a highly engaged discussion among the panelists and with symposium participants. Dr. McNamara shared with us that “ … a church building allows us to see heaven with our eyes.… Art and architecture can allow us to perceive otherwise invisible spiritual realities”, and Duncan Stroik proposed that “Architecture is not about producing copies, but of producing children. [Architects should] learn from the examples of the past.” Mr. Hartman explained the process of designing and building a modern cathedral, and shared his design process and the exploration of light as a symbol of Christ.

A forum for discussion

The symposium was attended by many practitioners and theorists who have been among the strongest voices in proposing a classical architectural language as an appropriate option for Catholic church design, notable among them Thomas Gordon Smith and Duncan Stroik and many whom they educated in the architecture school at Notre Dame. Those with a desire or willingness to use classical forms and principles of architecture are often marginalized in contemporary discussions of architecture — dismissed as promoting an architecture disconnected from contemporary life and outmoded.

However, the compelling presentations of classical forms that respond in an original way to current problems of church architecture, along with the fundamental beauty of the work, were a welcome and significant presence throughout the two days of the symposium. As these forms respond to many faithful American Catholics’ ideas of an architecture that well expresses the glory and majesty of God, the reverence appropriate to the setting for the Holy Mass, and a hierarchy appropriate to the life of the Church — as well as a sense of connection with the continuous history of the Church — they deserve a serious hearing.

Many who attended the symposium, however, objected to this view. They found this approach to extending the architectural tradition too literal. In their view, modern life — including technology and building techniques — is so profoundly different from the Renaissance and Baroque periods that an equally profound transformation of the architectural idiom is necessary to reflect and express the developments that have occurred over the centuries.

Luigi Bartolomei from Italy and a number of his European colleagues expressed vocal disagreement with the proposals of classical architecture as an architecture for today.

In fact, this view predominates in most discussions of architecture; where the assumed baseline for appropriate architecture is using forms, materials, design principles and methods of construction drawn primarily from our contemporary world. In its more radical form, this perspective may result in architectural forms that are unrelated to Catholic history, or so abstracted and simplified as to be unsatisfying to many Catholics. In some cases these new forms are also indicative of a challenge to the way the Church itself has developed — that is to say, they sometimes embody a proposal that the Church has become too hierarchical, the clergy too distant from the people, church buildings imbued with too much significance and embellished too lavishly.

In both the presentations and the design competition entries, there were a significant number of symposium participants who were clearly engaging in the challenge of defining a path that both engages the tradition and makes something new, which not only extends what came before but transforms it with full cognizance of the challenges and opportunities of contemporary culture. One example is Steven Schloeder, whose writing and work exhibit a robust effort to create modern buildings consonant with the tradition and theology of the Church. We wish to encourage those who attended this symposium with this task in mind, and to invite all those engaged in this endeavor to attend the next symposium. We encourage those who are critical of the more literal extensions of classical architecture to look seriously at the beauty and connection to the Communion of Saints across time that these buildings provide. To those critical of new architecture we ask that they take the time to understand the nature of the attempts being made, any one of which may be a breakthrough for an architecture that expresses the beauty, truth and goodness of Christ in a way uniquely consonant with contemporary life.

Building for the future

The goal of this symposium and future ones is to be a dynamic meeting place in which a work of discussion and collaboration can be undertaken, in which those who do beautiful classically inspired churches can share their work and reconnect us to the tradition of the Catholic Church; while those who are exploring ways for this tradition to be transformed by the facts of our own historical moment are encouraged to explore how this transformation can best take place, and for each to learn from the other. Many are working toward an architecture that is faithful to the Church, connected to tradition, and located in the current culture in an expressive way. This is a work with tremendous potential for fruitfulness and service to the Church.

The Partnership for Catholic Sacred Architecture planned this first symposium on sacred architecture in 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. Based on comments by participants, it succeeded as a first small step in this large and profound task.

It is our hope that out of this symposium will emerge a stronger sense of where we have been, and why, and a great enthusiasm for the possibilities that lie before us in making Catholic churches that are worthy to take their place in the great architectural tradition of the Church.


Note: The symposium presentations are all being made available in video format at live.cua.edu/ACADEMICS/ARCH/architectureConference2010.cfm.

Results of the design competition along with all entries may be seen on the web site A Living Presence: architecture.cua.edu/ alivingpresence. The site will also feature information on the 2012 symposium.

(The founding sponsors of the symposium are the Schools of Architecture at Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, and The Clarence Walton Fund for Catholic Architecture.)


Michael Patrick, Chairman of the Symposium, is Visiting Lecturer at CUA, and partner of Patrick and Anderson Partners in Architecture.



Michael Patrick