I mentioned in the 7QT post that I’d spent some time in the Savannah Cathedral watching people stream in then line up to walk through their Nativity scene.
What occurred to me was not new. It occurs to me every time I’m in church designed with a grounding in Catholic tradition and richly adorned with sign and symbol, and more so if people are wandering through that church during the week.
It’s this: We ask the question quite a bit: how can we get people into Church?
Well, here they are, at about 1pm on a Tuesday.
I sat there for fifteen minutes. Dozens of people came in.
There are countless ways to evangelize. Preaching, personal witness and the Works of Mercy have always been the primary way Catholics have evangelized through history, with one more thing: the visual representation of Faith through art, architecture and music. In other words – giving the Sacred material expression in space and time. Saying, “This is Incarnation.”
How did that become unfashionable? My reading and reflection hints at a few reasons:
- Raised in the thick of it, a couple of generations of reformers came to see all of that as obstacles to faith, not a way to it or expressions of it. They said it blocked the simplicity of faith in Christ.
- I have always suspected, even though the archaeologism was a part of the Liturgical Movement from the beginning, that the devastation of two world wars intensified the feeling that Catholic culture had been an inadequate repository of faith and even a barrier to authentic understanding, hence the appeal to simplicity.
- The idea that all of this mitigated against participation and was elitist.
- The Church is the community gathered not the buildings, etc., etc.,
I’ve talked about these points often enough in this space before, but I want to look at a couple of points that my few minutes sitting in Savannah brought to mind.
- This anti-cultural bias is presentist and runs counter to the fact that the Church is not just “the community gathered in this space.” The Church is Militant and Triumphant, encompasses past and present and the design and appointment of church buildings is about that not about being pretty.
- A church building – of any sort, simple or decorated, in the middle of a city or a shrine alongside a rural road – is a sign of God’s presence in the world. It’s a good thing to have a lot of those signs, open and welcoming, not fewer.
- The elitist/non participation thing is so much silliness. Was it the wealthy who carved the statues, applied the gold leaf, constructed the stained glass windows, laid the foundations or climbed high to balance the cross atop the steeples, who played the organ and staffed the chant-singing choirs and fashioned the candles and sewed the vestments and altar frontals?
- As my friend and colleague Ann Engelhart likes to say in response to the inane Art v. the poor trope, which, sorry, is not a Catholic way of seeing things – Artists ARE the poor!
So let’s get back to Savannah.
Programs, books, workshops. Time and money. Committee meetings and task forces.
How can we get people into church?
Hey. Guess what. Here they are.
Drawn by history, beauty and a Christian-rooted cultural moment (aka Christmas).
Here they are.
This place is not an obstacle. This is not elitist. It’s a big, open doorway to a very relevant faith.
Use it. Evangelize with it.
Perhaps they did see it as evangelization – probably – but there could have been so much more, not in your face, but just there.
The Savannah display was supervised, as far as I could tell, by one docent at the creche, and then a woman sitting at a desk near the front door – that looked to be a permanent spot.
But what I didn’t see was any kind of handout about the Cathedral itself. There was, I think, a booklet for sale, but there was no free pamphlet with either a history of the church itself or a description of what to look for in a Catholic church.
It’s this last point that bugs me the most. I’ve been in countless Catholic churches in my life, and that kind of offering – a simple description of the meaning of the shape of a cruciform church, the layout, the meaning of the altar, tabernacle, stations of the cross, and so on – why doesn’t it exist and why isn’t it everywhere?
Plus an invitation to return. A notice of inquiry sessions. A notice of ways to join in the Corporeal Works of Mercy sponsored by the church.
Is money an issue? Render it a non-issue. Put out a specific plea: Hey, we need a couple thousand dollars to provide this tool for evangelization. Can you all contribute? My experience is that notoriously stingy Catholics are stingy only because they don’t trust where their money is being spent, and that is not unfounded. If they know, they are generous.
Anyway. Yes, church buildings are modes of evangelization because they are witnesses to the presence of God in the world. Even non-traditional chapels and churches are. Even churches in the suburbs. Too much of what passes for evangelization in Catholicism isn’t, at all. Evangelization is reaching out and inviting and understanding what brings the curious and building vigorously on that – not sitting, waiting, not explaining anything and then charging a fee when you do.