Old churches are more than landmarks

Arts & Culture

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World begins by underscoring the church’s humanity and empathy: 

“The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts” (Gaudium et Spes).

Promulgated over 50 years ago, the insight that believers cannot exist apart from “the people of our time” and the “genuinely human” continues to challenge those who identify as Catholic. 

Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Father John Christman explores the Council’s admonition in a series of paintings named for this text. Each of Christman’s surfaces employs a similar vocabulary: a church building, an activity, and a portion of a pattern. The depictions of these structures that house the church (the people of specific local communities) act as bridges between a hierarchical understanding of the church and the Council’s emphasis on the dignity of all believers. This might be a church less doctrinally sure of itself, more comfortable to see itself as mystery.


The ecclesial architecture illustrated has European roots. Neither St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York nor St. James Church in Chicago represents a distinctly American style. Santa Cruz Church in Manila, destroyed with the rest of the city in 1945 and rebuilt in 1957, resurrects Spain’s colonization of the Philippines (1521–1898). Likewise, St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Beijing records the presence of foreign powers struggling to establish their rights to Chinese goods and markets and the religious system that accompanied them.

These buildings document political posturing, cultural hegemony, and a theology tied to both place and era. All are celebrated regional, national, or international monuments. They also encode a church whose buildings were designed to impress rather than welcome, to separate into ranks rather than indicate unity. Could these buildings be proposed in 2017? Not if new construction projects seek to draw from current architectural language a way to express the Council’s comprehension of the church’s mission in the world.

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About the author

Jerry Bleem, O.F.M.

Jerry Bleem, O.F.M. is a priest and artist who teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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