Gress: Are there some key pieces you think all Catholics should know about architecture? What are they and why?
McNamara: The most important notion is that a church building signifies the Mystical Body of Christ, that is, Christ joined to the many members of the Church, which includes all of creation: saints in heaven, souls in purgatory, people on earth, the stars in the heavens and the flowers of the field.
The Rite of Dedication of a Church and Altar, which contains the prayers used to dedicate a new church, says this very clearly. And it’s so common that we often overlook it: we call the people assembled for worship “the Church” and we call the building they worship in “the church.”
All through scripture, people are called “living stones” in God’s building, and Christ’s body is compared to the Temple. A temple is a place where God dwells, and God dwells in us because we are Christ’s body. The church building indicates that reality. In Galatians, for instance, Peter, James and John are called “pillars,” meaning they “hold up” the mission of the Church just as columns hold up the roof of a church.
With this deep level of understanding, people can begin to understand the theology behind the churches they love: one which is glorified, carefully designed, rich in splendor and filled with images because this is the nature of Christ’s glorified Mystical Body. That is far more important than art history and it’s not just nostalgia. It is the sacramental revelation of God’s mysteries through art and architecture.