“Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor.”Reprinted from Aleteia.
—Pope Francis to journalists, March 16, 2013
We all know that the poor need food and clothing, decent education and good jobs. But what about their spiritual and cultural needs? Can a church building serve the poor spiritually through the material? It is an expensive proposition but I would suggest yes. Which leads us to the question of how to design a church for the Poor.
First, let us consider what a church for the poor is not: it is not a church for ascetic monks, who take a vow of poverty, spend their days in prayer and prefer the simple beauty of the cloister to the richness and chaos of the world. On the contrary, a church for the poor should be seen as a place for full-blooded laypeople who need to be drawn into the building through material and tactile means. It is a respite from the world that offers a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem to those living in Nineveh.
A church for the poor does not have paintings of abstract or ugly figures but is full of beautiful images of holy men and women who overcame their sinfulness to draw close to God. Even more important, a church for the poor shows them their mother who comforts and their God who forgives. A church for the poor is full of signs, symbols and sacraments: outward signs of inward grace. It cannot be a place where the sacrament of salvation is hidden away, for it should be raised up like Christ on the cross offering his body’s death for our body’s healing.
A house for the poor should not be a modernist structure inspired by the machine, for the poor are surrounded and even enslaved by the machine and the technological. It is rather a building inspired by the human body, the new Adam, and the richness of His creation. For those whose lives may touch on angst and suffering they do not need a contorted building exhibiting disharmony and atonality. Instead they need an architecture of healing, which through proportions, materials and spiritual light bring joy to the heart. A church which is welcoming to those in the state of poverty should not be a theatre church where the visitor is forced to be on stage. Their dignity is respected by allowing them to sit where they want, even if that means in the back or hidden away in a side chapel. The lighting cannot be so bright that one’s deficiencies are revealed to others, but there is a place for prayerful shadow.
A church for the poor is not hidden away in the suburbs or on a highway where it may never be seen and is difficult to get to. It should be placed where the poor are – near the poor villages or the destitute city neighborhoods and in prominent places like downtowns or city parks where the poor sometimes travel. A church for the poor does not close its school just because it is under-enrolled or in financial difficulty. Caritas understands that service to those in need is not optional, nor is it meant to be cheap and easy. In the same way, dioceses should seek creative ways for inner city parishes to remain open even when finances would argue otherwise. One thinks of St. Mary of the Angels and its school located in a tough Chicago neighborhood reopened by Cardinal George and Franciscan friar Bob Lombardo after being closed for fifteen years.
A church for the poor should not look impoverished. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money should be welcome to enter. The poor may not often visit the art museum, the symphony hall, or the stately hotel. However, a worthy church can give the poor the same experience of art, fine music, and nobility that the rich and middle class are happy to pay for. And in this way the Church acknowledges that high culture should be even for the those who have nothing. Bishop Suger probably had it right when he rebuilt Saint Denis and invested in beautiful vessels, altars and statues to draw the gaze of the common folk towards the mysteries of the faith.
A church for the poor is not only for the poor, it is for all, both rich and poor, proud and humble. Are there iconographical elements which might draw the needy and inspire others to give? Perhaps images of poverty in the lives of holy saints such as Francis, Dominic, Mother Theresa and many others. Along with these, a church for the poor should have murals, stained glass and side altars portraying the centrality of poverty in the life of Christ. The king is born in a stable, and his family must emigrate to a foreign land to survive. His compassion for the poor, the mother, the widow, the leper and his raising of the dead. His life as a mendicant reliant on the generosity of others for food and lodging (from both priests and tax collectors), his many parables which, like the widow’s mite or the Prodigal Son, speak powerfully to all those in hunger and poverty. But can the poor or the uneducated understand these images or appreciate beauty? When the poor see beauty they see God. Why? Because “Beauty” is God’s middle name.
Why should we design a church for the poor? Because no other building can point the poor to Christ, in the way that a church which embraces them can.
Duncan G. Stroik is a practicing architect, author, and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His built work includes the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in Santa Paula, California and the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Prof. Stroik is also the author of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal, and edits the journal Sacred Architecture.