Among the many criticisms Evangelical Christians often make against the Catholic Church is that its older church buildings can be overly ornate and filled with ritualistic pomp and circumstance. The presumption is that such churches focus on the beauty of worldly objects instead of improving the tragic realities of mankind, thereby actually undermining the mission of Christ.
As the argument goes, these churches—filled with sinners who do not do enough to live the gospel—are more likely havens of idolatry and would do well to be stripped of their glamour to serve a more utilitarian function. Such a perspective, however, misunderstands the distinct witness these churches offer to the gospel of Christ.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, Saint Paul describes the church as the “pillar and ground of truth.” In other words, the church is to be a place where those surrounded by a world filled with lies and deceit can come to know the truth of Christ. Ideally, the members of the church body would certainly witness that truth through their good and charitable work. And honestly, most do.
But who said the witness of the gospel has to stop there? Objects that can be seen with the eye, heard with the ear, and smelled with the nose can also illuminate the promises of Christ in profound ways.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the witness these churches provide within the United States is in New Orleans, Louisiana. Few cities within the United States contain a more eclectic group of people than New Orleans. It only takes a stroll through the French Quarter, the Garden District, or Uptown to see that only a few blocks separate the wealthy from the impoverished, and that no distance separates the liberal from the conservative or the Christian from the atheist.
Still, wherever one wanders, one of these majestic church buildings stands offering a Mass for all. Whether it’s Saint Louis Cathedral, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Saint Stephen Church, or Saint Patrick’s Church, or one of the many others, each of the churches has distinctly ornate features, sounds, and smells that set them apart from their surroundings.
But it is precisely in the juxtaposition of the vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, ornate architecture, chandeliers, gilded altars, organ music, or potent incense against the surrounding city of sinners that the promises of Christ’s kingdom become manifest. As if to tell the world that when all else has fallen away, the church—Christ’s kingdom on earth—is open for business and calling for all sinners to enter.
It is true that there are times when a beautiful exterior means little in a world of suffering. But there are also times when a beautiful exterior visible with the eye points to a beautiful truth that is not. And because these church buildings do just that, the world is blessed to have them.
Copyright © 2012, Krissie Allen