Why We Need Church Buildings

Photography © by Andy Coan

Photography © by Andy Coan

As a rebellious teenager, I thought that Catholics should stop wasting their money on expensive churches.  We ought to sell them all and buy food for the poor, I argued.

Funny thing.  Jesus, who cared much for the poor, did not have this attitude.  As an adolescent he yearned to spend time in Herod’s sumptuous Temple (Luke 2).   As an adult, he defended its integrity against the money changers (John 2).  Francis of Assisi, who gave away all his possessions, begged for money to buy materials to restore ruined churches which he rebuilt with his own hands.

Why this high regard for church buildings?  Ezekiel 47 gives us one important reason.  Because the liturgical worship that goes on inside, most especially the Eucharist, is the “source and summit” of our entire Christian life.

The world is a dusty, tiring place that often beats us down.  The Church building is a haven, a quiet refuge, a place to encounter God.  Here we drink deeply of the life-giving waters of word and sacrament that revive our drooping spirits (Psalm 23).  The grace that flows from the altar bears us back into the world, changed, and able to change others, bringing healing and bearing fruit.

Paul, in I Corinthians 3, gives us another reason to honor churches.  George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, concluded from this passage that if we Christians are the Church, we should call our places of worship “steeple-houses.”  To call buildings “churches” obscures the fact that we are the Church.

The Judeo-Christian Tradition sees it differently.  The church building is a mirror that, held up before us, reminds us of who we are.  The world tells us that we are consumers, employees and voters, and flashes a constant stream of icons at us every day to remind us of this. The Church building is an icon that reminds us of our deepest identity.  As we gather for Sunday worship, we who were scattered by diverse loyalties, professions, and life-styles, are now united as the Body of Christ and dwelling place of the Spirit.

How does a person enter the Church?  Through the cleansing waters of baptism.  Maybe that=s why there are holy water fonts at the doors of most Catholic churches.  Maybe those statues of saints are there to remind us that we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the family of God” (Ephesians 2:19f).

So what about all the expensive treasures of architecture, painting, sculpture, and stained glass?  Sell them all and use the proceeds to buy food for the poor?  When that food had been consumed, what then would the poor have?

In Texas, we have a homestead law that seeks to guarantee that no matter what financial misfortunes might befall people, they will not lose their homes.  The loss of one’s home is a loss of one’s dignity.  Our churches, from the local chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica, belong not to the hierarchy, but to the whole family.  They have been given to us by the hard work and contributions of our forebears to remind us of our dignity as sons and daughters of the living God.

Archbasilica of St. John Lateran Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano

Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano

The Lateran Basilica, whose dedication we celebrate every November, was donated to the Church by Constantine soon after he legalized Christianity in A.D. 313.  Ever since it has served as the official cathedral of the Pope, the mother church of all Christendom, the cathedral of the world.

It is there that the most powerful pope of the middle ages, Innocent III, had a dream of a magnificent church breaking apart only to be shored up by a poor man in a beggar’s robe.  Soon afterwards, a group of beggars from Assisi arrived, led by a man named Francis, asking for his approval for their lifestyle and work.  Prepared by his dream, he recognized the hand of God, and encouraged a movement that renewed the Church.

As we meditate on this feast, let us allow zeal for his house to consume us as it did Jesus and Francis, that we may embrace the task of purification, renewal and rebuilding given us by the Council that met in another great Roman basilica some forty years ago.


Editors Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica — (Optional) Genesis 28:11-18; Psalms 84:3, 4, 5-6, 8, 11; (Optional) First Corinthians 3:9; (Optional) Luke 19:1-10

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.


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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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