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Love is the Builder


Centuries ago, even very ordinary believers knew how to "read" a church.


wuerlaquilina That is to say, they could decipher the meaning embedded in the art, the stained glass, the sanctuary furnishings, and the sculpture within a church building.  In the years following the Second Vatican Council, I'm afraid that most Catholics lost this knack.  This was due, not to the texts of the Council themselves, but to certain trends within contemporary architecture and spirituality that influenced the construction of churches during the last fifty years.  Modernist architectural theory dictated that buildings should be reduced to their essential characteristics, their bare bones.  This led to churches that were sleek, streamlined, functional.  And many theologians and spiritual writers of the last half-century so emphasized the fact that church means the people of God that they understressed the symbolic and spiritual power of ecclesial buildings themselves.  As one very seminal document from the 1970s put it, the church structure is simply "the skin of the worshipping assembly," a kind of tent that shelters the congregation for a time, only to be struck as the pilgrim people move on.  The result of these two influences was "beige" churches, largely empty "gathering spaces," devoid of color, symbolism, and artistic texture.

The very serious problem with these modernist churches is that they violated the principle that Blessed John Henry Newman identified as absolutely fundamental to the Catholic sensibility, namely, the incarnational principle.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and this means that God is pleased to express himself precisely through very physical stuff — color, painting, sculpture, architecture, and so forth.  Occasionally in the history of Christianity, the puritanical, iconoclastic idea has arisen, but the Catholic Church has always opposed it.  And that is precisely why we have Hagia Sophia, Chartres Cathedral, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Sistine Chapel, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Those magnificent structures are themselves sacramental, bearers of the sacred.

In this wonderful book, Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina have performed the signal service of reminding us of the incarnational principle as it is embodied in churches.  Like good and patient teachers, they have instructed us again how to read Christ's presence in the dense textures of our cathedrals, basilicas, chapels, and churches.  For example, they tell us how the cruciform design of most classical ecclesial buildings is meant to invoke the human body itself, but more precisely that particular human body that was nailed to a cross two millennia ago.  They also show how something as ordinary as the chair in which the presider sits is actually charged with meaning, for it speaks of the teaching authority that the priest has derived from his bishop, who in turn derived it from the Apostles and hence from Christ himself.  One of the most illuminating (pun intended) sections for me had to do with stained glass.  The authors show how the figures depicted in the painted glass are never meant to look "realistic," that is, ordinary and of this world.  Instead, they are meant to be idealized, for they represent the saints who dwell now in the fullness of glory, in the inaccessible light of heaven.

Savor this small but very informative book.  Use it as an occasion for prayer and meditation.  Bring it into a classical church with you as an interpretive key.  And then pass it on to someone who could benefit from it, perhaps especially to a person who came of age during the era of beige churches.

- Father Robert Barron

Love is the Builder

Catholics love their churches.  We build them with love.  We make them lovable.

If you visit a remote village in Latin America, the people will be pleased to show you their church — the church that they or their ancestors have raised to the glory of God.  Step inside and you'll find a sanctuary adorned with precious items:  skillfully wrought woodwork, stonework, and metalwork, and paintings and statues in the local style.  If you linger for Mass, you'll see a chalice and plate of gold or silver, enhanced perhaps by gems.

Without their church — their church — they would be spiritually and culturally destitute.  For they've built and furnished their church with love, as Catholics everywhere do and always have done.

The inside of the church may be lavish and rich, while the homes outside are simple and unadorned.  And that contrast sometimes shocks people who are visiting from more prosperous lands.  It has become a cliché of anti-Catholic prejudice to say that such precious objects would serve a better purpose if they were sold to raise money for food.

The people in the village know better.  They know that the money earned from such a sale would feed them for no more than a few days, while the loss would leave them impoverished forever.  Without their church — their church — they would be spiritually and culturally destitute.  For they've built and furnished their church with love, as Catholics everywhere do and always have done.

Such love finds expression in the smallest details of construction and decoration, and in a seemingly infinite variety of styles.  You'll see it in Ethiopia's ancient churches — carved out of a single massive block of blackstone, the size of a small mountain.  You'll see it in Cappadocia's cave churches — occupied during a time when Christianity was illegal and the faith was forced underground (literally).  You'll see it in the play of dark and light in the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages.  You'll find it in the most ordinary suburban churches in the United States.

These churches, in all their diversity, are built according to a common plan, furnished with similar items, and decorated with remarkably standard symbols, scenes, and images.  The elements bespeak a love shared by Catholics from all over the world, regardless of language, culture, wealth, or historical period.

Catholics build their churches with love; and our love has a language all its own.  Like romance, Christian devotion follows certain customs and conventions — a tradition poetic and courtly — hallowed by millennia of experience.

This book is about that silent language of love.  In these pages we'll examine the structure of a church and its furnishings.  We'll consider the historical and biblical roots of each element in a church, providing basic definitions, and we'll explain each element's meaning in the Christian tradition.  Why, for example, do churches have spires and bells?  Where did we get the custom of using holy water?  How does an altar differ from an ordinary table?  What are votive candles for?

Every part of a church is rich in meaning and mystery, theology and history.  Every furnishing or ornament reveals some important detail of the story of our salvation.  Through two millennia, Christians have preserved and developed a tradition of building and decoration.  The tradition is supple enough that it could be adapted by local cultures as the Gospel spread to new lands, yet solid enough to protect and preserve the essential heritage received from the Apostles and revealed by God.

If you were making a movie and you wanted your audience to identify an interior immediately as a Catholic church, what would you do?  You'd show sunlight streaming through stained glass.  You'd angle your camera heavenward, looking upward past monumental statues of the saints.  You'd pan across a bank of red votive candles with flickering flames, and then focus on an array of seemingly surreal images:  a human heart surrounded by thorns; an eye; a disembodied hand raised in blessing; a painting of a woman standing on a crescent moon; a carving of a dove descending; a lion, an eagle, and an ox, all crowned by similar halos; and a throng of angels.

In the popular imagination, these elements add up to a Catholic identity.  But what exactly does each of them mean?  And how do all the elements work together?  What's the sense of the symbols?  What are we trying to say through the medium of human body parts and exotic animals?  Late in the fourth century Saint Augustine, who would go on to become a builder of churches, wrote:  "I know that a truth which the mind understands in just one way can be materially expressed by many different means, and I also know that there are many different ways in which the mind can understand an idea that is outwardly expressed in one way."  [1]

The African saint gives us an important insight for "reading" our churches:  One image can convey many layers of meaning, and the same idea can be expressed in manifold ways.

Everything we see in a Catholic church is there for a single purpose:  to tell a love story.  It is a story as old as the world, and it involves the whole of creation, the vast expanse of history, and every human being who ever lived.  It involves Almighty God, and it involves you.

Art and architecture are means of communication.  Our churches speak of something remote, beyond the reach of human sciences — what Dante called "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."  [2] But our churches speak also to something deep inside us — in our souls and in our senses — because, as Dante added, the same Love that moves the cosmos also moves "my desire and my will."

To understand our churches is to begin to understand a love at once unmistakably divine and profoundly human, faraway and yet intimate.  When we begin to understand that love, it begins to light up our view of our churches and their symbols.

The love story appears in compressed, poetic form in the Gospel according to Saint John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it....

To understand our churches is to begin to understand a love at once unmistakably divine and profoundly human, faraway and yet intimate.  When we begin to understand that love, it begins to light up our view of our churches and their symbols.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father....

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 1:1-5, 9-14; 3:16)

John begins his Gospel by describing a God of awesome power, remote in space and transcending time:  a Spirit, a Word.  This is the God whom even the pagan philosophers knew:  the Prime Mover, the One.  Yet, precisely where the pagan philosophers stalled, John's drama proceeds to a remarkable climax:  "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

From beyond the distant heavens, existing before the beginning of time, God himself broke into history, took on flesh, and made his dwelling — literally, "pitched his tent" — among his people.  Yes, God is eternally the Word, but a word is elusive, and not everyone may grasp it.

God, who reigns in heaven, and who transcends all creation and all time, assumed the life of an ordinary laborer, who could be seen and heard and touched.  God transformed all creation by his healing touch.  He took up residence among his people.

The early Christians said that when Jesus descended into the river Jordan he sanctified — made holy — all the waters of the earth, commissioning them for the task of baptism.  In his mother's womb he sanctified motherhood.  At a family table, God handled ordinary food and made it to signify an otherwise unimaginable heavenly banquet.  He wandered in the desert and traveled in boats and visited towns and cities.  In doing all this, he blessed creation and hallowed it as a sign of his own eternal life.

Every Catholic church is built to tell this story, the story of how "God so loved the world."  Every church is built to dispense the life-giving water and magnify the light that shines in the darkness.  Every church serves the heavenly banquet at its family table:  the altar.  Every church is built as a memorial of God's sojourn among his people — and of his people's rejection of him.  Front and center we keep the crucifix.

Our churches tell a love story, and they bring us salvation, and so we love them all the more.  So much of Catholic identity is built into the houses we build for worship.  Everything about our churches, inside and out, is a unique material token of the most profound spiritual love.  Jesus has spiritualized the world, but he has done it by putting flesh on pure Spirit.  That reality is reflected on the walls of every Catholic church.

Saint John of Damascus, writing in eighth-century Syria, pondered the things in his church and was moved, he said, to "worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and willed to make his dwelling in matter, and who worked out my salvation through matter.  I will not cease from honoring the matter that works my salvation.  .  .  .  Through matter, filled with divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me."  [3]

Everything we see in a Catholic church is there for a single purpose:  to tell a love story.

Theologians call this the "sacramental principle."  Other authors, speaking colloquially, refer to it simply as "the Catholic Thing."  That's how closely a Catholic's spiritual identity is tied to these material realities.

The sacramental principle tells us that, since the Word became flesh, God has begun to heal and restore his creation.  Spiritual light can now shine through the material world.  Because of the touch of Jesus Christ, matter can now convey God's grace.  On one level, bread and wine; on another, oil, candles, fabrics and paint, bricks, blocks, and filigree — all these can mediate God's presence in the world.

Jesus's disciples, still today, can sense the dramatic effects of the Incarnation.  With the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins we can look upon a world "charged with the grandeur of God" — and we can reflect that grandeur through the material objects and symbols present in our churches.

Reflecting God's grandeur is something we are drawn to do.  It fulfills a need we have as Christians who have been redeemed.  We want to praise and thank the Lord who has saved us.  But it also fulfills a basic need we have as human beings; for the God who redeemed us is the God who created us, and he designed us to love beauty, to find delight in it, and to make beautiful things that tell us of the greater beauty of divine glory.

Christians need churches.  It is said that for centuries the Benedictine order forbade the founding of a new monastery until the group of founders included a monk who could make bricks — and another who was trained in turning those bricks into church walls, raised according to the ancient models.  From generation to generation they passed on the tradition of beauty, love, and wisdom that they had received, a tradition that libraries could not contain, yet one that we'll try to survey with you in the chapters that follow.


  1. Saint Augustine, Confessions 13-24.
  2. Dante, Paradiso 33.145.
  3. Saint John do Damascus,On the Divine Images, part I.


Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina. "Love is the Builder." The first chapter and preface from The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home (New York: Image, 2013): 7-14, 15-26.

Reprinted with permission of Image Catholic Books.

For more information, visit

The Author

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He serves on the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Clergy, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Culture and is former chairman of numerous committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, including the Committee on Doctrine, and is a member of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including the  best-selling catechisms, The Teaching of Christ and The Catholic Way. His recent books include, The MassSeek First the Kingdom, Faith That Transforms Us: Reflections on the Creed, New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today and The Church.

aquilinasmaquilinahistory2Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author or co-author of 5 books including A History of the Church in 100 Objects, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again, Yours is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our WorldGood Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.

Copyright © 2013 Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina
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