This past week we celebrated the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. This is the Pope’s cathedral, his official church. It is NOT St. Peter’s in the Vatican, but rather the Lateran Basilica. It has been the official seat of the Diocese of Rome since the year 324 A.D., which is a good long time. Celebrating this feast reminded me of a very interesting workshop I attended at the Parliament of the World’s Religions a couple of weeks ago. The workshop was pretentiously titled “The Architecture of Faith: A Global Interreligious Pilgrimage from Hopewell Earthworks to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, in Twelve Architectural Steps.” Actually it was interesting and stimulating.
What it did for me was emphasize the difference between a temple and a church. A temple is a house for a god. Themples don’t need to be very big because god’s (especially if they are idols) don’t need much space. The temple is not for the congregation but for the god. Churches, on the other hand, are built to be gathering spaces. The word “church” has its etymological roots in an Aramaic word, quahal, which means a gathering. When Jesus in the Gospels says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church”, what Jesus is saying is that Peter is the rock on which Jesus is building His gathering. It is the gathering of the Christian community that is the church.
We have in Christian history some ambiguity about what we want the church to be, a temple or a gathering place? When I was little (admittedly a very long time ago) the church emphasized many aspect of a temple. The tabernacle was in the center at the front, just like an idol would be in a temple. As in many pagan temples there was a sacred space reserved only to the clergy that was defined by the altar rail. Except to do cleaning or decorating the laity (servers excepted) did not go on the other side of the rail. That was the holy side. I remember vividly being in Catholic grade school and one of the good sisters commenting wistfully that she – unlike the altar boys – would never go on the other side of the communion rail. That was the holy area where lay people did not go. The church was seen as “the house of God” and the proper disposition in church was quiet, subdued movements, no playing around or loud talk, a sense of reverence and respect. The idea was that you are in God’s house and you better behave.
Of course all of that changed when Vatican Council II occurred. The communion rails disappeared, laity (men and women) became lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, etc. The church building took on less of the aspect of temple and more of a gathering space for the church, that is, the congregation gathered. As we repeated incessantly at the end of VC II, “we are the church”.
Still, some hints of the church building as “the house of God” remain. Bishops in this country want the tabernacle front and center and to be the main focus of the building. In earliest Christian churches the tabernacle was in a side chapel, primarily for reservation of the Blessed Sacrament to take to the sick.
It might be an interesting exercise to examine your own thoughts and feelings. Do you look at the church building as “the living room of the church” as one liturgical writer phrased it? That is, the church (building) is the place where the church (the congregation) gathers. Or do you look upon the church (building) as the place were God dwells, a special and sacred place? In any case St. Paul is pretty clear that we are the dwelling place of God, the church: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” 1 Cor 13.