by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
One of the great joys of the ministry of bishop is to preside at the dedication of a church.
This past weekend, I dedicated a new church for Holy Family Parish in Eudora. It had been the aspiration of the Eudora Catholic community to build a new church for many years. The former church building was simply not adequate to meet the needs of the growing Catholic community in that portion of the archdiocese. I congratulate Father Pat Riley for his leadership and the hard work and generosity of all the parishioners in making the dream of a new church now a reality.
Recently, I also had the opportunity to dedicate the renovated Holy Cross Church in Overland Park. The parish for many years had been worshiping in a space that had not been intended to be the permanent church. Parishioners made significant sacrifices to fund a major renovation that will serve the parish of Holy Cross for many, many years.
Sometimes, the question is posed: Why invest money in building beautiful churches? Would it not be better to take the money raised for a building to serve the poor? This is a fair and legitimate question.
Buildings represent the priorities of a community. I am always struck by the magnificent churches in our rural areas. These beautiful buildings are a visual testimony that God was first in the hearts of those who constructed them.
Today, in most of our urban areas the most prominent buildings are office towers, athletic stadiums, theaters and shopping malls. In many ways, they do represent the priorities of 21st-century America.
Catholic churches have a different meaning and significance than churches for Protestant Christians. For Catholics, our churches are not just places where we gather to pray or enjoy fellowship with fellow believers. We believe that the Son of God makes himself physically present to us in the Eucharist and remains in our churches through the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our tabernacles.
There is nothing that we can build worthy of God. The most magnificent cathedral is a completely inadequate space for the God who created the entire universe. We do not build beautiful churches because we are under the illusion that we can fashion something worthy of God.
Our churches are simply manifestations of our efforts to give God our best. They are visual, concrete acknowledgments that everything we have, even life itself, is his gift. Recall the biblical story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Abel sought to sacrifice to God the best as an expression of his gratitude, while Cain evidently chose to offer God something less.
Our churches are also expressions of our own self-understanding. We believe that each one of us through the waters of baptism became a living temple of God. We carry the very life of God within us. In this sense, each one of us is a cathedral, a church and a tabernacle where God himself resides.
Every time we walk into a Catholic church, we are both reminded of our baptism and challenged to live in a manner consistent with our dignity as beloved daughters and sons of God. Just as we would never vandalize or desecrate a church building, so must we have the same commitment never to do anything that is unworthy of our dignity as temples of the living God.
Finally, our churches remind us of the dignity of every other human being. We must treat our fellow baptized Christians with the same reverence and respect we have for church buildings, because we know they carry the life of God within them. For those who are not baptized, we know God desires for them also to become his living temples. Thus, we need to show them the love and respect due to one fashioned in the divine image and for whom Jesus shed his blood on Calvary.
The beauty of our churches serves as a continual reminder of our own innate worth and a constant challenge to spend our lives helping others to discover and appreciate their dignity. Pope Francis has reminded us not to keep Jesus locked up in our churches. It is our duty to bring the Jesus we encounter in our churches to the entire world.
This past Sunday, in preparation for the jubilee Year of Mercy, every Catholic in northeast Kansas was invited to make a commitment to live in a more intentional way one or more of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy are derived from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned, we are actually doing this for him. If we love Jesus, then we manifest this by treating others with the same care we would give to Our Lord.
The spiritual works of mercy actually occur on a regular basis in our churches, where we receive instruction in the truths of our faith, counseling for our doubts, the invitation to recognize honestly our sinfulness, opportunities to experience his mercy, the strength to bear wrongs patiently, the power to forgive those who have hurt us and the chance to pray for both the living and the dead
In the Rite for the Dedication of a Church, it says clearly that our church buildings are not to be costly displays that feed our pride. At the same time, our churches are intended to have a noble beauty that elevates our hearts to God and inspires us to ponder our own dignity and destiny.
Beautiful churches do not take away resources from the poor. They are sacred spaces where we receive the motivation that empowers us to sacrifice heroically and generously to care for every other human being with the same tenderness and respect that we desire to give to Jesus Christ, the son of the living God.