Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Inviting the wanderer in

The wanderer of this post's title is me. I'm thinking back to the time when I was tentatively making my way back to the Catholic Church after being away for so long (almost thirty years).

When I first walked into St. Thomas Aquinas church in Palo Alto back around 2000, the interior said to me, "You're home."

Now, the interior of this 1901 gothic revival building was superficially not much like the interior of the 1920's-era California mission-style parish church where I had grown up. But the visual continuity of representational stained glass, the statues of Mary and Joseph, the dignity and grace of the altar and detail work, the centrality of the gilded tabernacle, all said: "This is a Catholic church, and could be nothing else."

And I was vaguely aware that the noon Mass featured Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, and though I had grown up without those things, I knew they were unmistakably part of the Catholic tradition that I once again wanted to be a part of. So, when I heard the first strains of that music on that first Sunday, I once again heard, "This is where you meant to come. You're home."

The point here is that I, like most people, respond to visual and aural clues to tell where we are. That response is almost instinctive. I don't know all of what's at work in this, but it's true.

So my theme here is: if you want people to come into the Catholic Church, make parish churches look like what they expect a Catholic church to look like, so they don't spend the first twenty minutes wondering if they've blundered into a Buddhist temple or a Self-Realization Fellowship meeting hall.

Here's one of the few times we can take a lesson from Hollywood. The cost of making TV and movies requires that the viewer "get" the environment quickly and clearly. So, when you see a Catholic church in a movie, the filmmaker chooses imagery that "says" Catholic to most people. So what do you see? Do you see one of those stripped-bare tributes to Modernism (capital M) that we're always being told we must build? No. You see traditional architecture -- gothic or romanesque. You see representational stained glass, not some abstract smear of color you could as likely see in any airport. You see statues. You see a decorated altar. You see the crucifix. You see the tabernacle. You see the racks of devotional candles.

Hollywood knows how to communicate. And so should we Catholics.

The sight and sounds of St. Thomas Aquinas told me I was home, although it wasn't exactly like the church I'd grown up in. Those visual and aural clues were indescribably important in getting me to keep on coming back, so that I could start re-aligning my life to the teachings of the Church.

So I say: three cheers for Catholic churches that look like Catholic churches -- and for the people who were wise enough to keep them that way, or put them back that way, despite the foolish times we are now just emerging from.