Intellege ut credas; crede ut intellegas (In order to believe you must understand. In order to understand you must believe.) —St. Augustine
A priest once told me that the best place to teach students the faith is in a church. For it is in a church that they can see a physical expression of Christianity, of the sacraments, and Christ present in the Eucharist. For many, the Mass, Eucharistic adoration, confession, and devotions such as the Stations of the Cross are rightly seen as an integral part of a Catholic education. Having a school next to a parish church makes this a natural. But move the school to another location and it becomes much more difficult to form the children in the Church.
Judging by developments during the last few decades, the Catholic high school seems to be another matter. Often fed by a number of parochial schools, it is placed in a neutral location on a piece of property large enough for athletic fields and parking. Since it is not near a parish church, daily liturgy, if it exists, takes place in a converted classroom and once a month in the gym. Under this scenario, a wooden table, a cross, and a podium set on risers have to compete with athletic banners and the paraphernalia of school spirit. Unfortunately, the sets for the spring musical often have more style than the setting for the all-school liturgy. But what can we do? Building a chapel large enough for the whole school is out of the question; it is just too expensive. And if we had a chapel, would not its location preclude the construction of the auditorium, the second gym, and game day parking?
Yet it wasn’t always so. In many American cities and towns Catholic high schools were sited within walking distance of parish churches. I think of West Catholic High school in Philadelphia where my father went to school. Both all-school masses and important academic para-liturgical functions were held in a nearby parish church. At other prep schools run by religious orders, the gym may have been rudimentary but the chapel was almost always large and glorious. I think of the “chapels” of Gonzaga in DC, St. Ignatius in Chicago, and St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia with their majestic façades, towers, and transcendent interiors which were as large as parish churches. Why shouldn’t our new high schools have the same?
What about those secondary schools that have no chapel? They should invest in the faith not only by hiring top Catholic faculty, but also by hiring talented architects to design a worthy sanctuary. A movable and raised platform with stairs to set it apart, a rail, a beautiful altar and ambo with carved wood or faux-marbling, an altarpiece or crucifix behind, and a tabernacle. Most importantly, this movable sanctuary should be formed like a proper apse, with walls and even a ceiling. This could all be built out of lightweight but strong material, or possibly done with fabric, while the flooring should be wood or marble tile. A movable baldacchino or tester would be especially helpful to focus on the altar within such a large room. The goal should be to create a sense of the sacred within the gym or auditorium, and to assist teenage hearts and minds to ascend toward the heavens.
If we are serious about Catholic education then why let our high-schoolers take a four year vacation from chapel? Providing a worthy place of prayer in our secondary schools demonstrates the importance we place on faith and the sacraments. One way to assist in Pope John Paul II’s call for an integration of faith and reason is to construct a sacred place within our schools. Of course, this may mean reorienting our building priorities and our budgets. Beautiful chapels are an expensive investment to make in the lives of our children. However, if we are concerned at all about the future of the Church, can we really afford not to make it?
This editorial first appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Sacred Architecture and is reprinted with permission of the author. (Photo credit: Church of the Gesu, serving Saint Joseph Preparatory School, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Michael L. Dorn.)