[Saint] Peter teaches us to look to the poor through the eyes of faith and to give them that which is most precious: the power of the name of Jesus. This is what he did with the paralytic; he gave him what he had, which was Jesus. ∼ Pope Francis, Angelus June 29, 2014, Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
We all know that the poor need food and clothing, decent education and good jobs. But what about their spiritual and cultural needs? Can a church building serve the poor spiritually through the material? It is an expensive proposition, but I would suggest the answer is yes. Which leads us to the question, how to design a church for the poor?
First, consider what a church for the poor is not: it is not a church for ascetic monks, who take a vow of poverty, spend their days in prayer, and prefer the simple beauty of the cloister to the richness and chaos of the world. On the contrary, a church for the poor should be seen as a place for full-blooded laypeople who need to be drawn into the building through material and tactile means. It is a respite from the world that offers a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem to those living in Nineveh.
A church for the poor does not have paintings of abstract or ugly figures but is full of beautiful images of holy men and women who overcame their sinfulness to draw close to God. Even more important, a church for the poor shows the poor their mother who comforts and their God who forgives. A church for the poor is full of signs, symbols, and sacraments: outward signs of inward grace. It cannot be a place where the sacrament of salvation is hidden away, for it should be raised up like Christ on the cross offering his body for our healing.
A house for the poor should not be a modernist structure inspired by the machine, for the poor are surrounded and even enslaved by the machine and the technological. It is rather a building inspired by the human body, the New Adam, and the richness of his creation. Those whose lives may touch on angst and suffering do not need a contorted building exhibiting disharmony and atonality. Instead they need an architecture of healing, which through proportions, materials and spiritual light brings joy to the heart. A church that is welcoming to those in the state of poverty should not be a theatre church where the visitor is forced to be on stage. Their dignity is respected by allowing them to sit where they want, even if that means in the back or in a side chapel. The lighting cannot be so bright that one’s deficiencies are revealed to others; there should be a place for prayerful shadow.
A church for the poor is not hidden away in the suburbs or on a highway where it may never be seen and is difficult to get to. It should be placed where the poor are—near the poor villages or the destitute city neighborhoods and in prominent places like downtowns or city parks where the poor sometimes travel. A church for the poor does not close its school just because it is under-enrolled or in financial difficulty. Caritas understands that service to those in need is not optional, nor is it meant to be cheap and easy. In the same way, dioceses should seek creative ways for inner city parishes to remain open even when finances would argue otherwise. One thinks of Our Lady of the Angels and its school, located in a tough Chicago neighborhood reopened by Cardinal George and Franciscan Bob Lombardo after being closed for fifteen years.
A church for the poor should not look impoverished. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money are always welcome to enter. The poor may not often visit the art museum, the symphony hall, or the stately hotel. However, a worthy church can give the poor the experience of art, fine music, and nobility that the rich and middle class are happy to pay for. And in this way the Church acknowledges that high culture should be even for those who have nothing. Bishop Suger probably had it right when he rebuilt Saint Denis and invested in beautiful vessels, altars, and statues to draw the gaze of the common folk towards the mysteries of the faith.
A church for the poor is not only for the poor, it is for all—both rich and poor, proud and humble. Are there iconographical elements that might draw the needy and inspire others to give? Perhaps images of poverty in the lives of holy saints such as Francis, Dominic, Mother Teresa, and many others. Along with these, a church for the poor should have murals, stained glass, and side altars portraying the centrality of poverty in the life of Christ: The king is born in a stable, and his family must immigrate to a foreign land to survive. He displays compassion for the poor, the leper, the widow, and the mother. He raises the dead. He lives as a mendicant, reliant on the generosity of others for food and lodging (from both priests and tax collectors). He introduces many parables—like the widow’s mite or the prodigal son—that speak powerfully to all those in hunger and poverty.
But can the poor or the uneducated understand these images or appreciate beauty? When the poor see beauty they see God. Why? Because “beauty” is God’s middle name.
What building can better point the poor towards Christ than a church: a house of God that welcomes them, embraces them, and lifts them up.
Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in Aleteia September 15, 2014 and the current issue of Sacred Architecture (vol. 26) and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary” painted by Edmund Blair Leighton.