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Thinking Outside the Box: The Church Around Us

June 23, 2014

Recently, we’ve spoken to two pastors who praised the round architecture of their churches: Fr. Patrick Mullen in Camarillo, CA and Msgr. Pablo Navarro in Miami, FL. For both pastors, parishioners’ ability to make eye contact with one another was not only a symbol of church community—but a conduit to it. As Fr. Mullen noted, the people notice one another when the center of attention isn’t the priest down at the far end. Each Sunday, Fr. Mullen said, “Someone will bring me someone they saw, they notice—those are visitors from Nebraska. And I’ll say, ‘Are these friends of yours?’ ‘No, we were just sitting next to each other.’ Or, they’ll see someone crying and they’ll say, ‘Father, you’ve got to talk to this person.’” Msgr. Navarro had similar observations, saying, “Because it is in the round, you have [a] real face-to-face view with the parishioners, even those who are on the second floor in the back.” For both pastors, the effect of all this eye contact is simple: it enhances, for the parishioner, the sense of the “we” in the body of Christ. The space proclaims “you are the Church”—as much as the Vatican or the Chancery Office or the Cathedral is the Church. Fr. Mullen says, “The very architecture [of the church] says that we are in this together.”

More than seeing each other, Mullen says, the parishioners are all acutely aware of the altar, which has its place at the center of the round. In a typical church, the eyes are drawn toward a far end, with a bunch of “backs of heads” between them and the altar. In the round, the altar is right before them, and it becomes the literal center of the church, from which all the parishioners radiate like spokes of a wheel.

Of course, not all churches can seat their parishioners in the round. Indeed, though the architectural style is increasingly prevalent, some pastors remain stalwart advocates of the cruciform architectural style and the theology that gave rise to it. For those churches, reaching those same ends also requires thinking outside the box. For Fr. Dan Schlegel of Church of the Holy Angels in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, each week’s homily is crafted to connect parishioners to one another—to give them glimpses into each other’s despair and also a share in one another’s joy. “The people in the pew don’t have the experience [of being with people in the most important moments of their lives], so my job is to be the ‘extension cord’,” says Fr. Schlegel. “My job is, through the preaching act, to help people understand where other people in the congregation are.” Whether through cross-sanctuary eye contact, the homily, or other means, the kinship formed among believers is clearly a meaningful part of the Christian life for these pastors.

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