The Church Building: An Icon of Mary

By Br. Stephen J., MIC

When I was in college, I had a bronze-tinted resin statue of Our Lady of Grace. I thought this statue particularly enchanting because it held a secret. When Mary's down-stretched hands were pressed outward, they turned on cleverly concealed hinges, and Her heart opened outward to reveal a triptych engraved in the resin. On the right, Jesus raised His hands on either side of His Sacred Heart; on the left, the Sorrowful Mother bowed with her hands joined. In the center, they met in a carved Pieta, the Mother gazing outward with a piteous smile that revealed her deep sorrow.

The details that held my eye, however, were the delicately sculpted arches, towers, and flourishes that surrounded these figures. When opening the statue, I had almost the same sensation as when entering the high-ceilinged nave of an old church. Thus, although I knew the statue was that of Our Lady of Grace, I personally named it "Our Lady, Mother of the Church."

Recent Feast

On Feb. 11, 2018, Pope Francis decreed that the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be celebrated by the whole Church on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday, or Jun. 6 this year. The decree declared, "This celebration will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed, the Virgin who makes her offering to God."

This news, coming two years after my graduation from college, gave me deep and lasting joy, which is renewed every year at this time. And, every year, I remember again the bronze statue I once owned.

That statue expressed something I had come to know deeply about Mary's relation to the Church. Ever since I consecrated myself to Mary as a college sophomore, my experience of daily Mass was different. I was no longer going only to see Jesus; I was going to see His mother, too. I had already loved the Blessed Sacrament for many years, and my first desire on entering an unfamiliar church was to locate the tabernacle and make a silent act of adoration. After consecration, however, I grew interested in the whole church building. The whole church was holy, and I reveled in the various architectural settings of the Pearl of Great Price, locked away in the place of honor. That tabernacle had once represented a hidden sanctuary upon which I gazed greedily, longing to enter into His rest. After consecration, the whole church became the sanctuary, in which I could wander at will without ceasing to rest in Him.

True Son of the Church

So, it would be an understatement to say that my devotion to the Church grew when I consecrated myself to Mary. Now, more than ever, I felt myself to be a true son of the Church, devoted completely to that mother of mine who was also the Mother of God. This united me more closely, not less, with Jesus her Son. I was no longer a spectator. I was part of the family.

Whenever I entered a Catholic church, I was going to visit Jesus, but not only Jesus: I was entering the home of His mother. In a deeper sense, I was entering the Immaculate Heart of his mother, where Jesus Himself greeted me Each time we approach the Eucharistic Lord in the state of grace, especially in the Mass, we can be formed more closely into His likeness, and then "born again" as we re-enter the world from this place of rest and nurturing.

Each Catholic church is an icon of Our Lady, of her who both held and brought forth the Only-Begotten Son of God. The architecture of each church, then, should reflect this mystery of the Mystical Body, the mystery of the Son and His Blessed Mother. This art and architecture must be beautiful, intended to draw, not repel, the viewer. Sacred art is intended to tell a story, to reveal a meaning, underneath the web of interconnected experiences we call life.

Reflection of Heaven

The beauty of a church, particularly of its interior decorations, should mirror the beauties of Heaven where God dwells and of the earth which He created. Its center should be the redemptive act of Christ, represented by the crucifix, the altar, and everything necessary for the sacred liturgy. For, as the Preface for Holy Thursday says, "Whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished." The effect of this redemption, that is, holiness, should also be represented in the church. In the unity of the Mystical Body, we have communion with the saints even in this life, and so it is right to commemorate them in art. Images of human figures like Christ and the saints are particularly appropriate for the church, for they show all three of these great works of God's mercy: creation, redemption, and sanctification.

Since each Catholic church is an icon of Mary, herself a model disciple of Christ, the elements of the church itself can represent the right ordering of the souls of Christians. Our Founder, St. Stanislaus Papczynski, wrote a treatise on The Mystical Temple of God, in which he compares the parts of the human soul to those of a church. Thus he imagines the eyes as windows and the ears as doors, the virtues as ornaments and the emotions as the choir, the heart as the altar and Love as the priest, and on and on. No less than 24 chapters are needed to describe the distinct glories of the mystical temple that is the human person, body and soul.

Mystical temple

And who fulfills most perfectly the calling of every human soul to become a mystical temple of God? Who more than the Mother of God? She who bore Him in her womb, who raised Him, who stood by His side even to the Cross, can surely show us the way. He Himself gave her to us from that Cross, when He said to her about the Apostle John, "Behold thy son," and to that Beloved Disciple, "Behold thy mother" (Jn 19:26-27). Ascending into Heaven, Jesus left Mary on earth to guide the disciples in prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit during that fearful nine-day novena before Pentecost. He assumed her into Heaven body and soul, as we hope to follow one day when we receive our bodies back in a glorified state. And He crowned her Queen of Heaven, but also Queen of earth.

My recommendation for the best way to celebrate this day is very short: Begin your 33-day preparation to consecrate yourself to Mary, or renew that consecration with some special act of devotion. Give yourself wholly to the Mother of the Church, and then see how your eyes are transformed in beholding that Church even on earth.


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