Jesus Christ as priest, painting by unknown artist in the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista. (iStock, Getty Images Plus)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Writer’s Note: This is second in a series of a presentation to offer parishioners a deeper understanding of how sacred architecture relates to liturgical theology.

The second and fourth talks in the series led by Chris Janssens at St. Joseph, Rice Lake, focused on the church building proper. Showing another video available at, “The Church Building,” the meaning of the structure of a church was explored.

Speaker Fr. Douglas Martis in the “Elements of the Catholic Mass” series asserted that Catholicism, as a sacramental religion, points to deeper realities through the expression of perceptible signs and offers a unique way of looking at the world. Where some see bread, faith tells us through the words of consecration God turns that bread into the Body of Christ, and the consecrated wine is his blood.

“The church itself is a sacramental sign,” Fr. Martis said. “A place where God encounters his people. A place where prayer happens and is a sign of the Body of Christ and the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Janssen offered how this confirms the church building is not, by any means, a neutral space; it is not merely an externalized setting for liturgical action.
The fourth session presented a lecture given by architect and University of Notre Dame professor Duncan Stroik on the five principles of sacred architecture. Stroik has worked on numerous prominent Catholic churches, including the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse.

Stroik acknowledged the visionary work of bishops, priests and lay people in the last 30 years has begun to counteract the loss of “a sense of the sacred,” as even Pope St. John Paul II recognized and spoke of, from the period after World War II through the 1980s.

Verticality is the first principle, “to foster a sense of awe and to point our eyes heavenward,” Stroik said. This quality includes mathematical proportions that are not always the most cost-effective but offer a sense of uplifting beyond physical sight.

Verticality can be accomplished not only with height internally, but through exterior steeples and bell towers. He added that, where structure cannot be changed, color and artwork on the ceiling and upper portions of walls, as well as elements of height over the altar, can “add that sense of transcendence,” especially when they allude to the sky and gazing upward to God.

Second, directionality implies that sense of journey and procession as pilgrims, parallel to the Israelites journeying to the Promised Land and Christ’s journey to Calvary. “Historically we’ve used the church building,” Stroik said, “to express that whole journey in one building for us pilgrims.”

This principle is articulated in long central and side aisles and with elements that suggest episodes of a journey or a sense of movement in stages toward the altar.

“If transcendence is emphasized by vertical elements, then directionality will be emphasized by horizontal elements – the floor, the ceiling, the cornice,” he described, “which helps point you in a direction, toward the altar… as well as back out into the world.”

The third principle is geometry, with the purpose of creating order. Stroik explained it as “one of the ways architects have made the rational order of God’s creation known,” based on measure and number. The goal, he said, is “to create a whole body. A church that is proportional, harmonious and beautiful; just like the Body of Christ, his Bride the Church.” Squares and rectangles are employed to determine forms and proportions, often repeated; octagons, ovals and circles are used to give punctuation.

Fourth, tectonics deals with the actual construction principles used and give what Stroik called, “the poetics of architecture … in use for thousands of years, until the 20th century. … We want a church that both looks like it will stand for a thousand years, and then do so,” the architect stated, as religious structures should last, both figuratively and literally.

He explained that tectonics also includes reinforcing verticality and directionality through use of buttresses, moldings, arches, tablatures, etc., to integrate horizontal and vertical thrusts, both structurally and visually showing the logic and poetics of building techniques.

Lastly, iconography is the fifth element, the imaging of invisible realities. “If sacred architecture is meant to aid in transmitting the faith three-dimensionally,” Stroik said, “then iconography is one of its most important principles and that most apparent to laity.

“The average person may be more moved by stained glass, by statues, by high altar pieces, crucifix, symbols and inscriptions” than the other elements. The visualization of faith communicates in a more conscious way than the other four. As examples, Stroik noted inscriptions that can be read, images that speak to human reality with the highest being those of saints, model holy men and women and, “culminating in the Incarnation of Christ, who shared in our humanity and invites us to share in his divinity.”

Stroik concluded that all five elements are necessary, and “for a great church, do all five excellently.”


The fifth and final session of the series started with insights of Msgr. James Shea, from the University of Mary in North Dakota, on “Apostolic” versus “Christendom” modes of engagement. The short video summarized the shift in recent decades from an era where Christianity informed and influenced society’s general narrative and institutions to one like the early centuries of Christianity. That era, as the apostles were spreading the Gospel and establishing Christian communities their ways of being and behaving acted as leaven in a society that was, at times, hostile to them and their message.

Continuing “to operate with a Christendom mentality is a disastrous strategic mistake during an apostolic time,” the video stated. Methods that worked for generations now often fail, making it crucial to change how the work of evangelization is carried out.

“How can we make this shift?” the presentation challenged and was followed up by a brief clip of Bishop Robert Barron sharing his own experience of beauty as a tool for evangelization, especially in the current situation, where the transcendentals of truth and goodness are increasingly points of contention.

Bishop Barron spoke of art you can see – churches, paintings, stained glass windows – and hear, like Gregorian chant. Beauty, he said, has a transformative impact, one that can be difficult to put into words but is often deeper and more powerful than intellectual understanding. The objectively beautiful can stop us in our tracks, he said, work its way into our souls and reorder us.

“When it comes to assenting to the faith,” Bishop Barron said, “arguments (intellectual teaching) have something to do with it, but it’s much more than that … Take the beautiful seriously in the work of evangelization.”

Janssen reflected on the entire process as an effort to gather together and unify as parish community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit before beginning the task of discernment regarding restorations and improvements to their churches.

“We noticed the potential for discord,” he said, “and wanted to begin the process in adoration specifically asking Jesus to be the center of our discussion … Secondly, we wanted a communal process of education and formation that we all experienced together so as to form a baseline for discussions and decisions in the future.

“In the end, our preferences do matter but they all tend to be different, especially with emotional topics such as our worship spaces. We need something to draw us together, to unify us.”

He concluded that was the goal of the series, and believes that it was met having “come closer together in this process and provided something that we can all make decisions from.”

Sacred Architecture correction

Correction: Please note that the five-part Sacred Architecture series offered by Chris Janssen for the Rice Lake cluster of parish took place between March and May of 2023, not in 2022 as was reported.