Austria Column: What happened to our churches?

Edyta Wolk


Edyta WolkAt the moment, I am writing this article from a kitchen table in an Airbnb in Florence, Italy, where some friends and I are spending our 10-day break.  

The biggest tourist attraction here in Florence in the Duomo. The construction of this enormous church began in the 1200s and was completed in the 1400s. If you don’t know what the Duomo is, pause right here, and look it up — the massive building is 89,000 square feet, and the intricate exterior is lined with hundreds of beautiful designs and sculptures. Pink and green marble make it colorful but elegant, and its famous dome can be seen from miles away. The church is utterly breathtaking, and standing there in front of its majesty is an awe-inspiring experience.  

And one of the main things that comes to mind when I look at this church is: Wow, they don’t make them like that anymore.  

Honestly, it’s astonishing. Austria students traveling around Europe always comment on how beautiful the churches here are, and they aren’t wrong. Obviously, there isn’t a Duomo in every town, but even small villages in Europe seem to have churches that can rival American cathedrals.  

In America, we are accustomed to plain, ugly churches. We are accustomed to small boxlike rooms with little to no decoration and impossible-to-find tabernacles. Most modern churches look like recreation centers with some funky-looking religious modern art in the middle.  

If people with far lessadvanced technology than ours could build something like the Duomo over 500 years ago, how can we possibly excuse the hideous churches we see today?  

It is only right for us to make our churches as beautiful as they can be. First of all, the church building should glorify God. Just as we use music or art to praise God, we should use the way we build our buildings as an act of praise as well. God deserves the absolute highest of praise; why would a Christian not want to elaborately adorn his very dwelling place?  

Second of all, beautiful buildings help the believers raise their minds to God. It is so much easier to contemplate on the grandeur of God in the Duomo than in any American church nowadays.  

Imagine this scenario: You walk into a church you’ve never been to for the first time. The sign says it’s Catholic, but judging by the lack of sacred art, the awkward layout and the apparent lack of a tabernacle, you are starting to wonder if it’s actually a Protestant church. So you sit there skeptically until Mass starts, praying of course, but still a little suspicious of the congregations allegiance. This has probably happened to all of us far too many times (if not, it has happened to me enough for all of us), and it is absolutely horrible.  

For the sake of the laity, a Catholic church should be immediately identifiable, and its defining characteristics should be beautiful and immediately inspire prayer and contemplation.  

If we really believe that in our churches lives Jesus Christ himself  Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity  we should be setting much higher standards for our places of worship. How have we gone from a community of the faithful that builds the Duomo to one that builds small white boxes? Why did the Catholics of the past put so much more emphasis on beauty than we do today?  

Our modern-day culture has destroyed our perception of beauty. In a society where everything has become relativistic, true beauty has taken a back seat to the individual’s idea of “art” as well as to comfort and utility. But God is eternal and unchanging. When the world around us changes, a church should always be the place we can go for refuge, for a taste of the never-changing beauty of the divine. 

So why can’t we have modern-day Duomos in America? We totally can! The question is, is it actually important to us?