A recent study by a youth organization linked to England’s Anglican Church states that “church buildings are very influential in the conversion of youth to Christianity.” Analyzing this study, the Daily Telegraph of London quotes that “around 13 percent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral,” and that “the influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.” The Telegraph adds that “the study suggests that Church-employed methods such as youth groups, are less effective to attract teenagers than prayer or visit to a church.”
What attracts these English youth to churches and cathedrals, many of them jewels from the Middle Ages stolen from Catholic worship during the apostasy and schism of the lurid King Henry VIII?
The answer is that young people are attracted by the beauty of the architecture, the colorful stained glass windows, and the slender towers and domes that defy the ages. They seek out all that is missing in the new soulless and lifeless churches built according to the rules of so-called modern architecture.
Youth’s attraction to beauty gives rise to philosophical questions: what is beauty? Is it subjective or objective?
Since ancient times, philosophers, especially Aristotle, have studied beauty and tried to explain it adequately. Following in the footsteps of the Greek philosopher, Saint Thomas Aquinas masterfully addressed this issue.
He explains that ultimately, beauty is one of the most enchanting divine perfections that brings us back to the Creator and leads us to love Him.
In his Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas says that as images and likenesses of God, all created beings participate and reflect this divine beauty in some way.
However, our inquiry is limited to the effect of the beauty of Christian architecture produces on today’s youth.
We have to resort to earlier times since almost everything in the Church has suffered from a “modern” influence due to the Second Vatican Council’s “opening of the Church to the world.” From the liturgy to hardly sacred, secularized Church music to dreadful architecture, all aspects of religious life today have sacrificed beauty and succumbed to a dominating ugliness and bad taste associated with modernity.
Interest in the beauty of religious architecture among young people is surprising and universal.
The story of the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a noteworthy example. When increasing numbers of the university’s 25,000 students started to attend mass, the old chapel became so small that a new one had to be built.
The increased religiosity of the students was a welcome surprise. However, even more amazing was the involvement of the students in the design of the chapel. They presented many suggestions for embellishing the new chapel based on what they saw in traditional churches.
The Most Rev. James Conley, Bishop of Lincoln, responsible for the university chapel, welcomed the suggestions. He selected architects that favored a classical religious architecture revival. The prelate states:
“We think the style and the whole structure of St. Thomas Aquinas Church will communicate beauty, and beauty attracts…We believe that students will be drawn to that. They already have. There are always students in there.”
For his part, the chief architect Kevin Clark explained to Adoremus1 bulletin that ever since the chapel was built, “It is amazing to watch Catholics and non-Catholics participate in the physical beauty of the building. It’s part of their conversation, it’s an intrigue. There are quite a number of non-Catholics I bump into when I’m giving tours… They just want to be there, they just want to see it, and it has really become an element of the city’s fabric.”
“They would Google a picture,” said Clark recalling the design process, “and hold up the picture on their iPhones asking, ‘Can we have a communion rail that looks like this?’ ‘Can we have a dome?’ ‘Look at this bell tower!’ Everyone was sharing images. It was an amazing scene.”
One student-inspired feature of the new church that has drawn comments is the Communion rail separating the sanctuary from the chapel’s main body. The Communion rail is used at all Masses.
“Some of the students stand, but the vast majority kneel down to receive Holy Communion,” Father Robert Matya, the center’s pastor, said. “There’s something different when you kneel to receive our Lord than when you stand. We have students who come from all over, in state and out of state, but they all embrace that devotion…I haven’t had one student say, ‘Why are we doing this, Father?’ All the acts of devotion that were almost stripped away for a number of years—when you reintroduce the students to these same devotions, they fall in love with them.”
We can also cite a final example of attraction to the beauty of religious buildings. At the Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the new chapel of St. Paul was also built inspired by the beauty of traditional Catholic architecture.
One of those responsible for the Center explained that they chose to build a more traditional building because students were thirsty for beauty. They based their decision on a study that listed beauty as one of the most important reasons people come and stay in Catholicism. “The facility needs to be large, beautiful and visible enough for students to realize this. The students tell us that their friends do not understand that the gray concrete building next to the bookstore is a church. The project took elements of the Church’s architectural history that embody the beauty of our faith, but are also complementary to downtown Madison.”
These examples show that the myth that youth is only attracted to modern things is false. Beauty attracts all ages at all times and all places.
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