The Featured Image is the newly restored sanctuary (part of the restoration project) at the Church of St. James, the parish of Father Richard Kunst, in Duluth, MN.
Papal Artifacts takes this opportunity to feature this incredible transformation of St. James, the gift of many donors and the vision of their pastor, without whom it wouldn’t have occurred.
Beautiful Churches Draw People to God. Thank you, Father Richard Kunst!
May we all worship in churches that, by their sheer beauty, bring us to a greater imitation of Christ, who fed the poor while preaching to them.
Every pastor who begins a building project in his parish or school, whether it is an addition, remodeling or an entirely new building, will inevitably be faced with questions that sound like this: “Why are we spending so much money on a building? Shouldn’t we be giving this to the poor?”
I can vouch for this in my own experience, first, while building an addition at St. Benedict’s Church in Duluth, then in the beginning stages of renovating the sanctuary of St. John, and now, here at St. James. In each instance, I have been confronted with this concern from very well intentioned people.
There is obviously nothing wrong with the question; it is an appropriate concern. What I am going to explain is why it is completely appropriate to spend even large amounts of money on places of worship.
I am going to go out on a limb here and possibly offend some readers when I say that I don’t like new churches. In fact, I don’t think I have seen a Catholic church built in the past sixty years that I would call beautiful. The reason is that we don’t put the time, energy, love and money into building our churches that our great-grandparents and the people before them did. Most—not all, but most—churches these days are fairly plain and bland.
You want to see a church? Go to Rome. Now those are churches. I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to visit Rome on several occasions. You cannot walk into churches like St. Peter’s Basilica and Santa Maria sopra Minerva without having an overwhelming desire to pray. Visiting these churches and churches like them make you feel the need to pray because of sheer awe.
I am not endorsing Reaganomics, but the whole trickle down effect is at work here. If I go to Mass at a church, or even visit a church that is so awe-inspiring and it moves me to pray, then the question needs to be asked: What are the effects of such prayer? A greater desire to follow and imitate Christ means, in part, helping those less fortunate than myself. In my humble opinion, beautiful churches eventually move people to live better Christian lives.
Church history is rife with examples of very poor people (by today’s standards) building beautiful churches. This is because the church was their life. It was among the top priorities for people in past generations, so they put their time, energy and money toward beautifying God’s house. (Oh, the good old days!) And in doing so, they were being scriptural.
In the Second Book of Samuel we read that God ordered the Jews to build a magnificent temple. Remember the poor widow who put her pennies in the temple treasury? That was for the upkeep of the temple, and Jesus praised such behavior. In fact, Jesus himself paid the temple tax for the very same purpose.
Our Orthodox brothers and sisters do an even better job at bringing the sense of God into their art and their buildings. If you have ever been inside an Orthodox Church, certainly the first thing you noticed is all the icons. Some of their churches are so beautiful that you have to pinch yourself to know that what you are seeing is real. And if you sit in the pew long enough, you will see an Orthodox faithful come in and kiss one or many of the icons. The kiss is important because the artist who wrote the icon prayed to the saint or Mary or Christ or whoever the subject was the entire time they were doing the writing. (“Writing,” by the way, is what the painting of icons is called.) A beautiful belief of the Orthodox faith is that because of the constant praying of the writer to the saint represented, the saint is actually in some way present in the icon, so they kiss their icons. Talk about making their church beautiful and holy. Of course, all of this costs money, lots of money.
St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, was the pastor of a very poor church in the town of Ars, France. Vianney would eat only four potatoes a week so that he could live simply to give all he had to the poor, but he would not spare a dime in buying the most beautiful statues and linens for his poor little church. He, too, was questioned about this, and he said that God deserves the very best.
All of this being said, there is no institution in the history of the world that has helped more people than has the Catholic Church. In no way would the church say that we can neglect those in need at the expense of church buildings. There have been several papal documents and encyclicals on the subject of social justice and the responsibility we as Christians have toward those who are less fortunate than we are.
The discussion over building beautiful churches and feeding the poor is not an either/or debate, but rather a both/and action. May we all worship in churches that, by their sheer beauty, bring us to a greater imitation of Christ who fed the poor while preaching to them.
The New Stain Glass Windows at the Church of St. James, Duluth, MN
Fr. Rich’s Ramblings
Part of His Message to His Parishioners Upon Completion of the Restoration
This is the part of the project I have been most anticipating, not only because we are restoring St. James as it was built with windows in the sanctuary, but also because at least three of the four windows are personal to me.
Pope John Paul the Great of course is my favorite saint, but I purposefully had him portrayed the way you see the window, because the vestment he is wearing is what he wore for the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Denver 1993. Our former bishop, Bp. Schnurr, was the executive director of the 1993 World Youth Day, and as a gift of appreciation for his work, John Paul II gave him the vestment after the Mass.
Fast forward to 2004. Bp. Schnurr gifted the vestment to me and my collection of papal memorabilia, so the vestment you see the pope wearing in the window, I now own. (There is a whole back story about my getting this vestment, which I may share at a later time).
Mother Teresa of course is a beloved saint to people of all faiths. In 1995 I quit the seminary to seek a career in politics, so I wrote Mother Teresa asking for her prayers and guidance as I discerned my vocation in life. Amazingly Mother Teresa took time out of her busy schedule to respond to me. Her letter, typed with a manual typewriter on both sides of a half sheet of paper, was very inspirational, so I lifted one line from this personal letter and made that the quote under her image.
St. Gianna Molla was not my first choice, nor even my second choice for the window, but she was the right choice. St. Gianna was a young medical doctor in Italy when she was diagnosed with cancer. She was advised by her doctors to abort her unborn baby, so that she could have aggressive treatment to save her life. She adamantly told her doctors, “No.”
She said the baby’s life was as important as hers, and that if one life was to be saved it was her unborn baby’s life. St. Gianna died a week after giving birth to a daughter who shares her name. Because of this St. Gianna Molla has become the patron saint of the pro-life movement, and the baby she gave her life for also grew up to be a medical doctor like her mother. The younger Gianna Molla happens to be a friend of mine! She has been to Duluth to visit me and to speak at my last parish, and we keep in regular contact with one another. I have already sent her a picture of the window portraying her “Saint Mom” as she likes to call her.
Finally St. James the Less needed to be portrayed in our sanctuary, because he is our patron.
St. John Paul II
St. Mother Teresa
St. Gianna Molla
St. James the Less
Pray for us!