Have you been to one of those churches that is tidy and fine and in good repair, but the architectural style is . . . ongepotchket? A little of this and a little of that, and it all adds up to much too much.
Church buildings like this have clearly gone through countless renovations. Some parts are neoclassical, some are vaguely nautical. The light fixtures are from the 80s; the stations of the cross from the 50s, and the tabernacle is from who knows when. When was it okay to put those particular colors and textures together, and when was that shape ever anything but grotesque? And that’s where we keep Jesus.
It’s not just church buildings, but the Catholic Church itself that is this way. It has undergone more renovations that we can imagine. What we think of as Catholicism is not a coherent, uniform, elegant whole carefully curated by the Holy Spirit, but a sort of yard sale arrangement patched together out of whatever is made available to us in our era, in our region, in our budget, in our tradition.
That goes not only for architecture and decor, but also for styles of worship, for what we emphasize in how we incorporate our faith into our life, and for which virtues and which sins we emphasize, and for how we think about God.
The indispensable core of what unifies us as Catholics is smaller and more basic than we may realize, and so much of what feels normal and even central is actually just cultural, and may very well someday be renovated away.
Does this thought cause some discomfort? It should. The Church is not just about us or our times, and never was meant to be. Even the things that appeal to us and nourish us and give us comfort and support are not as central as we might imagine.
But wait, it gets worse! For some Catholics, living the faith is like coming into their old familiar ongepotchket, hodgepodge, yard sale church building, and one day they spot not only some aesthetic incoherence, but an actual crack in the wall.
And suddenly, they can’t shake the idea that the crack isn’t just a crack, but a portent. That everything they see around them, the things that appeal to them and the things that don’t, are an edifice built over a sinkhole. They feel they must tread carefully or the whole thing will cave in. That the cracks are structural; that there’s a yawning abyss under our feet.
Sometimes that emptiness seems like the only real thing, and every part of the church that has been built over it looks like it’s moments away from tumbling down into gehenna.