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If church means a building, something’s missing


The other reporter thought it was a sure shot: Give mush-hearted Batz the story about the people in the city losing their churches.

I passed.

Hardhearted, I announced that, in my opinion, these people should have done the sensible thing a long time ago and merged into one or two urban congregations.

At this our roles reversed completely, my cynical colleague quietly reminding me that these were the sacred buildings in which these people had been baptized, married, blessed and renewed weekly.

He doesn’t even go to church.

Me, maybe I go too often. I am heartily sick of hearing about the hole in the roof, the leak in the basement pipe, the need to restore the organ. These are necessary and costly repairs, but -- perhaps because parishioners like me are so reluctant to hear about them — the balance often tips. The hole takes precedence over the holy.

From what I’ve heard, the early church lived unhampered by possessions or habitations. They worshipped in each other’s homes or in whatever safe room was open to them. Their idea of “capital improvements” had more to do with living and spreading the good news.

This, no doubt, is an idealized view; they were probably paranoid, rootless and transient — paving the way for us, centuries later, to become complacent, root bound and moribund. Today, modifying a beloved church is worse than hammering theses to its door. Figuring out that you can’t afford to sustain a sprawling old church every 10 city blocks is as unsettling as converting to Zoroastrianism.

Surely the diocese could afford to infuse these city churches with operating funds, my friend pointed out, assuming the usual trove-in-the-catacombs. No doubt they could, I agreed — but at what cost? Surely there is more important work to do than fix vast roofs to shelter three stubborn souls.

Laudably stubborn souls, loyal to the end, he countered. They responded to the sacred symbols of those spaces, and they are fighting to preserve them. What if Europe had shrugged off history and art, and allowed its old cathedrals to disintegrate?

These aren’t cathedrals, I sighed. These are neighborhood churches, grand old brick remnants from a different time. I, too, would like to see the city filled with fat-walleted churchgoers again, and those old red bricks sandblasted into glory. I’d also like to see the old movie theatres and independent bookstores preserved, not to mention the art nouveau office buildings.

But if what is important about going to church is the building where you’ve always done it, then my grade school catechism about “church is not a building” was way off base.

Too often I’ve fought for things because I personally thought they had a value society was missing. I fought for obscure abstract art to receive public funding; I signed (twice, who’d count?) a petition to keep an expensive five-student graduate program in medieval history. Now, age is turning me into a supply-side cynic more interested in sustainability than preservation for its own sake.

There ought to be a certain ebb and flow to such things, I’ve decided, and the ebbs, especially, ought to be dictated by the needs of the times. How else can we figure out what we’re evolving toward?

So maybe people in love with one particular golden shard of history will have to specialize on their own, out of sheer love of their subject, instead of getting a tenure-track professorship to teach it. Maybe those of us who’d like to spend our time writing philosophical essays about human nature will have to get a day job. Maybe parishioners will have to forge a new sense of community in an unfamiliar church building with other city-dwellers in the same boat.

Maybe it will become an ark.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999