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Los Angeles Cathedral

Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, where the earth is already shaky, there is a gaping hole in a five-acre parking lot. The hole is for a rectory, the rest of the parking lot for a new cathedral. In this quintessential postmodern, post-Christian city, it takes a leap of imagination bordering on a leap of faith to conjure up the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which will, with the help of God and a veritable host of others, throw open its immense bronze doors in late 2001.

Is a spectacular cathedral a harbinger of the new millennium or a relic from the old? Nowadays, those who can afford it are more accustomed to raising up monuments to art or commerce than to any other deity -- recent examples of both abound. Unsure of our identities vis-à-vis here and hereafter, wallowing in ambiguities of soul and body, we search the Web for a shrink, a season ticket, a quick fix for what ails us. There is something grand and expansive, not to mention holy, about the very concept of cathedral that seems to preclude it in these least heroic of times.

Yet the concept is in the air, thanks mainly to the L.A. archdiocese. The new cathedral raises questions.

And by a happy coincidence some answers are supplied by America’s oldest cathedral, subject of a new book, San Fernando Cathedral, just published by Orbis (123 pages, $16), which is provocatively subtitled “Soul of the City.” The city in question is San Antonio.

A splendid tradition

From primitive ziggurat to Empire State Building, from Tower of Babel to Roman basilica, we humans have seldom settled for a mere roof over our heads. We aspired to make a statement. This is especially true of sacred architecture. Our churches are wonders of the world and evidence of our immense and persistent spiritual yearnings. Christianity started by borrowing from pagan predecessors -- we were always great borrowers. We graduated from Romanesque to Carolingian, Byzantine and other phases. But when cathedrals are mentioned it is usually Gothic that comes to mind.

There were many quite ordinary reasons for the Gothic explosion, which began in the 11th century. There was a new prosperity and stability after centuries of confusion and depredation wrought by so-called barbarians and other social forces. There was new education and enlightenment as schools were founded and opened up to wider constituencies. People returned from pilgrimages and crusades with novel ideas. In other words, culture was working as it usually does.

But something else was new back there: the millennium. Our current Y2K apprehensions are trivial compared with the fear that spread throughout Christian Europe as the year 1000 approached, especially the fear that the end was at hand. When the fateful deadline came and went, however, people dusted themselves off, mustered hope for a brighter future than they had recently dared to think about. One expression of this hope was cathedrals.

“There occurred, throughout the world,” a monk of the day, Raoul Glaber explained, “a rebuilding of church basilicas. ... Each Christian people strove against the others to erect nobler ones. It was as if the whole earth, having cast off the old ... were clothing itself everywhere in the white robe of the church.”

The airy Gothic architecture, its arches, flying buttresses and every element stretching heavenward, bespoke the faith and feel of transcendence in the air. The famous innovator Abbot Suger wrote of kings and princes contributing their jewelry and other wealth. Less benevolent crowned heads forced Europe’s poor to pay up.

There was another, more pragmatic side to the Gothic cathedral. In medieval towns, in the days before city halls or comparable civic or commercial institutions, the cathedral provided for many social needs of the citizens, including protection. The cathedral of Amiens, for example, at 84,000 square feet, could house the town’s entire population of under 10,000. Writes Ann Mitchell in Cathedrals of Europe (Hamlyn Publishing, 1968): “The sense of a community expressed itself in the many facilities offered by a cathedral. Guild business, the conferring of degrees, even buying and selling, all might take place in the nave, the preserve of the lay community. At Chartres, labor was hired in the transepts, and the crypt was always open for the shelter of pilgrims and the sick.”

These developments embodied St. Augustine’s vision of the church as the City of God as depicted in the Apocalypse: “And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven adorned as a bride for her husband,” exalted imagery giving license to go to great lengths to honor God in art and architecture.

The cathedrals grew bigger and grander. The frenzy reflected less the needs of the people than the intense fervor. The mythology has been fueled by historians and artists. No one better evokes the romance of those times and strivings than Paul Claudel in whose play, “The Tidings Brought to Mary,” a pivotal character is Pierre de Craon, a master builder of cathedrals. The drama does not so much describe as insinuate the exalted nature of his enterprise: “Many things have I already done. Other things remain for me to do, the bringing to life of churches. They are shadows of God. Not the hours of the office in a book, but the real hours with a cathedral whose sun in its course makes light and shadow on all the parts.”

The case of Los Angeles

All that was then. But this is Los Angeles, near where the Harbor Freeway meets the Hollywood and the Santa Monica is just down the road. The world has turned nearly a thousand years.

Cardinal Roger Mahony drives across the old downtown parking lot in a sturdy utility vehicle. On a Saturday morning the frenzy of both city and building site has quieted. Mahony, who was born in nearby Hollywood, returned to L.A. from upstate Stockton in 1985. He is archbishop of perhaps the biggest see in the world in perhaps the biggest metropolis in the United States in perhaps the media capital of planet Earth -- such distinctions are harder to measure in these days of urban sprawl -- so it would be only natural to aspire to the ultimate church for one’s own.

The version Mahony tells is more down to earth. An earthquake, to be exact.

The old cathedral, St. Vibiana’s, built in the early 1800s, had been too small for nearly a century: As early as 1904 permission had been given for a new one. Mahony, however, settled for enlarging old St. Vibiana’s. Then, in 1994, the Northridge earthquake hit the city. Before he had time to figure what to do, on a morning when he was about to ordain three auxiliary bishops, a major donor collared him in the sacristy and said he wouldn’t put another penny into patching up decrepit Vibiana’s, but his charitable foundation would ante up $25 million to get a new one started. Another foundation soon added $10 million. Meanwhile, a seismic study resulted in an order to close Vibiana’s at once. An act of God and all that money seemed strong indicators that a new cathedral was in order.

It is a mighty undertaking. Just picking the architect was a big undertaking. Fifty-five architects, mostly of world stature, were invited to compete. About 40 did so. Eventually they were cut to five, three Americans and two Spanish. These were asked to submit a small design proposal, a shrine honoring Fr. Junípero Serra, founder of Franciscan missions in California, that was never meant to be built. This seemingly superfluous exercise made more sense, the various advisory bodies and diocesan officials concluded, than asking architects to wrestle prematurely with a project they might later be employed to help define as well as design.

The winner was Rafael Moneo, a Spaniard who had to be coaxed by a friend to enter the competition because he didn’t think he was of sufficient caliber for the exalted assignment. Though his offices are in Spain, Moneo also teaches architecture at Harvard. He is represented on the L.A. project by an American assistant, Haydn Salter.

Salter and project architect Nick Roberts talked to NCR about the challenge of creating a cathedral, with all its historical and transcendent associations, “in the context of modern architecture.” It’s accomplished, Roberts explained, “by the use of light, of scale, of the tactile quality of the building, the very acoustic quality of a great space.” Before becoming the real thing, every aspect of a contemporary cathedral must survive virtual reality. For example, a computer model was developed of what the interior of the cathedral will sound like, the footfall as you walk, the resonance as you talk, when all circumstances are factored in.

The cathedral will be 10th or 11th in the world in size, though it will be a foot shorter than St. Patrick’s in New York. It must last, Mahony told the architects, at least 300 years in the precarious L.A. environment. So, for one thing, it will sit on rubber pads. Before everything is done it will have cost about $170 million.

Even in the exalted context of cathedrals, money is a thorny issue. Critics have insisted from the beginning that the money could more usefully be given to the poor, (NCR, Sept. 13, 1996, Nov. 14, 1997). The young architects, neither of whom is Catholic, are not sympathetic to this view. Compared to the cost of making movies in nearby Hollywood or building the adjacent sports arena, Salter said, the cathedral is a bargain. “The spirit of the building is that there is a value in feeding people in other ways than nutritional,” Roberts goes on. “There’s a broader thing that needs to be nurtured in our society.”

Salter is struck by the fact that, in this quite religious country, so much of our religion is transacted on television. “The church as a gathering place has been lost in so many communities. I have, as an architect, a great faith in the power of space and the gathering power of a building.”

Stung by the money controversy, the cathedral advocates have a wide range of ready responses. Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik, recently appointed pastor of the new cathedral, said “Most if not all the major donors have an excellent track record of supporting ministries to the poor.” In the 1970s, he went on, those building the cathedral in San Francisco ran into the same problem with public opinion. Then, one day in 1976, Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, came to visit the cathedral. There was a recital in progress. She watched the people arriving and leaving. These included, according to Kostelnik, an Amish group, a man in a yarmulke and a couple of homeless people. This caused Day to comment, “Our cathedrals are centers of hospitality that our parishes often are not.” And she continued, “Why is it that we think we only need to give the poor the basics when the poor also need beauty?” Considering that the most vocal critics in town come from the Catholic Worker community, this is a handy anecdote.

No less than in medieval times, Mahony insists, an impressive civic aura still surrounds a cathedral: “A cathedral is the only physical building, institution or landmark that readily welcomes and accepts everybody, no questions asked. In that one feature there’s nothing like it.” He mentions local institutions, from the Colosseum to the Getty Museum of Art, that won’t do it. Some want money; others have other restrictions. Not surprisingly for a cathedral builder, he has visited quite a few lately, from Rome to Mexico City. “You go in and sit there and watch and everybody comes in, rich and poor.”

This aspect of cathedral as common ground, Mahony believes, is particularly important in Los Angeles, one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. Sunday Mass is celebrated in the diocese in 42 languages. He refers approvingly to San Antonio’s cathedral as the “soul of the city.”

The book San Fernando Cathedral, written by Fr. Virgilio P. Elizondo, its former pastor, and Timothy M. Matovina, offers a cogent argument for the relevance of cathedrals at the turn of the millennium.

In Elizondo’s youth in San Antonio, the cathedral “was the unquestioned sacred center of the city, the pulsating heart of San Antonio that kept the city alive and allowed it to prosper. It stood majestically in the center of the city, a quiet witness to everyday traffic and the events of the city and also to the movement of generations of people and of nations.”

Later, studying in Europe, Elizondo fell in love with its Gothic cathedrals. He writes of them in the exalted argot nowadays reserved for the holy: “The stones themselves seem to chant hymns of praise to God and to humanity’s ingenuity.”

So when he was handed the keys to San Fernando, he knew what he wanted: “to unite, synthesize and enrich various religious traditions into one coherent whole. San Fernando would become the cathedra, the teaching chair, from which we would learn about ourselves as the image and likeness of God and joyfully celebrate our new awareness of ourselves.”

The selves they were in search of were mostly Mexican-American. San Fernando has survived under the flags of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, the Confederate States of America and then the United States again. This is a significant segment of the history of the U.S. church. The church building was completed in 1755. It was declared a cathedral in 1874. Such a sacred place, especially at the service of a devout and close-knit Hispanic population, was bound to be haunted by memories, its floors worn by footsteps, its ancient columns brushed against by generations of parishioners whose ancestors had in the first place piled stone on stone and carved the statues, traditional stone and statues and mock-Gothic shapes worlds away from the architectural panache planned for Los Angeles.

The structure, in any case, was secondary. Writes Elizondo: “The building is not the focus, but the people. Anyone can feel just as comfortable in a silk tie and dark suit, in work clothes or anything else. Here all participate as equals in the same way -- nowhere else but at San Fernando Cathedral.”

This echoes the ethos of the medieval cathedrals and is in turn echoed by Mahony and his builders in L.A. It is an ethos of service rather than regulation, of openness to all rather than rules and restrictions. It seems to replace theological litmus tests with the joy of religious celebration as it was in the beginning. Elizondo again: “European cathedrals quickly became the centers of joyful celebrations of a redeemed humanity. This had to be a key element at San Fernando. People and clergy had to celebrate together. In the fiesta city of San Antonio, our cathedral had to be festive. We invited artists, musicians, dancers, poets, actors, vendors, festival organizers, decorators, radio, television and the press to open up the word of God to the masses. They all became pastoral agents of San Fernando as the cathedral strived to become a 24-hour liturgical celebration of humanity.”

To be the soul of the city is a tall order in the secular city. It was suggested to Mahony, quite simply, that the signs of the times indicate the age of cathedrals is over.

Just the opposite, Mahony told NCR. “There is such a hunger and yearning for the spiritual, for contact with God or however people phrase it, that the void is obvious. People want God’s presence in the city and in our lives giving them meaning.”

And it’s not just an individual but a communal hankering, not just Catholic but human. He mentioned with obvious pride the many corporate gifts from other than Catholic donors. He mentioned in particular a wealthy Jewish man from the entertainment world who came calling and announced a gift of $1 million. Mahony, eager to be tactful, suggested he might want to designate the money for some aspect other than the cathedral itself. Why do that? the man asked. “Put it in the cathedral, because this is going to be our community’s cathedral.”

While the new cathedral will be a parish -- the old one had a congregation of about 500 -- the cardinal and his staff continually emphasize its primary role as “the mother church of the diocese” and a gathering place for the city at large.

Light and journey

In this gigantic project the closest equivalent to the master builder of old seems to be Franciscan Br. Hilarion O’Connor, a ubiquitous presence and the trusted conduit of knowledge and authority. He has spent most of his adult life organizing and supervising church buildings in the archdiocese and has the title of director of construction.

Asked about the master builder role, however, O’Connor responded with the self-effacement of traditional master builders, who were almost always anonymous: “Cardinal Mahony is the master builder because ... his handprints are all over the plans.”

And, indeed, Mahony’s participation is extensive. He stressed his personal authorship of a document on light and journey, which he sees as foundational principles of the cathedral.

“Few theological concepts are as important in salvation history as light, signaling an end to the darkness of sin and evil in the world and throughout human history,” he writes. He sifts the scriptures, alludes to the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, explains, as do many others, how, instead of the stained glass of old -- whose teaching role is no longer needed by the TV generation -- the new cathedral will have windows of alabaster that will bathe the interior with the unique light of Los Angeles.

“It’s harder to make light than to make gold,” said Pierre de Craon’s assistant in the Claudel play. Mahony explains, with typical enthusiasm, how they will make light in Southern California: “Natural light will filter through natural gypsum alabaster, emphasizing the purity and beauty of God’s creation. ... This alabaster-filtered light enters the cathedral and the devotional chapels by way of large, thick, slanted light shafts -- shafts that resemble those used by the early Franciscans when they designed the California missions.”

Mahony’s second theological preoccupation is journey, a well-worn Christian theme that should gain new mileage in Southern California where so much time is spent in snarled traffic. The cathedral is designed to capture the more rarefied concept of spiritual journey. To this end a large plaza occupies about three acres of precious space, featuring “a variety of different landscape areas,” fountains and such, a permanent pit for the Easter fire, and art in all directions.

Yet the plaza is not the destination. One anomaly of church architecture is that the faithful invariably enter the building by what can best be described as the back door, only to run smack into the back pews, where, as it happens, the faithful have acquired the habit of crowding, whether out of shyness, humility or indifference, even when the body of the church is empty.

When one enters the L.A. cathedral, one will not even see the pews or nave or altar -- the builders are serious about the journey. Welcome, instead, to the ambulatory, which will circle the entire church interior. Before reaching the heart of the cathedral, the worshiper will encounter, along the side, a variety of devotional spaces. This corresponds both to the variety of worshipers expected to enter and to the priority of piety or devotion over dogma or discipline in the religious lives of many of the nationalities of Southern California.

Art on every side will be at the service of the journey: textiles and murals, saints and near saints, all on the journey. A mural memorializing the onward march and struggles of the Christians of California will stop halfway: a mural first to be lived and then completed by future generations.

Past is prologue

Out in the parking lot, an orange traffic cone sits alone. It is where they will put the altar. The great spaces around it bring home to the pilgrim how immense this cathedral will be.

“The master builder made sure the stones were cut right and took them back down when they failed,” explained Br. O’Connor. “You can’t have a master builder today.” In Los Angeles they are figuring as they go what manner of church people should build for the third millennium of Christianity.

“This is the defining project of our careers,” explained architect Roberts.

“What greater thing could you be involved with?” asked architect Salter.

T.E. Lawrence, the British adventurer, an unsentimental fellow, wrote in 1908: “I expected Chartres would have been like most French cathedrals ... so I stepped out before breakfast to ‘do’ it. What I found I cannot describe. ... It must be one of the noblest works of man. ... I went in before breakfast and I left when dark. All the day I was running from one door to another, finding in each something I thought finer than the one I had just left, and then returning to find that the finest was that in front of me -- for it is a place absolutely impossible to imagine, or to recollect ... and, when night came I was absolutely exhausted ... and yet with a feeling I had never had before in the same degree -- as though I had found a path (a hard one) as far as the gates of heaven, and had caught a glimpse of the inside, the gate being ajar.” Lawrence pinpoints the enduring appeal of cathedrals: their stretching of the human imagination. Presumably God would be equally pleased by Mass offered in humble mission huts. Perhaps God doesn’t need cathedrals, but we do. Or at least we did. We would die if we stopped aspiring. The huge question is: Are cathedrals still suitable objects of our aspirations? It is commonplace to lament in our time that imagination is in decline in a culture that dumbs it down.

And as to the conundrum about these times being out of kilter: Cathedrals have not usually been built only when the cultural winds were favorable. Indeed, they may more often be built against the odds. Many of the best Irish cathedrals were built during the famine years. The best sacred architecture built in Europe this century -- Assy, Audincourt, Vence, Ronchamp -- was created as the nations reeled from devastating war.

Elizondo expresses his wonder “that the cathedrals did not appear to be centers of dogma controlling the human mind, but rather flint rocks that could spark human beings into unimagined greatness and creativity. ... Men and women were not to fear the darkness and the unknown, but to celebrate the light” -- that word again.

There is something elemental about building a cathedral at this time in this place. It is the last American frontier, no more land left to explore. And shaky ground at that. There is also the time frontier, and shaky uncertainty about who we will be next millennium: people of transcendent faith or creatures of more grubby values.

A cathedral was always a risk. This one gambles on the supposition that, as Salter said, echoing the popular movie, if we build it, they will come.

That remains to be seen. Either way, as we Christians go on redesigning our cathedrals, our cathedrals go on redefining us.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999