WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

A presence of people, in place

WelCom December 2016:


David Mullin

November’s devastating Kaikōura quakes have reawakened discussions on the ability of New Zealand society to maintain the buildings and infrastructure that we have. This concern, not necessarily new, has certainly grown since the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 and the quake sequence in Marlborough, 2013. In the dioceses of Wellington and Palmerston North, assessments consign many buildings to labels – earthquake prone or otherwise. Some major buildings that have been unable to be used, as decision makers decide about improvement and/or ongoing use and others, have signs warning of risk.

At a time when the way in which we build and maintain structures is called into question by the power of nature – our common home – it is timely to pause and ask, ‘What is the place of church buildings in modern society?’ and ‘What is the place of buildings in the life of the Church?’

As a Church, we have always created designated sacred places; places set apart, places of the Holy. It helps us connect to permanence on the pilgrim’s journey through life. They are also public signs of the faith of the community that worships within.

Some argue that Church, a community, can happen anywhere. In reality, the connection between people and place is part of human history. Marking out sacred places where we perform ritual is not new and pre-dates Judeo-Christian religion. We can think of a marae complex to understand the connection between people and place. Indeed, the tribal pa is an example of a place for everything and for everyone. Our Church complexes do well when understood in the same way.

For Catholics, places of ritual and community building, of outreach and living, of education and of worship, are all at the intersection of memory and experience, humanity and the divine, past and future. At any given moment, our experience of a certain building can evoke a wide range of responses.

We read about a number of building projects in both dioceses, including many new developments in schools and projects addressing seismic concerns in some of our beloved parish churches. The challenge for all is to ensure the creation or improvement of a building is not just an exercise in bricks and mortar but instead an opportunity to form spaces that improve our community building, enable meaningful worship and prayer especially our liturgical celebrations, support outreach and care of others in times of need.

Consecrated space is important because, for some reason, we desire a sense of permanence to engage with the transcendent. At the same time, we also need to learn to understand buildings and structures, even our sacred ones, as temporary. The building can shape our ritual and experience and therefore shape the community that gathers there. However, we are called to always think and act beyond the temporal. The reasons for ritual and gathering have been the same for all of human history – to go forth and live sustained by what God is doing in us and for us to offer that experience to others.

Ultimately, our Churches enable communities to encounter God. In community-development theory words like strength and resilience are used. When we think about designing buildings we use similar terms. In my view, the discussion on the strength of a building is a misnomer and has actually meant that bad decisions have been made, especially in discussing ‘new building standard’ and meeting a minimum target so our building is ‘safe’. I would now prefer to talk about ‘resilience, community resilience and building resilience’. All that is another story and more on that in future articles…

For now, we are aware that communities have suffered loss, of people and place. We think of them and pray for resilience in difficult times. As we create and re-create our sacred places, let us remember the reason for them.