Living the Readings: Our cathedral: the mission begins

The new Sacred Heart Cathedral joins all that came before it

By Father Joseph Brando

What is the function of the Church? One answer may be that the Church exists to make our Risen Lord present in every corner of the world and in every human soul. That job is daunting, if not impossible. Like any great challenge, that job description needs to be broken down into “doable” pieces. As the Church has come to know our Lord better throughout the ages, we can look at our risen Savior as priest, prophet, and king. As priest, we meet the Risen Christ as we approach the altar at Sunday and daily Mass. We need churches, priests with unlimited schedules, and a method for uniting times and messages. That would be the function of the bishop. However, broadcasting that single clear message is possible but difficult without a cast of thousands assisting him.

The second way to look at the second person of the Blessed Trinity alive here on earth is as prophet. He is, in fact, the Word of God. He can and does speak to us the exact message we need to hear if we prepare our own minds to listen. However, we still face “the problem of the one and the many.” That is the fact of working with a Catholic population of 1.2 billion. In this case, different people may be waiting for a response to a personal problem or be programmed by media to a contrary concept.

The third vision of Christ is as king. The King sets boundaries, organizes, protects, defends, appoints, and judges amid the dozens of functions that basically put him in charge. He sets the tone for life in his realm. However, here we are talking about Christ as King of our universe from creation to eternity. He is a loving king. As such, we people (who see things mostly from our viewpoint) can do things our own way without much fear of punishment. That leads to a lack of unity which covers the Word of God with a blanket of confusion.

Thinking about our task as Church

These theological divisions give us a way to think about our task as Church and develop some ways to handle the problem. At this point we can also discern some of the assets we can employ in order to make the Christian task on earth more likely to be successful. One human device that we have at our disposal is church. If we use this term referring to the people of God, the problem becomes even more daunting. If we change the meaning of church to mean a building where Catholics gather to worship in groups of between three and a little over a thousand families, we have a somewhat easier group with which to communicate. Yet, these parishes are scattered enough and socially divergent that speaking to them with clarity is still daunting.

Nevertheless, the problem is somewhat clearer, and we can now take a look at what the universal Church teaches us as to how to approach the problem. If you read between the lines a little bit (something a Canonist would never do), you might even find a solution to the problem of uniting Catholics. It involves a proper use of an ages-old asset of the Church, namely the cathedral.

Just think of all the important things a church has to keep functioning. The most critical is to keep the faith and spread it, and live it. Well, that is what the Code of Canon Law mandates. (Effectively, the new and current Code was promulgated in 1983, replacing the Code of 1917.) In this new Code there is a strong desire to implement the insights of the Second Vatican Council and the religious writing that has emerged since the end of the Council.

For the most part, the new Code makes the Church more open and collegial. There are more councils including laity as members as well as women religious. The problems aren’t of distance and membership (many important commissions now are open to women religious and both male and female laity). If you look at the Code carefully, you just might find one or more solutions to the problems we treated in the first part of this article.

Take a look at a map of our Diocese of Knoxville. We are bounded by Middle Tennessee on the west, Kentucky on the north, Virginia and North Carolina on the east, and Georgia and Alabama on the south. We are blessed with many highly dedicated people who travel the interstates and the one-lane country roads to get to meetings of committees and other such meetings. Some are diocesan commissions; others are of equal importance on the deanery level; and others have to do with lay ministry. What it all amounts to is that the word is getting around about diocesan giving, Catholic education, religious goals for the near future, Catholic Charities’ aims, and a host of other meetings that, all together, make us a diocese that gets the job done.

The results of those meetings go to the appropriate boards and commissions in Knoxville. They will be read and responded to and will make a difference.

Five critical organizations

There has been a large quantity of gasoline being burned getting Catholics to and from Knoxville to attend any one of the many meetings held at or near the cathedral. Since this began, the wonderful invention and constant improvement of the internet has kept us going at a faster pace The 1983 Code set up, back then, five critical organizations all centered at the cathedral. These are:

  • Presbyteral Council
  • Diocesan Consultors
  • College of Consultors
  • Diocesan Pastoral Council
  • Finance Council.

So, the cathedral is the home to this Big 5 with others to come. As in all consideration of moving large numbers there need to be events thanking the participants. There needs to be a reason for rejoicing at having done fine work and all that driving. The new cathedral becomes that symbol of a job well done. It is the symbol that so large a territory is tamed by such dedicated and effective leaders. And, their numbers are increasing.

Now, we are joining a large number of dioceses around the world who proudly point to their cathedral as the place where bold decisions are made. This is where we go to join our brothers and sisters to spread the Word and welcome newcomers to our community working in harmony for the Lord.

We are here! This is our cathedral: joining the world community of Church architecture

The dedication of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is much more an accomplishment than providing more space for the Catholic Church community in Knoxville to worship together. Historically, the nature of a cathedral is to serve the Church in many important ways. In order to staff the cathedral to perform all the ministries it had to provide, a cathedral in the Middle Ages would be home to as many as 525 permanent residents.

Modern transportation may have diminished the number of people living at a cathedral, but the number of cathedrals has grown significantly. The earliest Church building that served as a cathedral was discovered by reference from a Church Council in 516 AD. As of January 2017 there were 3,321 cathedrals worldwide and an additional 301 co-cathedrals (where one church shares the function of being a bishop’s seat with another church.). One can measure the strength of the Catholic Church by the number of cathedrals in a country. In the United States, there are 213 cathedrals. In Italy, there are 365 cathedrals; in Brazil, there are 283 cathedrals; in India, 177; France has 110; Mexico has 100; Spain 87; and the Philippines has 86 cathedrals. The number of cathedrals a country has can be an indication of the strength of the faith in a particular country.

Temperature and style

Cathedrals also can tell the “temperature” of the local Catholics. One can look at a cathedral in a given city and make a fair guess how intense the faith in that area is. You can look at seven indicators. They are: a cathedral’s height, beauty, cost, size, visibility, stability, and centrality to judge how well the Catholics of that city are excited to take you with them to the cathedral. So, do you not consider it a positive factor that an American Catholic will proudly point out that the second largest church building in the world is the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.? It is second only to St. Peter’s in Rome. St. Peter’s has a gross volume of 5,000,000 cubic meters, and our National Shrine has a gross volume of 1,200,000 cubic meters. It’s big; and every January, when thousands come to our nation’s capital, the Shrine is a must-see and a great boost to the enthusiasm of all the marchers.

There is another caricature that one tends to look for to judge a church. That is its style. Style indicates where, in the history of architecture, this building belongs. In order to determine the style we need to travel back to recognize the statement the master-builders of the past wanted to make and how well they accomplished their task.

The earliest Christian church

Such a voyage through time and thought obviously starts at the beginning, where the earliest Chris tian Church can be found. It was simple; but it has a big problem. It has been in the malevolent hands of ISIS. The last information is quite negative. The church building is in Dura, Syria. Its layout is similar to many missionary parishes we have built in our diocese. But this church was established around the year 326. It makes the statement that our expression of Christianity is no different than that of the Apostles. It also celebrates our unity with those who are still struggling now to persevere through the life and death challenges to their faith. It is also significant that next to the Christian church there are also a synagogue and a space where pagans worshipped Mithras.

Until the fourth century the Roman authorities prohibited the building of any places of worship due (for the most part) to avoid religious conflicts that may flare up. Then, when the Western Roman emperor could give some property to the Church, all he had on hand were government buildings. The celebrant at Mass took the spot that was reserved to the judge and so on for all the ministries. Church dignitaries tended to take on the persona of those who sat where the priest or deacon or choir director now sit. And the bishop’s seat (cathedra) was to the west of the altar facing it. He was in charge. However, in the Eastern Roman Empire, there seems to be a bit of toleration that allowed a Byzantine style of architecture that sprung up in the East and worked its way West.

‘Migration of the peoples’

For most of the fifth century there was a problem that we now call the “Barbarian Invasion.” Eastern European history books call this phenomenon the “migration of the peoples.” It was in the process of destroying the Western Empire when the pope asked for military help of the leader of the Eastern Roman Empire. The armies came using for their command and control center the town of Ravenna. Besides buildings to organize the military effort, soldiers asked for buildings at which they could worship. Their request was happily granted. The Easterners’ presence succeeded in its mission. However, the peacekeeping forces had to stay for over three centuries. They built churches in their own style, namely Byzantine. The most significant of these is now called San Vitali. It took from 526 to 547 to build the church. Interestingly, that is the same building time as Hagia Sophia in the city of Byzantium. Both are still there where they were built and where thousands of tourists experience them every day.

In 800 AD the Westerners thought they could take care of themselves. They named Charlemagne to be the new emperor. One of his top priorities was to establish a capital city making the cathedral its chief piece of architecture. Charlemagne needed it to unite his empire and validate his reign. Aachen (also called Aix-la-Chapelle) was the city. It was originally eight-sided. However, because of the large number of people attending the liturgies and other imperial functions, it had to be enlarged. So, starting at one side they extended two long walls and finished with a new doorway. That solution to the crowd problem became the model for all the cathedrals built in Europe for all of the Middle Ages.

All those cathedrals changed Europe. Take France from 1050 to 1350: the French built more than 500 cathedrals and more than 1,000 parish churches. That is one church for every 200 parishioners. The French quarried more stone in those 300 years than was used for all the buildings of ancient Egypt.

Building frenzy and imagination both continue

As the building frenzy continued, so did the imagination of the builders. What started out Byzantine evolved into Romanesque (also called Norman in Britain), which featured rounded arches and vaults and domes. One branch of that developed was the cruciform style in the seventh and eighth centuries that resulted when architects saw what was possible when a four sided dome connects with a vault approximately over the altar. The cathedral becomes a cross! This engineering feat is credited to Justinian, an emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. The time between 1150 and the 16th century saw the rise of Gothic architecture. Gothic buildings were larger and imposing. They are logical and modulating, pleasing to the eye. Next came Renaissance Architecture. It put Greco-Roman design back into structures. And the development of style continues to Gothic Revival (beginning in the 1740s), Baroque (starting in the 1770s), and Post-Modern (an example of which is Our Lady of Lichen Cathedral in Poland, built between 1994 and 2004.) It is the seventh largest Church in the world.

So, we pray that our wonderful cathedral will live up to the heritage it inherits from all the cathedrals that have come before it. Cathedrals have a tendency to remain standing. One received 70 direct hits from bombers in World War II and is still functioning.

So, what is its function? It’s used every day from now on. These functions are celebration of daily Mass, recital of the Divine Office, and center of pilgrimage (especially for those who live at the extremities of our Diocese of Knoxville). It also serves as the mother church of the diocese. It is where all the major committees of the diocese meet. It is where the bishop’s teaching ministry comes forth.


Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.

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