The Wired Word

Largest Catholic Church in North America Is Now 'Complete'
The Wired Word
 for the Week of December 17, 2017

In the News

"After a Century, the Largest Catholic Church in North America Is Complete."

That's a headline that got our attention last week, and before even reading the article below it, we wondered how and when any church is ever "complete," since, until the Lord returns, there's always mission to do, the gospel message to proclaim and neighbors to serve.

But in reading the article, we quickly discovered that headline was speaking of architecture, the completion of a church building that had been begun in 1920, opened unfinished in 1959 and has been in continuous daily operation ever since.

The church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, is located in Washington, D.C., and is, as the headline states, the largest Catholic church in North America. It is also one of the 10 largest churches in the world and the tallest habitable building in our nation's capital.

The completion of which the headline speaks is the finishing of the "Trinity Dome," a part of the basilica so impressive that it has its own website (see links list below). The dome, which was officially blessed and dedicated in a two-hour ceremony on December 8, features one of the largest mosaic installations of its kind in the world. It is composed of more than 14 million pieces of Venetian glass that together weigh 24 tons.

The Mosaic depicts the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, angels, the four gospel writers, the Nicene Creed and saints who have an association with the United States or the National Shrine itself. These include Juan Diego (the first canonized Native American), Kateri Tekakwitha (the first canonized female Native American), Teresa of Calcutta (an honorary American citizen), Francis Cabrini (the first U.S. citizen to be canonized), John Paul II (the first pope to visit the National Shrine) and Junípero Serra (declared a saint by Pope Francis at the National Shrine in 2015 for the first canonization ever to take place on American soil).

The basilica does not have its own parish community, but serves the adjacent Catholic University of America and nearly a million visitors each year. It offers six masses and five hours of confession daily.

The basilica's website states that the structure is "Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception," making it "the nation's preeminent Marian shrine."  

"With over 70 chapels and oratories that relate to the peoples, cultures and traditions that are the tapestry of the Catholic faith and the mosaic of our great nation, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is indeed America's Catholic church," the website says.

The church describes its mission as being "a place of worship, pilgrimage, evangelization and reconciliation" that "offers visitors the occasion for a deepening conversion, a step forward in the journey to God ...." It also says, "Mary's Shrine invites people from across the country and beyond into the saving moment of faith, hope and charity, so that they may be reconciled and transformed into living symbols of Christ's presence in the world. It is here that the faithful gather to worship God, give honor to Mary, and are sent to spread God's word wherever they go."

More on this story can be found at these links:

After a Century, the Largest Catholic Church in North America Is Finally Complete. USA Today
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Trinity Dome

The Big Questions

1. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. While non-Catholic Christian groups do not elevate Mary as Roman Catholics do, most Christians, regardless of denomination, can connect with the basilica's mission statement that says it "invites people from across the country and beyond into the saving moment of faith, hope and charity, so that they may be reconciled and transformed into living symbols of Christ's presence in the world." In what ways does your church seek to do that?

2. Thinking of your church not as a building but as an assembly of people, what makes it "complete"? What prevents it from being complete? What might an "incomplete" church look like? Is it possible for any church to ever be "complete" in its spiritual, mission and ministry calling?

3. Why is it important to be part of both the Church and a church? What is the difference? What do you think Jesus would say to people who want to be his followers but not be part of a church?

4. Do we become part of the church by believing things about Jesus (for example, by believing that God saves you through Jesus' death and resurrection), by believing what Jesus taught (for example, that we must love God and love our neighbor) or in some other way? Explain your answer.

5. The basilica, though structurally incomplete until 2017, opened in 1959 and has been in ministry ever since. In what sense was the church already complete in 1959?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your deliberation:

Ephesians 2:19-22
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (For context, read 2:11-22.)

Here the apostle Paul is addressing Gentile believers who, from the Jewish perspective, were once "strangers and aliens" to God. But now, says Paul, "you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (v. 13). He goes on to explain that followers of Jesus are members of "the household of God" (that is, the church). The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the household, but Jesus himself is the cornerstone, in whom "the whole structure is joined together ...."

In other words, Jesus is the founder of the church, and the way to become part of it is to be "brought near by the blood of Christ." Thus, it follows that all whom God has brought near are truly part of the household of God. In fact, in writing to the Corinthians, Paul says exactly that: "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:2, italics added).

Questions: What are the implications of these verses about practicing Christianity without being part of a Christian community? If you were to describe your fellowship as a "building," what part of the building wouldyou be? Why?

1 Peter 2:4-6
Come to [Jesus], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: "See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame." (For context, read 2:4-10.)

Here Peter uses the metaphor of a building to explain what the church is -- a "spiritual house" constructed of "living stones," those who have "come to him" (that is, those who are following Jesus). Peter, like Paul in the Ephesians 2 verses above, also describes Christ as the cornerstone of that spiritual house.

Question: What does the idea of being a "living stone" in the house of God imply about your participation in the church?

Matthew 18:20
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (For context, read 18:15-20.)

This verse is occasionally quoted by people trying to say that gathering as church is unnecessary, but it's important not to read it out of context. Matthew 18:15-20 is about church discipline and accountability, not simply being in a room next to one other person and saying, "See, we're doing church together."

Questions: In what sense are worshiping alone and trying to be Christian apart from the church incomplete expressions of the Christian faith? Why? What part of the Christian life is experienced only in fellowship with others (including with others who are different from you in outlook and perspective)?

Hebrews 10:24-25
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another ... (For context, read 10:19-25.)

These two verses are the closest biblical reference we have to a command to attend Christian worship. Notice that the writer of Hebrews says that one reason for doing so is to encourage one another. And he was right. Church isn't like school where you attend for a while until you receive your "B.A. Christian" degree (Get it?) and then you graduate. The church has no alumni association. We need to continue to be part of a faith community both for what we receive and for what we contribute.

Questions: Besides upping the attendance statistics, what does your regular attendance in church contribute to the faith of others who also attend those worship services and help to complete your church? What do you do for others that they would miss out on if you weren't part of a Christian fellowship? What do others do for you that you could not find anywhere else?

Romans 12:4-5
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (For context, read 12:3-8.)

Paul uses the human body as a metaphor for the church in several of his letters. In Colossians 1:18, he speaks of Christ as the head of the body, but here in Romans his focus is on the rest of the body, its members. His point is not that all members should be identical, but that they should work together for the good of the body and be "individually ... members one of another." Paul understands that each member is given a gift to build up the whole body. Every part should work together. And every part is essential for a complete body.

Questions: How does this "one body" idea express itself in your church? Who in your church are the eyes, seeing what others would miss? Who are the ears, hearing where there is need or purpose? Who are the legs, who help the fellowship get where it needs to go? Who are the hands of Christ, serving the world in mission and service? Who function as the mouth, speaking God's word? Whose vitality is necessary for everyone's spiritual health? What links all the parts of the body together?

Philippians 3:13-14
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made [the resurrection] my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.(For context, read 3:7-16.)

Though here talking about his own spiritual journey and not that of the whole church, Paul, in effect, says that he is aware of his incompletion in terms of what God has called him to be.

Questions: What does it mean for Christians to live with their incompleteness? What did Paul's incompletion spur him to do? What does yours spur you to do?

Jesus did not say "It is finished" until he was on the cross. Why do you think we want to say we're through as teachers, servants, learners, those who pray, encouragers, etc?

For Further Deliberation

1. Discuss this, from TWW team member Mary Sells: "For myself, who lapsed from any churching for 20 years as a spiritual-but-not-religious person, I came to understand that building my relationship with God could be accomplished by participating in a place of common beliefs and a place of learning and a place of peace ... a.k.a. church. I have been to very grand and very humble structures, and they all seem to work the same way."

2. Respond to this, from a sermon by Texas pastor Charles Aaron: "Did we come to church this morning thinking it was a safe thing to do? Did we come with some expectation of receiving a blessing, a bit of comfort, but no real challenge? Did we think we could get a little something from Jesus, a dose of grace to help us through the week? Did we come for the fellowship, the music, the spiritual boost? No one can argue with those reasons.
            "The risen Christ, however, may have had other plans for this worship service. Christ may want to come under our skins and transform us. Christ may see through us so that something we have well-hidden comes to the surface. Christ may kick out from under us the things we use to prop ourselves up, but that we don't really need. Did we think about the possibility that an encounter with Jesus would rearrange our lives, explode our priorities, cause us to give more than we ever expected?" Are we ready for that? Did we bargain on that when we walked through the door today?

3. Comment on this: C.S. Lewis' classic book The Screwtape Letters is written as though one devil were giving advice to another. In one place, the master devil advises the apprentice to trip up the Christian assigned to him by getting him to notice his fellow worshipers. The master devil says, "Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like 'the body of Christ' and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. ... Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous."

4. What is the primary message of Christianity? Is it basically anti-something or pro-something? What is that "something"?

5. Talk about the history of your congregation's building, or of the buildings of churches you have been associated with. What was the history of construction? Was it "complete" when it was "finished"? What changes have been made, if any, over the years, and for what purpose?

Responding to the News

This is an opportune time to think about how what you do individually and together as a church helps it to be "complete."

Prayer

O Lord, help us in the midst of all our incompletions to see the way you want us to go. Give us the strength and perseverance to do, and be merciful to us when we fall short. In Jesus' name. Amen.