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You don’t have to be an indigenous person living close to nature — or a Catholic worshipping at a grand cathedral — to be moved by sacred places.
“It’s universal,” says Professor Steven Semes, academic director of Notre Dame’s Rome architecture program. “Look at the city of Isfahan in Iran or the Great Mosque of Istanbul or the traditions in China, India, Africa and everywhere. Sacred places are part of every culture.”
Yet many observers note that Catholics differ from Protestants in their emphasis on place. Ingrid Rowland, Notre Dame professor of architecture and an Episcopalian herself, says, “For Protestants, the Bible is really the place. Their sense of place is more abstract, where for Catholics it can be really concrete, as you see all around Rome.”
A Catholic sense of place is rooted in the sacramental nature of the religion, which puts a great emphasis on the settings for Eucharist and Baptism, according to Father Kevin Seasoltz, editor of Worship magazine.
Catholicism’s long history of adapting practices and sacred sites from other religions has underscored the importance of specific spots as holy. This was a controversy that figured prominently in the Reformation. Many Protestant critics of the Church took a dim view of what they saw as its pagan elements, including the many saints revered by Catholics who became associated with particular churches, monasteries, shrines or pilgrimages.
Another thing that sets Catholicism apart from Protestantism, points out David Mayernik ’83, Notre Dame professor of architecture, is “the idea that we can build a foretaste of paradise,” which means certain places are endowed with a beauty that can connect us more deeply with God and heaven.