Open up the Church Doors
In a jubilee year, the pope opens the Holy Doors in Rome – a powerful symbol of admitting all the faithful. I am fascinated by church architecture. Buildings and their design and what that says about our vision and notion of community.
It is a most frustrating interest, especially in the South African context where many of our church buildings are either notoriously utilitarian or so sadly fiddled with that their original building language has been lost, or interpreted with the wrong dictionary.
In a few days, the Holy Father will have the great holy doors opened at St Peter’s in Rome. In this powerful symbolic action, the Church opens extra doors for the faithful so that no one may be denied access.
In the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, this strong symbol gives us space to reflect on how open our Church is to welcome, and to openness itself.
The vision of the heavenly Jerusalem in the apocalypse of St John has the perfect Church built on the foundation of the apostles, with three doors or gates at the cardinal points: north, south, east and west. This is a symbol of the Heavenly Church open to all cultures and peoples and their experiences.
Further, the gates are always open, to all comers. The Lamb himself is the Light, both attracting all comers to the light and, in an extension of the metaphor-vision, the light that streams out of the open doors.
In this mission month at the opening of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, our challenge as communities is to reach out beyond the doors of a fortress church to a world in wait for the healing mercy and invitation to inclusion that the Messiah asks us to extend.
In some of the parishes I have worked in, the doors have stood as significant anti-symbols of this idea of openness, welcome and inclusion.
At the national seminary, the chapel doors were studded with what were probably bullet tips. In Meadowlands, the main doors of the church were virtually bulletproof, full metal-jacketed, barred monstrosities. In Coronationville – one of the most significant architectural designs of a post-Vatican II Church in Johannesburg – the idiom of the building had been so sadly fiddled with as to render the main doors obsolete.
The most magnificent cathedral church in South Africa, the cathedral of Christ the King in Johannesburg, sadly had the angel guardians on the great open and inclusive Western facade – the great west doors – stolen or removed.
All these, in a sense, are also symbols of the journeys that these communities have faced.
Our Physical Symbols
In our response to the Holy Father’s call in the Year of Mercy, we are asked to re-examine our physical symbols of unity, welcome and inclusion.
In my current parish assignment, the doors are fantastic. When open fully, they’re at the end of a street, an open invitation vista. One could drive straight through them.
The symbol-value of this is enormous. They welcome and invite into a worship space. They are also formidable. Barriers in some way, especially when we feel safer, warmer with them closed.
Ours is a perpetual adoration parish. Our church is open or at least accessible 24 hours a day. This has been the case for the last 15 years. This openness is difficult, but I can see no other way to keep showing a Church that is open and accessible.
The fortress church embattled, sometimes embittered, closed in on itself as a cosy exclusive club risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of the outside world.
In the focus on mission and mercy in this time of grace, I see our challenge as keeping the doors open, not only inviting people to come in out of curiosity, but also being a symbol of the Church in the modern world.
We must present a Church out there, unafraid of the message of life, love and the ultimate joy with which we are entrusted, not for our own sake, but precisely for the sake of that big, bad, scary world out there. Fear not.