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The Laying of the Foundation-Stone of a Church

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey

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  • Description:
    This article discusses the ceremonies and rituals used during the laying of the foundation-stone of a church, including how the site is chosen, the orientation of the Church building, and the prayers of blessing for the site.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 405-412
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, January 1927

I.

The imposing ceremonial with which the Catholic Church accompanies the laying of the foundation-stone of a new church, and the consecration of the completed edifice, is a spectacle which can be witnessed but on rare occasions. All the more reason is there that priest and people should know in what it consists. The Catholic Church does nothing for mere show: she always has a very high purpose in every word or gesture of her Liturgy. We may lawfully apply to the liturgical books of the Church that which St. Paul affirms of the inspired Books of the Old Testament: "Whatever is written, is written for our learning." The ceremonies of the Church are an eloquent, if silent, commentary on her teaching, and the faith of the Bride of Christ is declared in every phrase of those matchless prayers, which the Holy Spirit has helped her to frame for our use. The inner life of each individual soul, and her personal intimate intercourse with God, springs of necessity from that life-giving illumination of the mind, which we call the Catholic faith. If the soul's private prayer be the expression of her personal hold upon the things of God, liturgical, public and official prayer may properly be styled the result of the collective faith and experience of the Church. Prayer, therefore, liturgical prayer that is, is the fine flower of theology. Thus it comes about that holy Mother Church feeds and teaches the children of God by means of her inspired prayers, as effectively as, if even more sweetly than when she speaks to us ex cathedra, from the chair of authority.

Would we know for our own benefit what is the meaning of some rite or ceremony of the Church, all we need do is to read attentively the prayers, which accompany it. Hence, if the priest wishes to foster his priestly spirit by penetrating himself with a sense of the dignity and responsibility of his office, let him ponder the rite of ordination. In like manner, if he is anxious that he himself and his people should have a keener sense of the awful holiness of their parish church, let him study the function of the consecration of a church as set out in the Pontificale Romanum. It is regrettable that many priests imagine this precious volume to be outside their sphere and of interest only to the chief pastors of the Church. The truth of the matter is, that there is immense profit to be gained from a careful study of the book. With the exception of the ordination of a priest or the consecration of a bishop, the consecration of a church is perhaps the most gorgeous liturgical function performed by the Church of Christ. But even the preliminary ceremony of the laying of the foundation-stone of a sacred edifice is full of interest and instruction, for the whole rite is but one long and emphatic proclamation of a statement made in the Office of the Dedication:

Templum Domini sanctum est,

Dei structura, est,

Dei aedificatio est.

As the erection of a church is a matter of very great importance, we need not wonder that the Church should have framed very definite laws in this respect. The rubrics of the Pontificale state these prescriptions with true Roman terseness, and a study of history shows them to be the outcome of the experience of centuries and the embodiment of an age-long tradition. It is not a small thing when either a private person, or a body of men, resolve to erect a house of God, for a church is primarily a place where God dwells and hearkens to our prayers. The edifice is indeed a place of assembly, where the faithful foregather, not however for any mundane purpose, but with a view to rendering corporate worship to the Majesty of God. Hence God overshadows the building by His most real, if unseen, Presence. A church is also a place where sacrifice — that is, the highest external act of homage — is offered to God. And since our Sacrifice is the re-enactment, most real though unbloody, of the bloody ritual of the Cross, our churches are, as it were, other Calvaries, mountains of help towards which the men of all ages and lands may raise their eyes.

"No one shall build a church," says the rubric, "until the Bishop have approved of the place and site." Since a church is a house of prayer and a place where sacrifice is to be offered, it should be erected on a spot, which will attract men's attention. If possible, it should likewise be apart from the noise and bustle of the market place or the vulgarities of everyday life. This relative aloofness gave the name "temple" to the first sacred edifices (templum, from the Greek temnein).1 The House of God should be a haven of peace, to which the faithful may flee from the turmoil of life. We may very properly compare our peaceful churches to the lonely island in which St. John beheld the secrets of heaven: "I John ... was in the island which is called Patmos ... I was in the spirit on the Lord's day," (Apoc., i. 9, 10). In the holy silence which should ever be the atmosphere of our churches, we may often, not merely on the Lord's day, be in the spirit and receive lights from above which will illumine the dark places of our soul. A Council of Prague uses precisely this image of an island: ecclesiae, quoad situm, insulae quamdam speciem repraesentent, et proinde non tantum procul omnino a clamosis sordidisque domibus erigantur, sed passim a quibusque aedibus aliquantum dissitae sint ac prorsus separatae.

This was certainly the practice of the Middle Ages, at least in country-places, where the church was usually surrounded by the cemetery, and the church and cemetery both fenced off, as it were, from ordinary life by a wall of enclosure and protection.

In practice it is not always possible to secure a site, which answers every one of these requirements, and it may be altogether out of the question in crowded cities where building space is restricted. However, the law of the Church is a wise one, and will prevent many an initial mistake, which might subsequently be matter for regret. The Bishop, therefore, must decide in the last resort whether a site be suitable or not. The New Code supplements the prescriptions of the Pontificale: "No church may be built without the express consent, in writing, of the Ordinary ... The Ordinary shall not give this consent, unless he can prudently judge that there will be no want of the things required for the construction and preservation of the edifice" (Canon 1162).

According to an ancient and venerable tradition, a church should face towards the rising sun. The early Christians, on the authority of Tertullian (Apolog., xvi), were wont to pray with arms extended crosswise and facing East. This custom was likewise observed by pagan peoples, and may well be a survival of a practice, which originated with mankind itself. The Romans, however, faced South when divining or consulting the gods, but the East was for them also, so to speak, the "lucky" point of the compass:

Intonuit laevum ...

Vix ea fatus erat senior, subitoque fragiore

(Aeneid, II, 693.)

The East is the symbol of spiritual light, even as material light comes to us from that quarter of the sky; the West is symbolic of darkness and sin. Hence the catechumens turned to the West when making their public renunciation of Satan, and then at once to the East: renuntiamus ei primum qui in occidente est, et sic versi ad orientem, pactum inimus cum sole justitiae (St. Jerome, In Amos, 6). Moreover, the Apostolic Constitutions already prescribe that the shape of the church should be oblong, so that it would resemble a ship: Aedes sit oblonga, ad orientem versa, et quae sit navi similis.

Medieval liturgists supply us with manifold mystical explanations of the "orientation" of our churches, and of our own turning Eastward at prayer. St. Thomas briefly sums up these various, and possibly somewhat fanciful explanations:

"There is a certain fittingness in adoring towards the East, first, because the divine Majesty is indicated in the movement of the heavens which is from the East. Secondly, because Paradise was situated in the East, according to the Septuagint version of Gen., ii, and so we signify our desire to return to Paradise. Thirdly, on account of Christ who is the light of the world, and is called the Orient (Zach., vi. 12), "Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens to the East" (Ps. lxvii. 34), and is expected to come from the East, according to Matt., xxiv. 27: "As lightning cometh out of the East, and appeareth even into the West, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be" (II-II, Q. lxxxiv, A. 3, ad 3).

The orientation of churches varies considerably. According to a theory which is at any rate interesting, the Greeks calculated the direction of the temples of their gods in such wise that on the day of their solemn festival the light of the rising sun would fall upon the axis of the temple, and thus also upon the image of the god. The measurements of some Eastern and Southern Italian churches would suggest that the idea was taken up by the early Christians, and the orientation of their churches was so calculated that the rays of the rising sun should shine into the centre of the sanctuary and upon the altar, or confessio of the Saint, upon the day on which the patron Saint of the church was honored. It is even asserted that the building of a church — therefore, the laying of its foundation-stone — was begun on the day, or on the vigil of the feast of the Saint in whose name the new building was to be dedicated. On the night preceding the ceremony which we are about to describe, bishop and people would watch upon the site of the future church, and, as soon as the first rays of the sun appeared upon the horizon, the direction or orientation of the church was so determined that the building faced towards that point of the compass. If this theory be true, it would enable us to find out the original dedication (or titular) of a church, where the lapse of time has caused it to be changed or forgotten. The theory is held, among others, by Hart ("Eccl. Records," Cambridge), by Bloxam (Principles of Goth. Eccl. Architect.), and by H. Otte ("Handbuch der kirchl. K. A. des deutsch. Mittel-Alters," I, 9). The last-named writer endeavors to substantiate the theory by the example of the Abbey Church of Limburg, the orientation of which is North-East, its foundation-stone having been laid on July 12, 1030, by the Emperor Conrad II.

Be this as it may, one thing is quite clear: the site of a church should be carefully chosen, not from a purely utilitarian point of view, but also, if possible, with due regard to Christian tradition and age-long observance.

II

When a site has been secured and has received the approval of the Bishop, the first care of those responsible for the undertaking must be to plant a cross upon the site — that is, approximately on the spot where the chief altar is to be erected. The first part of the ceremony is the blessing of the water with which stone and foundations are to be sprinkled, but the form of blessing is that used for the blessing of ordinary holy water. When the water has been blessed, the Bishop sprinkles the place where the cross has been erected. The antiphon of the psalm, which is sung during the sprinkling, explains the symbolism of the cross. Christ Himself is besought to raise the emblem of salvation in this place and not to suffer the destroying angel to enter in. The same thought is further developed in the prayer, which follows the psalm:

"O Lord God, who, though heaven and earth cannot contain Thee, dost yet deign to have a house on earth in which Thy name may be continually invoked, we beseech Thee...look down with loving-kindness upon this place, and by the inpouring of Thy grace purify it from all defilement and keep it purified. And as Thou didst fulfill the devout desire of Thy well-beloved David in the work of Solomon his son, so in this work deign to accomplish our desires, and drive hence all the spirits of wickedness."

The Bishop now turns to the stone, which is to be the first in the walls of the new structure. Two prayers are recited:

"O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Thou who art true God Almighty, brightness and image of the Eternal Father, and life eternal, Thou who art the corner-stone cut out from the mountain without hands, and the unchangeable foundation; fix firmly this stone to be laid in Thy name; and Thou who art the Beginning and the End, in which Beginning the Father created all things from the first, be Thou, we beseech Thee, the beginning, advancement and completion of this work which is to be undertaken for the praise and glory of Thy name."

Another prayer, addressed to God the Father, is recited. At its conclusion the Bishop sprinkles the stone with holy water, and, taking a mason's trowel, or some other sharp instrument, he cuts a cross upon each face of the stone, saying: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

The prayer, which follows is most instructive and comforting. Its message should often be explained to the people, for it speaks of the reward of the church builder. In these parts the priest must rely almost completely upon the generosity of his people, and the success of his undertakings is conditioned by their liberality. Let us tell them in the name of the Church that their reward will be both temporal and spiritual.

"Bless O Lord this stone, Thy creature, and grant through the invocation of Thy holy name that all who with pure intention promote the building of this church, may enjoy health of body and soul."

The Litany of all Saints is then sung. At their conclusion Psalm cxxvi is sung with an antiphon, which takes the mind back to the far-off morning on which Jacob set up a stone for an everlasting memory of the vision, which he had beheld in the night. The Bishop then places the stone in its position in the foundation, saying:

"In the faith of Jesus Christ we lay this first stone in this foundation: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; that true faith may flourish here, and the fear of God, and brotherly love, and that this place may be devoted to prayer, and to the invocation and praise of the name of the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father, etc."

When the stone has been permanently set by a mason the Bishop sprinkles it once more, saying: Asperges me, and the entire Psalm 1. After this the Bishop sprinkles the whole of the foundations of the new church, if they are uncovered, or the place where they are traced out. For this purpose he walks round the entire site, whilst the choir sings three psalms, each followed by a prayer recited by the Bishop. The first prayer is remarkable for the introductory clause, which states the spiritual powers vested in the priesthood of the Church:

"O Almighty and merciful God who enrichest Thy priests with grace so far above others that whatever they do in Thy name worthily and perfectly is believed to have been done by Thyself: we beseech Thy great clemency that Thou wouldst visit what we are about to visit; that Thou wouldst bless what we are about to bless; and that by the merits of Thy Saints the devils may flee away at the approach of our lowliness and the Angels of peace enter in."

The antiphon of the psalm, which follows this prayer, might well be used by the priest on other occasions, such as, for instance, when he visits the houses of his people:

Pax aeterna ab Aeterno huic domui;

Pax perennis, Verbum Patris, sit Pax huic domui;

Pacem pius Consolator huic praestet domui.

When the Bishop has visited and sprinkled the entire ground-plan of the building, he returns to the place where he has laid the first stone. There he prays once more for the success of the undertaking begun this day:

"O God, whose Majesty dwells everlastingly in the assembly of all the Saints, give increase from heaven to this building erected to Thy name, that what is founded at Thy bidding, may be perfected by Thy blessing."

The Holy Ghost is now invoked in the hymn Veni Creator. At its conclusion the Bishop prays that the Holy Ghost would come down into the building which is about to rise from the ground, that He would make acceptable the offerings of clergy and people, and by His indwelling purify the hearts of the faithful. The last petition is that the building itself may endure forever as an unfailing source of heavenly blessings:

"O God, whose clemency and loving-kindness is shown forth in every place subject to Thy dominion: graciously hear us and grant that the structure erected on this site may endure forever, and that all Thy faithful who here supplicate to Thee, may ever receive the benefits of Thy bounty."

The ceremony ends with the Pontiff's blessing. The ideal conclusion of the solemn event would be a Mass celebrated by the Prelate, or some other priest, on the site of which God has now taken possession, though this taking possession will only be final and irrevocable after the solemn dedication of the completed edifice. If a Mass can be celebrated on the new site, it must be that of the Saint, or the mystery, in whose honor the new church is to be erected.

Notes

1 This Greek verb means literally to "cut," "mark off" (as with a plow), and thus to "consecrate to" sacred purposes.

© Ignatius Press, 2515 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA. 94118.

This item 3661 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org

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