Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

If you have ever been part of a well-researched tour of a great cathedral, then you know one thing — these sanctuaries are packed with symbolism. Almost everything in these buildings has some connection to centuries of Christian tradition.

The biggest symbol is the shape of the cathedral itself. It’s all about processions (think pilgrimages) through the cross to reach the high altar.

This brings me to the Los Angeles Times coverage of the transformation of the iconic Crystal Cathedral — an soaring version of a Protestant megachurch — into Christ Cathedral, the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Here’s the key: The late Rev. Robert Schuller made an important request when he asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the Crystal Cathedral — build a church that is also a giant television studio.

That’s precisely what Johnson did. Thus, ever since the Orange diocese bought Schuller’s masterwork, I have been waiting to read a Times story explaining how this giant symbol of TV Christianity could be turned into a cruciform Catholic sanctuary. Here is the top of the recent story that ran under this headline: “Crystal Cathedral, the original evangelical megachurch, has a conversion to Catholicism.”

… The former Crystal Cathedral, a Southern California landmark that has long stood at the intersection of kitsch and postmodernism just three miles from Disneyland, was officially rededicated by the most unlikely of saviors: the Catholic Church.

When the soaring Philip Johnson-designed megachurch opened in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral was, strictly speaking, neither crystal (the structure is composed of more than 10,000 rectangular panels of glass) nor a cathedral (it housed a televangelist, not a Catholic bishop).

That televangelist — late pastor Robert Schuller — once called the compound a “22-acre shopping center for God.”

This short feature — there’s no real coverage of the dedication rites — focused on how Schuller symbolized a shiny era of Southern California, offering drive-in church services during the “same year Disneyland opened its doors and Ray Kroc launched his first McDonald’s restaurant.”

The text is snappy and packed with details — about Schuller. The new Christ Cathedral? Not so much. Here is some key material near the end of the piece:

Schuller died in 2015 at age 88. But his grand creation, now renamed Christ Cathedral, seems to still have an uncanny ability to reflect the changing tides of Southern California. After a two-year, $72.3-million renovation, the cathedral was officially dedicated as the new seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange at a ceremony attended by thousands Wednesday. The interior looks quite different from the backdrop Americans once saw on their television screens. But Orange County itself looks radically different from the image of affluent homogeneity that long dominated public consciousness.

Oh well. The sanctuary now “looks quite different” than it did, but that’s pretty much that.

I guess what happened to the church — in its conversion for use by believers in the world’s largest Christian flock — wasn’t all that newsworthy.

Back in 2012, I wrote an “On Religion” column about the issues Catholic leaders would face when turning this Protestant super church into a Catholic house of sacramental worship. I interviewed Mathew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program. His work focused on traditional church designs.

Alderman said it “would be hard to imagine a more symbolic project that this one.” He drew, and published, sketches of the interior of a transformed Crystal Cathedral. Here is a large chunk of that column:

"What we are going to see at the Crystal Cathedral is sort of like a collision between the therapeutic American Protestantism of the television age with all of the symbolism, art and ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and its worship." …

It would be impossible, he noted, to retroactively convert this modernist classic — a structure so open that it seems to have no true walls or interior space — into what most people would consider a normal, conventional cathedral.

"While traditional styles can often be mixed within historic interiors," wrote Alderman, "the modernist movement was such a destructive act of self-exile that great care must be used when adding traditional elements to a dated modernist interior. Plopping down a Gothic altarpiece into a 1968 ecclesiastical wigwam usually just makes the wigwam look worse."

The crucial decision, according to Alderman, is whether to turn the direction of the seating so the faithful will face down the 415-foot length of the sanctuary toward a newly created altar platform built inside the existing glass building. This would create a traditional nave with a center aisle for processions toward the altar and the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. Currently, the church resembles a long amphitheater in which worshippers face a stage and giant video screen. …”

The old Crystal Cathedral was built — sort of — in the shape of a cross. However it was shallow in the middle, facing the pulpit/stage, with long arms spreading to the side. This was not, to say the least, a traditional cross.

There would be, he stressed, theological content in long liturgical processions down the new 415-foot center aisle toward the altar. Alderman recommended the construction of a worship space similar to what would be seen at an outdoor papal Mass, a high altar framed by the blue skies seen through the cathedral glass.

If you watch the videos embedded in this post, it’s easy to see that the diocese left the Crystal Cathedral pretty much the way that it was, in terms of its basic form. Architects added Catholic details inside the vast TV-studio Protestant shape.

Were there critics of this decision? Were other options considered? Does any of this matter to Catholics in Southern California and elsewhere?

The goal of an earlier Los Angeles Times piece was to tell readers about the many changes that took place inside the redesigned church. For example:

One innovative aspect of the renovation, Smith said, are “quatrefoils,” specially designed window shades that were added to 11,000 panes of glass to control sunlight. Instead of the bright light that used to come in through the glass building, Smith said the quatrefoils offer a softer glow, giving the cathedral’s interior an “ethereal look.”

Additions also transformed the cathedral into a place for Catholic liturgy, including a marble platform and altar; a 1,000-pound crucifix hanging above it; a cathedra, the bishop’s chair; an ambo, where the Bible is read aloud during Mass; reconciliation chapels where confessions will be heard; a Blessed Sacrament Chapel for private prayers in front of the Eucharist; and an octagonal baptistery with a cross-shaped baptismal pool.

What about the shape of the cathedral itself? Was there any attempt to move from modernism to a form with ties to centuries of Catholic tradition?

Nothing to see here. Moving on.

FIRST IMAGE: A sketch from the Diocese of Orange.

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