From Crystal Cathedral to Catholic Cathedral


National Catholic Register, 17 July 2019

Very few things are truly unprecedented in the life of the Church, but a Catholic cathedral built inside of a former Protestant church is one of them.

ORANGE, Calif. — What does a cathedral for the 21st century look like? The dedication on July 17 of the new Christ Cathedral in the Diocese of Orange, California, offers one of the most creative answers to that question.

No cathedral has ever been built in the circumstances of Christ Cathedral, and it took an unusual measure of boldness for the diocese to embrace the challenge. The history of Christ Cathedral bears witness to an important part of the Catholic story of our time.

Very few things are truly unprecedented in the life of the Church, but a Catholic cathedral built inside of a former Protestant church is one of them. Christ Cathedral is the former “Crystal Cathedral,” used for decades as the megachurch setting for televangelist Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power.

The building and surrounding campus — 35 acres in Garden Grove, California — were acquired by the Church in 2011, after Schuller’s ministry went into bankruptcy proceedings. It was a historic bargain — a property worth hundreds of millions was purchased for $57 million.

The Diocese of Orange was chosen as the favored buyer — it was not the highest bidder — because it promised to maintain the religious purpose of the site. Additionally, it promised to maintain the exterior structure of the several buildings on the campus, especially the “Crystal Cathedral” itself, the second-most-famous campus in the area. The first is nearby Disneyland.

What should a cathedral look like? For much of U.S. Catholic history, they looked like the great European cathedrals, even as they drew on different parts of that long tradition. Nineteenth and early-20th century projects like St. Patrick’s in New York, St. Paul’s in Minnesota and St. Louis in Missouri are quite different from each other, but all are magnificent examples of the tradition of sacred architecture being successively adapted to the American context. Though not a cathedral, Washington’s massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception reaches back to an even earlier Byzantine style, though it includes other elements, as well. It was dedicated in 1959.

The traditional answer is not the only answer. A cathedral can be built using new materials and employing new architectural styles, something that brings sacred meaning to contemporary schools of design. We see that in the design of Liverpool’s Cathedral of Christ the King, completed in 1967, in which a modern design in the round replaced an earlier design that echoed St. Peter’s in Rome.

Another example would be the cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, St. Sebastian, completed in 1979, which is meant to look like the pyramids built by the Mayan civilization. The best known American example is the neighboring cathedral to Orange, the 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in nearby Los Angeles.

Those three examples, and others like them, were not without controversy. The objection was made that they did not “look” like churches. Sacred purpose was not brought to new architectural styles as much as it was swallowed up by them.

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