University of Notre Dame, 2016
Program of Liberal Studies and Theology
Studying abroad this past semester has taken me many places I’ll not soon forget, but perhaps none more striking or richly beautiful than La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain. Begun in 1882 in the eccentric modern style of Antoni Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia is an unparalleled place of worship. When my friends and I visited Barcelona for a weekend trip, our first order of business was visiting the famous Park Güell, also designed by Gaudi, from which a sweeping panorama of the city could be enjoyed. Instantly setting itself apart from its surroundings, La Sagrada Familia stood out in the cityscape like a beautiful sore thumb, piercing the fog in the distance. When we later arrived at the Basilica, the line to get inside was nearly an hour long, but the time passed quickly, spent marveling at the amazingly intricate detailing – gargoyles, crosses, saints – covering the façade of the church.
When we stepped inside, it took me a moment to find my jaw. The enormity of the basilica draws your eyes up and up, irresistibly, to a perfectly white light that pours in through the ceiling. Among giant, awe-inspiring pillars reminiscent of tree trunks, brilliant stained glass windows invite the most vibrant colors to dwell with the visitors. In short, it was a picture of heaven, every piece within the Basilica working uniquely, and yet all coming together in perfect harmony to create a singular space of praise. However, among all this transcendent beauty, there was another aspect of this church that caught my attention. Although construction of La Sagrada Familia began over a century ago, it is still being built today and isn’t expected to be completed until 2026. As I wandered through this stunning liturgical space, the hum of construction, inside and out, was inescapable. Giant cranes surrounded the outside of the Basilica, and mesh netting covered much of the inside.
I couldn’t believe that this church begun over one hundred years ago was still being, not refurbished, but finished. Walking around La Sagrada Familia, hearing the clanking of metal and the rhythmic drilling of jackhammers was just as much a part of the experience of taking in the beauty of the basilica as gazing at the stained glass windows and the enormous altar. I couldn’t help but think that all of us inside that basilica could learn something from this holy space about how we ourselves might grow in holiness. I think we share the vocation this church lives out. Like La Sagrada Familia, we are called to become more perfect versions of ourselves and orient ourselves ever more perfectly toward eucharistic praise. Christ tells us, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
The beauty of La Sagrada Familia is that it is truly a living place. Each day, as it comes closer and closer to becoming what it was created to be, a perfect space of praise and eucharistic offering, this church answers a more and more emphatic ‘yes’ to this call of Christ’s.
And so with us.
We share this call to become, over time, more perfect members of the body of Christ. The tune up of sorts that we require – the ascetic preparation that we undertake to cleanse and prepare our souls to conform our wills ever more perfectly to the Divine Will – is not unlike the continual construction and choirs of power tools sounding through La Sagrada Familia. I was struck, visiting this basilica, by the fact that it was becoming a better church as it was being a church. We too are called, as we already are members of the community of the faithful, to become ever better, more holy people, and to answer a fuller, richer ‘yes’ to God’s call for our lives.
La Sagrada Familia is a fantastic sign of how we ourselves are rejuvenated and given new life in conforming ourselves to our call, just as the basilica has. As Christ tells us, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
Just as the Sagrada Familia receives its fullness of life as it is painted and constructed, becoming a better church more able to give back in praise what it has received in gift, we too have life to the full inasmuch as we respond faithfully and lovingly to our vocational calls.
This juxtaposition between the newness and oldness of La Sagrada Familia – the fact that this space was still being made new and brought to completion even after it had stood for over one hundred years – led me to notice another striking juxtaposition in the church, that between its physicality and spirituality. The ever-changing appearance of the church as it underwent construction drew a sharp contrast with the never-changing, abiding love of the spirit who dwells in such a special way in that space. This too lent a rich insight into our own experience as members of the faithful. Each time we enter the liturgy, we say more or less the same prayers. This is the eternal. But we are also refreshed and made new in our faith through our spiritual practices as we make more perfect sacrifices of praise.
On Sunday, the last day of my trip to Barcelona, my friends and I returned to La Sagrada Familia for Mass, and as we celebrated the Eucharist, a statue was being ever so carefully painted just behind us. The painting of the statue was a beautiful sign. Just as the statue of the saint was becoming more beautiful in its painting, we too in the midst of the same eucharistic offering, were inching closer to sainthood.
Witnessing this particular piece of the church’s construction couldn’t have been more perfect, because it happened during mass – a reminder that ultimately, what makes La Sagrada Familia such a wondrous place is not how pretty it is, but rather its purpose. The holy celebration of the Eucharist. So too does our fullness of life, our perfection on the road to holiness, come from the gift God’s grace and the sacrifice of His Son poured out for us.