Sunday, September 27, 2009

For CT College, a New "Heart"

Later today, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield's doing something rare for this moment in history as the Connecticut school dedicates a $17 million, 500-seat chapel on the campus quad.

Its exterior formed of glass and copper, the main gem of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit is found inside, thanks to mosaics created by the same Jesuit priest behind John Paul II's redesign of the Redemptoris Mater chapel, the Vatican space used for semi-private papal events, including the Roman Curia's annual Lenten retreat.

In advance of this afternoon's Opening Mass, no less than the Times wanted a first look:
Astonishingly, the nearly 2,000 square feet of mosaic were installed in 12 days by Father [Marko Ivan] Rupnik and 15 co-workers, including Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern- and Latin-rite Catholics. They began each day with a liturgy, worked until lunch (the contract specified that wine be served) and then until a late dinner. They had the finished faces of two dozen biblical figures shipped in from Rome, but assembled over 200,000 pieces by hand.

“It was a remarkable, spiritual two weeks,” recalls David Coppola, the university’s assistant vice president.

Brad Prestbo, the architect who has overseen the project for the Sasaki Associates firm in Boston, said the masons and tile setters on the job “were in awe of the craftsmanship.”

Where the chapel’s art is overtly dramatic, its architecture is subtle. The design emerged from reflection on the Second Vatican Council’s themes of the church as the pilgrim people of God and as engaged in dialogue with the contemporary world. The roof and one wall use different tones of copper to suggest the folds and fabric of a nomadic tent, a note repeated in the main chapel’s ceiling. And the clear glass of the large, inviting narthex, or entry space, opens the chapel to the rest of the campus.

The exterior walls have finely detailed panels that faintly echo the stacks in the library across the central quadrangle. These walls are inscribed with the Corporal Works of Mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and so on) that the church draws from Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel....

But why a new $17 million chapel in the first place, and not just a chapel but one elaborately conceived in specific theological terms and prominently located in the center of the campus?

That is something you normally find on the nation’s oldest, now often completely secular, campuses. But does it make sense when students typically avow that they are striving to be spiritual but certainly not religious?

This week, Dr. Coppola noted aspects of the chapel in keeping with this spiritual seeking: its motifs of pilgrimage and dialogue as well as the interreligious meditation garden. “Definitely a Catholic chapel, but also a place for people all along the pilgrimage,” he said. Students, he felt confident, would remember it long after graduation as “a place of spirituality, doubt, belief, learning.”

Anthony J. Cernera, the president of Sacred Heart — a layman and a theologian — did not disagree, but said the chapel was a challenge to the “spiritual but not religious” catchphrase.

“It would be a terrible mistake to fall into the trap of accepting that dichotomy,” he said. “The best way to be spiritual in the Catholic tradition is to celebrate the Eucharist and to use all the signs of the faith.”
PHOTO: Christopher Capoziello/The New York Times