161 years ago last month, a man failed in his attempt to assassinate the young Franz Josef I, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In gratitude for this grace, the Emperor commissioned the building of a neo-Gothic church known as the Votivkirche, the "Votive Church." It's an impressive sight, especially when lighted at night, on the Ringstrasse encircling the core of the old city of Vienna, Austria. It's a stone's throw from the University, the Parliament, the Rathaus (city hall). I walked past it many times during the summer of 1968 when I was a student there and lived a 10-minute stroll away.
But it's a neo-Gothic, not a true Gothic church. It has taken Gothic architecture and given it a strong dose of overkill. It's a church that was built as a gift to "The Church" headquartered in Rome but with political power centered in Vienna and the German-speaking empire that would last a thousand years.
The church was not built because Vienna needed more seating capacity for worship, more Sunday school rooms, a men's and women's shelter, or a food pantry.
Like a votive candle, the church was "offered in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude or devotion." Doubtless, the Austrian Cardinal(s), Archbishops, Bishops and priests loved it. Surely the Pope would have pronounced eternal blessing on Franz Josef and his family.
A tourist guide has this description:
The architect was Heinrich von Ferstel. The most beautiful historic relic in the
Votivkirche is its late 15th-century Antwerpian altar, a masterpiece of Flemish
woodcarving, representing scenes from the Passion. The main portal sculptures
depict the four Evangelists and figures from the Old Testament, along with four
patrons of the Empire’s regions. Many of the chapels inside the church are
dedicated to the Austrian regiments and to military heroes.
The interweaving of royalty and the priesthood, the reach of military power and the domain of the Holy Catholic Church had been through centuries, a millennium and a half, actually, by the time the Votivkirche was built. There had been fights and struggles and murders, wars among popes, bishops, princes and kings. There had been a Reformation and schisms. There had been the Thirty Years' War and the Inquisition. There had been the black death, famines, the Crusades, colonial empires and the slave trade.
There had been the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the discovery of America, the Baroque period, the Rococco, the French Revolution and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Imperial Europe was still decades away from the Great War, aka the "war to end all wars." The United States of America had found by 1879 when the Votivkirche was completed, that we weren't so united after all. Five years of Civil War and 600,000 American deaths at the hands of other Americans could only leave us questioning.
How could such a church be built in a world always astir? And what went on inside such luxurious buildings?
1. Daily masses fed by people convinced that going to mass was a good work and was necessary for their salvation.
2. A complex and comprehensive sacramental system in which the Church was the sole possessor and mediator of grace.
3. People were compelled to serve that system because it held the keys of life and death, salvation or damnation for their immortal souls.
4. And there were elaborate worship services with cantors and choirs and pipe organs and priests and deacons and altar boys lining up in grand imperial processions and carrying on elaborately choreographed movements with censors of incense and monstrances and genuflections and kneeling and prostrations and vestments. All of the prefaces, the Great Thanksgiving, the consecration of the elements of bread and wine (with only the priest being allowed to consume the wine itself) were in Latin, not the people's tongue.
5. Not to mention kingmaking and sanctions for wars and strategic alliances and land deals and royal marriages and dissolutions of convenience...
And some modern day people with no knowledge of Christian history wonder why there is a problem with having national flags in church. Oh, my...
Yet, somewhere under this grinding weight of a royal institution, a little of the work of serving the poor and the orphan was done, mostly by the sisters who had devoted their lives to Christ's service on behalf of the church... or to the church's service on behalf of Christ. A few bread crumbs trickled down to Lazarus and the dogs while massive amounts of wealth passed through the upper floors of the high-rise hierarchy. As far as most people knew, it had always been that way. And always would be. It was a monopoly. You couldn't know Christ apart from, or outside of, the official church.
From a movement that began with Jesus spending time among Gentiles and tax collectors, mentally ill and outcasts, from a small group that met in private homes behind closed doors and were called "The Way," how did the world ever get to the Imperial Church of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, to Notre Dame and Chartres in France, to the Votivkirche and Karlskirche in Vienna?
It all began in 313 AD with Emperor Constantine in Constantinople/Byzantium/Istanbul. When Christianity became not only legal but the official religion of the empire, it became royal and imperial. The prayer circle of two or three gathered together with Christ in their midst became the grand procession of the Imperial Priesthood. It was a worship revolution.
It was then that a large number of humble priests and monks left the city for the desert and the wilderness. They had to get away.
How could one accept the grace of God and not be humbled and transformed by that? How could one, after all, be wealthy and comfortable and propserous--while others were hungry, homeless and living in filth--and call oneself a Christian, a follower of Christ? How could one be a Christian and not give up nearly everything? How could one be greedy for ever more power and wealth and find no conflict with the way of Jesus?
How could worship ("church," if you will) go from neighborhood prayer service to production and performance spectacle? How could it go from gathering in humble homes to building royal "palaces" as sanctuaries--and not have lost its way entirely?
The Desert Fathers wondered that. So have I. So do I. Still...
Meanwhile, Emperors can build votive cathedrals at taxpayers' and peasants' expense, and be given Divine blessing for their good deeds. Souls of the poor can be held hostage all along the way.
Worship has never been the same ever since...
Next time: "The Quiet Churches"