by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, originally affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, was probably the best-known megachurch in the U.S. Designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson, the church was founded and led for many years by its famed pastor, Robert H. Schuller. The largest glass building in the world, the church has a seating capacity of over 2,700 people.
In 2010, the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, and the building, along with the surrounding facilities, was sold to the Catholic Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million and was renamed Christ Cathedral. The building is currently being adapted to the requirements of Catholic worship and will reopen in 2016.
The Crystal Cathedral belonged to a relatively new category of Protestant churches called megachurches. These hold very large numbers of people and have an extraordinary array of ministries. The largest megachurch in the U.S., Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, holds 16,800 people. The largest megachurch in the world is in Seoul, South Korea, and seats 26,000 people.
The advantages of megachurches are that they have a relatively high number of specialized clergy and a large body of well-trained lay ministers and volunteers who provide education for all ages, youth and young adult ministry, bereavement programs, and (extensive) charitable outreach.
The principal disadvantage of Protestant megachurches is that often there is a megapastor whose personal charism (in preaching, particularly) is the foundation of the church. When the megapastor leaves for one reason or another (scandal, mismanagement, illness, age), the megachurch can experience crisis and even failure. (When the highly charismatic Robert Schuller reached his senior years he was no longer able to function at the Crystal Cathedral, with the result that the latter began to fail, hence the sale to the Diocese of Orange.)
How the re-named Christ Cathedral will function as a Catholic church remains to be seen. Will it be able to incorporate the strengths of the megachurch and avoid the pitfalls? Can it become a model for the Catholic Church generally?
I would answer yes to both questions. In dense Catholic population areas, for instance, a diocese could amalgamate, say, five parishes, sell the buildings, and in their place build one large centrally located church, holding perhaps up to 4,000 people.
Instead of five parishes with five pastors, there would be one parish with five priests (even less, if the vocation shortage continues). Each priest could have a job description carved out according to his gifts and talents (preaching, counseling, education, etc.). Instead of a meager lay ministerial and administrative staff, the parish could have a more ample supply of expert personnel.
A Catholic megachurch would have the resources for liturgical and musical excellence. It could have perpetual adoration, confessions daily, and be open twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for operating such things as crisis ministry. It could run a small medical clinic for the poor.
What would a Catholic megachurch look like architecturally? Certainly, it would not take the modernist, functionalist Christ Cathedral as a model. On the other hand, a long, narrow basilica-style building like that of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (which holds about 3,000 people) would not work either. The floor plan that I favor would be more like that of St. John’s Abbey church in Collegeville, Minnesota, which is wide and short.
In my opinion, the megachurch movement could serve the Catholic Church well. It would, of course, have its own particular problems. But that’s for another column.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.