ORANGE COUNTY’S CHRIST CATHEDRAL

Let me say up front that my idea of the ideal Catholic church is a teeny, slightly down-at-the-heels chapel, say one of the “capillas” in and around Taos, New Mexico: whitewashed walls streaked with candle smoke, bloody statues of Jesus, tin retablos. On Sundays, if you’re lucky, maybe an accordion player.

On July 13, as usual, God had other plans. That was the night I journeyed to Garden Grove for a lollapalooza event at Christ Cathedral.

Formerly known as Crystal Cathedral and owned and operated by Protestant televangelist Robert “Hour of Power” Schuller, the church has been scooped up by the Diocese of Orange, subjected to a $77 million renovation, and as of July 17 is now open for weekend worship.

To celebrate, the diocese (which ministers to 1.2 million faithful) threw a black-tie bash, including a cocktail reception, a program and concert, and an elegant dinner by Patina in the Cathedral Plaza.

Naturally my first consideration was what to wear. I own one dress, by a German designer partial to colors like “algae” and “grout”: the kind of sack-like garment in which prisoners were sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The second was who to bring. I was lucky enough to nab Dr. Michael James Sullivan (Jamie to his friends), Chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the City of Hope. His equally accomplished wife Maura was out of town and graciously agreed to lend him out. So I, too, stepped up to the plate and as Jesus would have me do, bought a fancy dress and had my nails done.

Traffic was hideous so we missed cocktail hour and barely arrived in time for the concert. Partly because with its thousands of glass panes the exterior of the 120-foot church resembles an upscale medical building; partly because the approach consists of a huge minimalist plaza with nary a statue, cross, flower, or other “Catholic” indicia; and partly because the interior has the look and feel of an airline terminal, it took me a minute to realize we were in the actual cathedral.

All pale marble and limestone, the sanctuary is startingly monochrome. The dominant feature consists of 11,000 silver-white quatrefoils—triangular metal “sails,” that cost $6 million and completely line the geometrically precise walls and ceiling. Even the renowned Hazel White organ, with its 16,000 pipes, has been painted white.

“America’s Got Talent” star Jackie Evancho, in a cherry-red ball gown that showed quite a bit more cleavage than might be strictly appropriate on the altar of a Catholic church, kicked off the concert—the first ever in this sacred space—with “Some Enchanted Evening.”

So it took a while to get my bearings. Finally I realized, Oh THERE are the vaunted baldachino, the bishop’s chair, and the “crux gemmata,” inlaid with precious jewels.

Originally designed by Philip Johnson of the “Chippendale Dresser” AT&T Building fame, the cathedral received its makeover from Scott Johnson of the LA firm Johnson Fain.

There are some lovely touches: the 20-foot bronze entry doors; the bas-relief Stations of the Cross, also bronze, by Bolivian artist Pablo Eduardo (with more work by him to come). The 34-acre campus houses six other buildings, including one each by Richard Neutra and Richard Meier. The cathedral alone, along with the adjacent 236-foot mirrored spire, really deserves a separate trip and several hours.

And to be fair, as airline terminals go, this one is transcendent. Since the cost of a tear-down and new construction would have been prohibitive, the Diocese had to work with what it had. Our own Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron imagines the new cathedral as “a vibrant center of evangelization.”

But the attempt to turn a Protestant televangelist megachurch designed by a maverick postmodernist into a Catholic cathedral was bound to generate a certain amount of blowback.

Christopher Hawthorne, “LA Times” architecture critic, for example, describes the renovation as having “far more in common with the nearby Mattherhorn at Disneyland, the Biosphere in Arizona or the domes of Buckminster Fuller than with any cathedral in Europe.”

I’m no art critic, but if I were in charge of building a cathedral, I’d first off hire an architect who loves Christ and attends daily Mass. A Mass-goer would know a church is the last place you want to be exposed to the sterile glare of the operating room. A church should be hushed, with a gloomy corner or two, and the merciful twilight of a convalescent home.

A church needs a splash of blood-red: say, a beautifully-crafted stained-glass window of the Annunciation, or even a “corny” statue of Jesus pointing to his Sacred Heart: imagery, however high or low, that speaks of consecrated time and space; of a world beyond this one; of sin, redemption, eternity, and sacrificial love.

With all that, the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor observed that the Mass involves the same act if it’s said out of a suitcase in a boiler room or at St. Peter’s in Rome.

That’s what will bring the cathedral alive: Mass, and us rank-and-file members of the faithful. As St. Ambrose observed, “The Church is beautiful in her saints.” A saint would remember, as I should more often, that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. A saint would kneel before the altar—any altar—and ask, along with Elizabeth, “Who am I, that the mother of our Lord should come to me?”

Dinner was splendid. The staff, our host, and our table companions couldn’t have been warmer of more fun. Jamie and I were both honored to have been invited and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

Plus now that I have a fancy dress—I’m all set for the next bash.

THIS IS MUCH MORE MY SPEED.
GLOOMY, SHADOWED, AND PLENTY OF
PLACES TO HIDE YOUR FACE IN YOUR HANDS,
WEEP, AND PRAY.

4 Replies to “ORANGE COUNTY’S CHRIST CATHEDRAL”

  1. There must be a humble little Catholic church somewhere in Orange County, I hope.

    1. Oh I'm sure there are many, Michael–Orange County is a big place…

  2. What a lovely ending… I loved your description of Johnson's "chippendale dresser" building. Thank you for your work. I am glad you had a good time and a good meal, and now have a "fancy dress." You are a great writer and inspire me every time I read one of your pieces.

    1. Herman, thank you so much and welcome aboard! Glad to have you.

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