The Age Belongs To Christ - An Interview with Bishop Allen Vigneron


Though begun under his predecessor, Bishop John Cummins, the Cathedral of Christ the Light will likely prove to be a major achievement of Bishop Allen Vigneron's episcopate. On August 3, I spoke by telephone with Bishop Vigneron to get his thoughts on the cathedral project.

Bishop Vigneron, you have stated that the cathedral will help fulfil the diocese's mission "to make holy, to teach, and to serve." How does it do this?

Bishop Vigneron: Before we talk about the design, I need to talk about a cathedral as such. The point of a cathedral is to be a home for the whole diocese. In that sense it is a place where the bishop brings people from all parts of the diocese together for preaching deeper knowledge of Christ and the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. We haven't had that [in Oakland], and I do think we need that very much -- a place where people can encounter Christ and be strengthened in our Faith.

The design is very contemporary in idiom; yet, I don't think it is utilitarian. I think it's very elegant, and it's done precisely to say to ourselves as Catholics, but also to all of our neighbors, that the message of Christ is perennial and the witness to Christ can be given in all kinds of idioms; in particular, the idioms of the 21st century.

So that's why you've adopted a more modernistic architectural language, rather than, say, Romanesque, gothic, or baroque?

Yes, I think a contemporary idiom says the Gospel is perennially young. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI -- I think it was at his inauguration Mass -- said the Church is alive, she's young. I think it's all part of that same witness, that we are not withdrawing from this age and we are part of it, because the age belongs to Christ. That's why I love this name, the Cathedral of Christ the Light of All Nations. I think it is an important witness. Again, as Pope Benedict said, people lose nothing in accepting Christ; they gain everything.

Doesn't the modernist idiom threaten to sever an iconic tradition, because so much of modernist architecture is an attempt to break off from the past?

Well, I don't see that our design is that, actually. The interior is a shape that very much reminds me of the floor plan of the church Sant' Andrea al Quirinale. I think it is very common in the baroque period to have a more elliptical style. [Christ the Light cathedral] is basically a large vault, which I also think is very much within the tradition, because the building itself is meant to be an icon for the vault of heaven, which is made visible by the building, and offers a place where people can come to celebrate the mysteries, which are a foretaste of heaven. The south wall of the cathedral is an icon of the dawn of light of creation, and the north wall, within that vault structure, is an icon of the light of Christ at the consummation of the world. Under that window and light is where the Holy Eucharist is celebrated.

I understand from my reading that there has been certain thought about architecture that is almost a nihilism, but in no way do I understand that to be true of our building. From the very beginning we've talked about it being an icon for icons; it takes up natural symbols, which then become specified through salvation history, through God's work of grace in history.

Are you saying that traditional forms of architecture cannot speak to men today?

No, I'm not. But I am saying that with this building [we are trying] to use an idiom that everyone will recognize as very characteristic of this period and to speak Christ in that. And I think Christ is glorified in that. I think of the first part of the Letter to the Colossians, where it talks about how Christ is the firstborn of this new creation, and I think our mission as the Catholic Church here is to be this leaven, to bring the world to Christ.

A modernistic design is less culturally specific. Have you've chosen such a design in part to serve a more culturally diverse population?

I think it does help with that, since it doesn't identify the building with any particular home culture. But that's not my principal reason. One of my professors from the Catholic University, Monsignor Sokolowski, urged me to think of the cathedral as a missionary endeavor. He said, think about what happened in the New World; the building of cathedrals was a tremendous force for the planting of the Faith. That's really my principal purpose in this.

One document on the cathderal project website speaks of the cathedral as a welcoming gathering place for all people who want to do good. In what way is it that?

I think that grows out of the recognition that's so much a part of our Catholic life, that the Holy Spirit is at work abroad throughout the world and all that is good by nature has a place in the life of the Church. And that people who have as yet not come to faith ought to feel welcomed in the church and be able to appreciate it at some level.

Do you perceive the cathedral as a kind of civic center?

I think the way to think about it is as a spiritual center for the civic community. Think what the cathedral of Notre Dame represents for the city of Paris and the people of France; even those who aren't Catholic have some identification with it, and that's already a help for them to come to the fullness of their humanness in Christ."

As I understand, the diocese adopted Craig Hartman's design before you became bishop. Since then there has some changes in appointments, in particular, the position of the altar. Originally Hartman had the altar more towards the middle, but now it is more towards the north side.

It is more toward the end of the ellipse, but not at the very back of the ellipse. The floor plan really does have people, not completely around the altar (and as you say, the altar isn't in the middle) [but seated in a semi-circle around it]. The altar is at the head of the building without being so far that it creates any sense of isolation. I think that further enhances the iconic character of the building.

What does the semi-circular placement of seating signify?

I think it's an attempt to depict the relationship between the People of God and Christ their head. The people are gathered around Christ.

Do you think it's less hierarchical than the old nave/apse church design?

I don't know if I would put it that way because, whenever you're gathered under the headship of Christ, that always involves a sense of hierarchy.

I noticed that the altar is raised, which it wasn't in the original Hartman design...

That's really to help people to see.

But it also creates a sense of direction.

Yes, and I really think the direction is toward the consummation of Christ in glory, which is the symbol of the north wall.

Do the "Concept Statements" of February 17, 2000 and the accompanying "Companion Document" of the diocese's liturgical committee reflect the mind of the diocese?

I think that all of that material was a way to gather insight into the design that would be selected, and we've come now to have this design. So, insofar as they helped us shape the selection of the design, they have had impact on the cathedral.

But do they necessarily represent your vision of the cathedral?

It's been a while since I've looked at them, so I really can't comment on that.

In them there is a lot of emphasis on the church building -- or even the liturgy performed therein -- as a setting-forth of the People of God, very little reference to worship as such. The Christian life culminates in the worship of the Eucharist...


... but nowadays a lot of the theological emphasis is on the Eucharist as a sending forth. What more guides your mind in this cathedral design -- the sense of worship as the culmination of the Christian life or as a setting forth?

[Vatican II's] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy talks about the Mass, the Holy Eucharist especially, as the source and summit [of the Christian life], and I think when it talks about the source, it's talking about the missionary impulse of the Church. It is the source from which we receive grace, the power of the Holy Spirit, to go forth and make our everyday life an act of worship. And to say the summit is to say it is the consummate moment when heaven touches earth and we are caught up into the prayer of the great high priest that Our Lord always offers the Father. So, I think, Catholic doctrine means that we must emphasize both parts and see them as interrelated. Because, at the end, when time is done, there will just be the world that, through us, Christ has brought back to the Father in prayer and adoration.

Going back to the cathedral as a gathering place, is it this for missionary reasons, to draw people into the Church?

It's a gathering place, I would say, for Christological reasons, and we want people to know Christ. I think that's the best way to put it. And we do this because this is the task that Christ has entrusted to us.

Talking about civic purpose/missionary purpose, I think, while it is important that distinctions not be blurred, it is important not to create antitheses. It's very much a part of our Catholic genius to see that, while there are some people who don't share the Faith with us, we need to be engaged with them about everything that's good. I think the cathedral will help us to do that.

The fear sometimes is, though, that we are descending to a kind of unitarianism.

I understand that, but I don't think that the kind of engagement that I've talked about necessarily does lead to that. And I think in trying to avoid that problem, we can create all sorts of difficulties. Tertullian was, I think, dangerously close to certain kinds of sectarianism; he had that line, "what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" The important thing is not to say, "well there's no difference between Athens and Jerusalem," which, I agree, has all kinds of problematic manifestations; yet, at the same time, we must not be so wary of the troubles that we set up a hostility between Athens and Jerusalem.

I do think that we are at a millennial shift in the history of the Church, very much like what the [Church] fathers faced when they encountered the Hellenistic culture -- making discernments about points of contact between the revelation, the Gospel message, and the healthy, natural insights of that culture. It was out of that great work that eventually a whole Christian culture was developed, with some things from Jerusalem, some things from Athens. And I believe that God is giving us an analogous task for our own time. We've inherited a world that has been shaped in great part by things like the French Revolution, and we're asked to build a Christian culture through acts of discernment about what in our world harmonizes with the Gospel and what needs to be purified. I really think that was the great vision of the late Pope John Paul II; I think that's what he was talking about, especially in the celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000. And I see the building of the cathedral as one aspect of this great work of the New Evangelization.

So it's that you want the treasures of Egypt and not the flesh pots?

"I think that's very well said. And in fact, God is glorified in that."