A Brief Tour of the Cathedral of Christ the Light
July 28, 2008
I have always had an interest in architecture and liturgical design. As a young person, if I walked into an impressive public space, it was not unusual for me to exclaim, “Wouldn’t this make a cool church!” I think perhaps that this reflected an intuitive sense that some architecture had the power to move. The building did not need to be intended for liturgical use to uplift the spirit.
The Cathedral of Christ the Light for the Diocese of Oakland, California is certainly a structure that has the power to move and inspire. While it has been designed specifically for use as a Roman Catholic Cathedral, it cuts new ground both in its form, use of materials, and technology. It is truly “catholic” in its ability to suggest something quite spiritual, regardless of the viewer’s religious background. In short, the design of this building begs for reflection and theologizing. For this reason, I believe that this structure will have broad appeal for the diverse community it will serve.
The principal concept of the building is that of a light catcher. It gathers light. It filters light. It reflects light. By emanating light it pays homage to its namesake, Christ the Light. Beyond this fundamental idea, the cathedral offers multiple layers of meaning to be explored. The following are just a few examples.
The metaphor upon which the axis of the cathedral is designed is that of created time. The Alpha Wall at the main entrance represents the creative act of God by which all things came to be. Time itself is our way of attempting to comprehend a “beginning” brought about by the One who has no beginning. The baptismal font, located under the Alpha Wall, alludes to the primal waters of chaos from which life began and signifies the new light and life obtained in the sacrament of Baptism for those who enter its waters.
This idea is re-enforced by the axial placement of the font to Lake Merritt which fronts the cathedral. The scriptural text at the base of the font reinforces this theological tenant: The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. Genesis 1:2-3.
The Main Aisle
Further down the main aisle at the cross aisle of the nave, a Chi Ro is inlayed in the floor, this symbol for Jesus Christ reminds us that the incarnation places him at the center of all creation. It is he who has redeemed all things and will hand them over to the Father at the end of time.
It is the Parousia or end times when Christ returns in glory that is symbolized by the Omega Wall. The Christ, seated in judgment and robed in glorious light, is celebrated in a massive image contained in the screen covering the Omega Wall. The glass wall is 90 feet high and the image of Christ’s glorious return is created by tens of thousands of points of light projecting through the perforated stainless steel screens.
In the tradition of ancient cathedrals the Cathedral’s Oculus, a striking, contemporary glass, aluminum, and steel skylight, will be located at the very center of the Cathedral’s 110-foot ceiling. It will serve as a “window into the heavens,” suggesting the unity of our earthly liturgy and that of the angels and saints.
Located on a raised platform forward of the Omega wall is the altar. It is here that the offering of a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is made. At the Lord’s Table, the Church recalls that Christ has died, Christ is risen and that Christ will come again. At this Table we are fed the very substance of Christ as food to sustain us in the work of building up his kingdom, thus hastening the day of his coming! At the altar table we anticipate that final time – God’s time – when all will be in God and God will be in all. Once again, a scriptural text reinforces this theological principle. I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1
Chapel of the Suffering Christ
This chapel for private prayer will speak to all who bear the cross of Christ in their lives. It will remind them of the redemptive power of God’s love, which has overcome sin and death. The chapel’s centerpiece is a five-foot tall 17th century Spanish Colonial corpus.
Chapel of the Holy Family
Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the child Jesus, and the life they shared together will remind us that God chooses to be present and known in the flesh and blood of our human family. The chapel will contain four Spanish Colonial paintings (School of Cuzco). In addition, there will be two contemporary sculptures in a similar style by artist Luis Mora of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Chapel of All Saints
This shrine will provide a place for images that recall the saints, whose lives reflect the many cultures, languages, and peoples that make up the Diocese of Oakland. The Shrine will be a place for prayerful devotion and to light a candle. In addition, there will seating for small group prayer and devotions.
Translated literally as the “chair,” the bishop’s cathedra is the symbol of his role as a successor to the apostles, presiding over our local Church, and of his teaching and preaching ministry. The cathedra will be located in the midst of the presbyterium to the right of the altar.
Formed of curved stacked stone and reflective of the dignity and nobility of Scriptures, the ambo is the place from which the word is proclaimed. Its design is similar to that of the bema found in synagogues, a reminder of the roots of the Christian Liturgy of the Word. It will be located left of the altar and serve a terminus to the reredos wall which wraps around from the rear of the sanctuary.
Choir and Organ
The choir is located to the left of the altar opposite the presbyterium. Overhead on the left and right are the organ galleries, which dramatically cantilever from the superstructure of the cathedral.
These are but a few observations on the highlights on this amazing building which will no doubt be the opus magum of architect Craig Hartman. It has been a privilege to collaborate with him and all the talented men and women who have worked on this project. It has been clear from the outset that everyone realized they were involved in something very special and that it would be greater than any one of us might have accomplished alone.
This spirit has been complemented by the extraordinary vision of Bishop Allen Vigneron and the Diocese of Oakland. It is often said that when it comes to design, it difficult to do something well without a good client. In the case of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, the client not only had a vision but was able to articulate it with eloquence. Furthermore, the gifts of everyone were affirmed and welcomed. In the end, this is why the Oakland Cathedral will surpass anything we imagined possible.
Brother William Woeger, FSC is a liturgical design consultant and artist. He also serves as the Director of Worship for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.
Images: Cathedral Photography by John Blaustein.