Palm trees surround the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., which was purchased for $57.5 million by the Catholic diocese of Orange, Calif., in February. The diocese announced June 9 it has renamed the structure Christ Cathedral. CNS photo / Rick Belcher, diocese of Orange

A cathedral, California-style

  • June 26, 2013

GARDEN GROVE, CALIF. - On the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the parish of St. Callistus will have a procession, but not any ordinary procession. This being California, it will be a motorcade. And the congregation won’t be coming back.

St. Callistus parish will leave its buildings here in Garden Grove and move down Lewis Street to the most famous religious landmark in Orange County — the Crystal Cathedral of Robert H. Schuller’s television ministry, Hour of Power.

The Crystal Cathedral ministry fell into bankruptcy a few years back and the diocese of Orange, which comprises part of the Greater Los Angeles Area, bought it and its associated campus. The glass and steel “cathedral” will now actually be what it has long been called, namely a cathedral for the diocese of Orange. The diocese, at 1.2 million Catholics, is the 10th largest in the United States and was without a proper cathedral. Plans stretching back for over a decade envisioned a new cathedral, which likely would have cost more than $100 million, if recent experience in Los Angeles or Oakland was any guide. As a bankruptcy proceeding, the diocese was able to buy the entire 15-hectare downtown campus for a fraction of its real value. The new campus will be called “Christ Cathedral” and includes not only the 2,800- seat flagship “church” but six other buildings, including an office tower, a massive complex which will house the entire diocesan offices and a Catholic school, a Richard Meier-designed cultural centre and plenty of green grass in between, which is something of a rarity in Orange County. The land alone, to say nothing of the buildings, would be worth more than the $57 million the diocese paid for it.

There was some grumbling from more traditionally minded folks that the Crystal Cathedral did not conform to the principles of Catholic ecclesial architecture. That’s true, but this is California, and whatever the Orange diocese was going to build from scratch, it was not going to be a gothic masterpiece or a baroque splendour. The interior of the Crystal Cathedral will undergo a complete renovation to make it suitable for Catholic worship, and it may well be the case that when it is finished it will be more Catholic — inside and out — than other recent California constructions.

Some time this fall the Crystal Cathedral will cease operations as the home of the Hour of Power and close for its renovation. But this Saturday, the nearby parish of St. Callistus moves into two of the other buildings on the campus. The vacated parish buildings will become the new home of the Crystal Cathedral congregation when it departs. And what St. Callistus brings immediately to the cathedral campus is not insignificant. The parish has 11 Sunday Masses in three languages — English, Spanish and Vietnamese — and a regular congregation of as many as 10,000.

What is more exciting than a bargain real estate deal or a ready-made congregation is the possibility of the new evangelization taking root in the heart of Orange County. The Garden Grove campus got its start when Robert Schuller — who arrived in California in 1955, the same year as Walt Disney — launched the innovation of drive-in Sunday services. People would come in their cars to an old drive-in theatre, and listen to Schuller preach. Eventually he built the Crystal Cathedral in the middle of 1950s tract housing, which he slowly bought up, tore down and rebuilt to create an urban oasis in car-friendly southern California.

There is every reason to think that the new Christ Cathedral campus will continue to draw both locals and the vast number of tourists who visit nearby Disneyland and other California attractions. The facilities are already in place for the campus to be not only a worship and administrative centre, but also an educational and cultural centre for Orange County. With some imagination, those who come seeking what they may have seen on television — or in the movies, as the Meier cultural centre was featured in the latest Star Trek film — might have proposed to them not the crystal building, but the Christ whose names it now bears.

The feast of Sts. Peter and Paul is a profoundly Roman feast — the two princes are the patrons of Rome. So it might seem provocatively Catholic to celebrate the first Mass on the new campus on this feast. But Peter and Paul are also figures of unity, and even as Catholics often emphasize Peter, so too do Protestants emphasize Paul. So the transfer is suitable for the feast for that reason too, different spiritual traditions enriching one another, California-style.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:

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