The saintly architect who unsettles atheists

Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church, in Barcelona, Spain (PA)

A friend tells me he will be missing the general election this week as he has decided to take a short break in Rome instead. I envy him. Who wants to listen to Nicola Sturgeon repeat again that she fully intends to push Ed Miliband around if Labour wins it or to hear Ed Miliband repeat again that he has no intention of being pushed around by Nicola Sturgeon if the SNP holds the balance of power?

Actually, the place I would like to be this week is not so much Rome (though I would accept a free plane ticket if it were offered) but Barcelona – specifically to visit the basilica of the Sagrada Familia. I have never seen it, I have only read about it, and a recent article from CNA has only increased my curiosity and desire. According to the article, there is an Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi, the Catalan architect who conceived the idea for this extraordinary building of pinnacles and pillars, stained glass and soaring tree-like structures.

Gaudi, a devout Catholic born in 1852 in Catalonia, must be the first architect so honoured. The cause for his canonisation was opened officially in Rome in 2003 as a result of support from all over the world, with many stories of miracles due to his intercession. Even atheists are not immune to his holy influence: Jose Almuzara Perez, who leads the Association, relates that someone who had visited the Sagrada Familia described to him how its atmosphere of a divine presence had deeply affected him, saying “I’m an atheist. What is happening to me?”

Another story tells of a Buddhist from South Korea, sent to Barcelona to study the building, who later converted to Catholicism. He explained that he had “discovered the divine that is present in Gaudi’s work; and seeing and admiring his work, he discovered the existence of God.” Too often we think of conversion as being a matter of the intellect; yet underneath the thinking and reflecting process, at a deeper and more intuitive level, there is always the possibility of the action of grace working on the senses – whether through music, art, nature or in Gaudi’s case, through all the senses caught up in his inspired Sagrada Familia.

The church was consecrated by Benedict XVI on November 7 2010. It is still under construction and expected to be completed by 2016, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. A useful CTS booklet on Gaudi includes the Holy Father’s homily in which he speaks of the church reflecting “all the grandeur of the human spirit in its openness to God.” Benedict described the architect’s life as one “lived in dignity and absolute austerity”, saying how much he had been moved by Gaudi’s confidence when “in the face of so many difficulties [he was] filled with trust in Divine Providence and would exclaim, “St Joseph will finish this church”.

Benedict, who noted that his own baptismal name was Joseph, also drew Gaudi’s church into what must be his own constant theological preoccupation, saying the architect had accomplished “one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life…” Gaudi himself once spoke in a similar way, describing a church as being “the only thing worthy of representing the soul of a people, for religion is the most elevated reality in man.”

There is another detail about Gaudi’s life which draws me to him. In collaboration with the then parish priest, Fr Gil Pares, he also designed and personally financed a school for the children of the basilica’s labourers and for the poorest families in the neighbourhood; indeed, the church was known as “the Cathedral of the Poor”. Saying “The poor must always find a welcome in the Church, which is an expression of Christian charity”, Gaudi showed that his work was not simply the compartmentalised professional exercise of his gifts but integrated into his daily life of faith.

By the end of his life he was living in his workshop at the basilica. Single, ascetic, frugal in his dress and devoted to his faith, he was mistaken for a tramp when he was knocked down by a streetcar in a fatal accident in 1926 when on his way to Mass. He is buried in the Sagrada Familia – so if I ever get to Barcelona (and it’s not likely this week, worse luck) it will be a pilgrimage not just to the basilica itself but also to the tomb of this saintly man, known familiarly as “God’s architect”.