Earlier this month I had the privilege of witnessing a Catholic ritual that I was previously unfamiliar with: the dedication of a new church. (Full disclosure: the event was led by my own brother, the bishop of Fresno.)

On Feb. 2, the newly finished St. Charles Borromeo Church in Visalia went from a brick and mortar example of 21st-century construction techniques to a timeless element of sacred space. 

St. Charles Borromeo will be a lot of things to a lot of people. For now, it is the largest (at least in capacity) parish church in North America, a fitting reflection of the beauty of Catholic worship. It is also a telling reminder of the ongoing vocation crisis on the same continent.

St. Charles Borromeo Church

The roof of the newly-built St. Charles Borromeo Church in Visalia. (Ambient Art Photography)

Built in a California mission style, there is almost an entire acre under St. Charles’ roof. It has seating and kneeling capacity for 3,200 worshippers. The need for such a large church was born from a numbers problem: The three area parishes whose Catholics St. Charles Borromeo will now serve had 14,000 registered families between them, but a combined seating capacity of only 1,250. The good news is this beautiful new church answers that need for space. The not-so-good news is that those 14,000 registered families are being served by only two priests.

Located in the geographic center of the Diocese of Fresno (which comprises eight counties), St. Charles is intended to serve as a hub of sorts. Priest ordinations and chrism Masses will be celebrated here, in addition to the daily sacramental life of a parish serving a growing immigrant, working-class population.  

It has been said geography is destiny, and I think it is not too hyperbolic to suggest the same goes for liturgical landscapes. An ornate crucifix and a striking sculpture of God the Father watch over its cruciform interior, while large painted images of the four evangelists among a field of deep blue look down from the vault directly above the altar. Clouds of red orange and darker hues swirl around them, but this somewhat foreboding image is penetrated by the rays of light coming through the vault’s skylight. During the dedication Mass, this light source created changing accents of light and shadow, augmenting the mural of saints on either side of the hovering crucifix.

Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno dedicates the altar at St. Charles Borromeo Church. (Ambient Art Photography)

It was humbling and inspiring to watch my own brother officiate a rite that travels back in time. Seeing him take off his chasuble and roll up the sleeves of his alb to anoint every inch of the church’s impressive wooden altar with chrism oil made me feel struck with spiritual electricity. 

Archbishop José H. Gomez, who oversees the metropolitan see of Los Angeles that includes Fresno, and his predecessor Cardinal Roger Mahony, also assisted in the consecration rite by anointing the church’s walls with the palms of their hands and with the same sacred oils.

Then it was time for the deposition of relics underneath the altar. It was emotional to see my brother on his knees as he encased a reliquary under the altar containing physical links to St. Peter, St. Thomas Becket, and St. Faustina Kowalski, among other saints. I thought of the holy examples we had both been privileged to know in our lives. I prayed for our parents, our aunts, uncles, our grandparents, our departed brothers and sister. 

Bishop Brennan was joined by Archbishop Gomez and Cardinal Mahoney for the dedication Mass. (Ambient Art Photography)

Later, I asked pastor Father Alex Chavez about the challenges of the project. He acknowledged there was resistance from the parishioners of the three churches included within the boundaries of Good Shepherd Parish. But, he added, with time and providence more people came to embrace it, to see things as less about my church and your church, but rather our church.

At a press conference before the Mass, Brennan was asked what he most wanted to see at St. Charles. He answered that he was not as concerned about how people came in through the imposing wooden doors of the Church, but rather how they exited. In other words, his prayer is that this sacred space will respond to the spiritual needs of those looking for the Lord, renewing them and giving them spiritual nourishment. 

Around this part of California, Visalia is known as the gateway to the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains. Everything about St. Charles is intended to make it a gateway of another sort, where God invites us to his house to pray and receive him. And what a house it is.