Pope Francis is greeted in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Wednesday, May 27.
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini Pope Francis is greeted in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Wednesday, May 27.

When Pope Francis visits the nation’s capital in September, he’ll have a seat of his own. The Catholic University of America’s (CUA’s) School of Architecture and Planning recently held a student competition to design a chair—as well as other altar trappings—for the Catholic Church leader’s Sept. 23 outdoor Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the school’s campus. The winning design was submitted by a team of three graduating seniors in the undergraduate architecture program—Ariadne Cerritelli, Matthew Hoffman, and Joseph Taylor—who together were awarded $6,000 from the competition. Participants were given two weeks to design all the pieces and to craft a scale model of one of them.

This isn’t the first time CUA architecture students have designed for a pope. A similar competition prefaced the 2008 Mass in nearby Nationals Park and talk at the university given by Pope Benedict XVI, the previous pontiff . The latest competition coincides with Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. in his current role, and so far includes visits to D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.

Ariadne Cerritelli, Matthew Hoffman, and Joseph Taylor An expanded rendering of the altar.
Ariadne Cerritelli, Matthew Hoffman, and Joseph Taylor A scaled model of the chair.


Designing for the current pontiff—who was described by the Independent shortly after his election in 2013 as “the least popey pope in Papal history”—the students kept their furniture simple in form and material. Chosen from 18 submissions, their winning entry includes a chair (where the pope will sit during Mass), as well as an altar table and pulpit. Each features arches and columns made in wood and marble to match the style of the 206,308-square-foot Basilica’s Romanesque-Byzantine construction, where the furniture will be permanently installed following the event. 

“I think that was the strength in our project,” Cerritelli says. “It was humble to the basilica, to what it exists. It’s a timeless piece because it doesn’t stick out and shout: ‘This is a design that is specifically from our time, from 2015.’” 

CUA is working with the Basilica and the Archdiocese of Washington on the details of fabricating the furniture.

Courtesy NCinDC on Flickr via Creative Commons The east view of the basilica, the planned site of the pope's Sept. 23 mass. Designed by Boston architects Maginnis & Walsh, it was completed in 1959 and remains the largest Roman Catholic church building in North America.


The students aren't the first to design for Pope Francis. A Bosnian Muslim sculptor hand-carved a chair in walnut in advance of the Pope's June 6 visit to the country, while school children in Rome recently gifted him a drone in the Vatican's yellow and white colors in what the Washington Post called "a delightful tradition of giving the pope cool gifts." 


Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Pope Benedict XVI's 2008 talk at the university was held outdoors. It was held indoors. We regret the error.