Two high-profile projects, the building of the cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and the renovation of the cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, have shown how high a pitch the controversy surrounding church building and renovation can reach. Some have scorned the cathedral in Los Angeles as “un-Catholic” and shocking. These invectives pale in comparison to the stir in Milwaukee, which caused Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., to beat a hasty way to Rome to answer charges leveled against him by people who were unhappy with the work being done in his archdiocese’s cathedral.
Pastors who dare to undertake similar projects, albeit of smaller scale, risk similar firestorms. But while shifting demographics are cause for new church building projects in some areas of the country, more often pastors are confronted by the prospect of renovating existing buildings. Motivation for such renovations emerges from the perceived incongruence between the existing church architecture and the progress being made in the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The renovations done shortly after the council were done quickly, as temporary measures to initiate the reforms, and are now recognized as inadequate. Moving the tabernacle to the side altar, shifting the altar forward so a priest can face the people and making room for a presider’s chair were changes meant to suffice for a while until funds were found and a feeling of confidence attained as to the direction of the reform.
Pastors faced with the need to build or renovate embark on the project with a good deal of justified trepidation. Those groups who object to the liturgical reforms, or to the liturgical reforms as they have experienced them, are waiting in the wings with proverbial axes sharpened, well-funded campaigns to foil such plans and often sympathetic friends in high ecclesial places. Parishioners who feel they have been subjected to poorly done “reformed liturgy” and insipid preaching long for the good old days when Mass required minimal human interaction. Traditionalists, who define the tradition in narrow terms, warn pastors that innovations like “Jacuzzi baptismal fonts” and a chapel of reservation for the Blessed Sacrament are just fads.
Faced with heightened rhetoric, angry preservationists, liturgical consultants of various stripes and opinionated congregations, a pastor might do well to get back to basics. Amid a variety of reading materials that, one hopes, are being recommended by local diocesan offices of worship, there are three basic documents a pastor can and should rely on when faced with renovation projects. The first is the seminal document issued in December 1963 by the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium (hereafter S.C.), the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” Although it is not meant to be a handbook for church design, it does inspire and exhort. It also recovers a theology of the Eucharist that is based in the Scriptures and the patristic tradition.
The second document is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (G.I.R.M.). In the recent revision of 2000, the overall composition and content of this instruction remain the same, except for some minor additions to the earlier edition of 1975 made to clarify points or quell potential abuses.
The third document is the recently published Built of Living Stones (B.L.S.), which contains directives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This document replaces Environment and Art for Catholic Worship, which was originally issued in 1978 by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy of the N.C.C.B. (In terms of overall principles, however, the B.L.S. is in concert with the 1978 document. While it clarifies the earlier statement, in no apparent way does it overturn it.)
Although these three documents differ in style and sometimes even in their respective detailed directives, and thus reflect the progress of the renewal effort, they are consistent in their essential principles. What they all reflect is the major shift in the understanding of the liturgy itself from a singular focus on the presence of Christ in the consecrated host to a renewed understanding of the fourfold presence of Christ at the eucharistic celebration: in the people assembled, in the priest presiding, in the Word proclaimed and preached and most especially in the elements consecrated at the altar (S.C., No. 7).
In addition to this expanded theology of Real Presence, these documents also recover a strong sense of the liturgy as “public worship performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members” (S.C., No. 7). In other words, the liturgy is “the action of Christ and the people of God arrayed hierarchically” (G.I.R.M., No. 16). No longer that which is done by a priest on behalf of the people, the liturgy is now seen as the work of the assembly. The priest or bishop completes the hierarchically assembled gathering, but his function is in “presiding over the assembly and of directing prayer” (G.I.R.M., No. 310). While this does not eliminate a previously understood power to confect the Eucharist, it does broaden the role of the priest to encompass a still broader understanding of the entire liturgy.
This expanded theology results in a liturgy that requires a space significantly different from what was required before the council. As B.L.S. indicates, “Catholics who live and worship in the United States in the twenty-first century celebrate a liturgy that is the same as that of earlier generations in all its essentials but significantly different in its language, style and form” (B.L.S., No. 4). If the church building is to serve the needs of the liturgy, it stands to reason that it too will be significantly different in its language, style and form.
From this, certain design principles follow:
• “The general plan of the sacred building should be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly” (G.I.R.M., No. 294). Previously, the building was meant to highlight a sanctuary reserved for the clergy, the visual focus of which was the tabernacle. Now the reason for the building is to accommodate the assembly and enable it to conduct the sacred liturgy (G.I.R.M., No. 288).
• While the shape and form of the building should express the hierarchical arrangement of the church and the diversity of functions, nevertheless it “should at the same time form a deep and organic unity, clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people” (G.I.R.M., No. 294). While the G.I.R.M. continues to use the language of sanctuary and nave, it seems that a church consisting of two discrete rooms, one the sanctuary and the other the nave, joined at a proscenium arch, is inconsistent with the overall principle of organic unity. Another form seems to be called for here to unify more clearly the one people with those ministering.
• It is by virtue of baptism that the Christian people have “a right and obligation” (S.C., No. 14) to celebrate the Eucharist. Hence the importance of the baptistery as symbol has been realized. The recovery of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which reaches its climax at the Easter Vigil and throughout the Easter season, requires that the font be more than the former holy water stoup. There is to be “one font that will accommodate the baptism of both infants and adults” (B.L.S., No. 69).
• “The altar should occupy its place so that it is truly the center on which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally focuses” (G.I.R.M., No. 299). The importance of the altar as situated somehow in the midst of the assembly is self-evident to most, though some will argue that the altar ought to be located at the east end, according to the ancient traditions of the church. But this is not a claim made in the recent documents. What is important is that there is to be only one altar, because it “signifies to the assembly of the faithful the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church” (G.I.R.M., No. 303). Furthermore, it should be “freestanding to allow the ministers to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people” (G.I.R.M., No. 299).
• There should exist a “close and harmonious relationship” between the altar and the ambo (B.L.S., No. 61). The ambo should be “a natural focal point for the faithful” during the liturgy of the word (G.I.R.M., No. 309).
• With regard to the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, easily the most neuralgic issue raised by renovation projects, the documents give the disputants wide berth. They allow for reservation in the sanctuary, even on the former high altar. They also allow for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a separate chapel. People will argue about which is to be preferred. The principles seem clear, however. If the Blessed Sacrament is reserved on the former high altar, which is now no longer used as such, or somewhere else in the main body of the church, sufficient separation between the tabernacle and the altar is to be maintained, and the centrality of the altar as focal is not to be compromised (B.L.S., No. 79-80).
The documents nowhere require that the tabernacle be visible from the main body of the church. What is required is that the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved be conspicuous, that is, easily found by a person intent on praying before the Blessed Sacrament. While some decry this as a desecration of the church and a relegation of the Real Presence to a closet, the documents make clear that the chapel where the sacrament is reserved ought to be “noble, worthy, conspicuous, well-decorated and suitable for prayer” (G.I.R.M., No. 314).
Any attempt at design implies an interpretation of these principles. But the texts can be misused and manipulated to justify almost any design based on personal preference and piety. Pastors must guard against people of various interest groups using the texts in this way. Those texts are meant for instruction and guidance, not as weapons for bludgeoning opponents in liturgical warfare.
Clearly these documents are not meant to dictate floor plans, or the shape and style of the building. Indeed, with regard to style, the church has never adopted any particular style or form as its own, solely suitable for the liturgy (S.C., No. 123). At the same time, the church does have an interest in maintaining its own patrimony in terms of authentic art and architecture from former times. In able hands, adapting a building to the new liturgy does not necessarily entail ruining it or compromising the building’s original aesthetic. Mere restorationism, however, is of no help to the living church and the progress of the liturgical reform.
In all of this, design professionals and consultants are essential. Finding them, hiring them, and enabling a parish community to work with them, in conjunction with the local bishop and the diocesan office of worship, is no doubt the most difficult task for a parish and pastor embarking on a renovation project. While there is plenty of bad design done in the name of the reform, as there is plenty of bad liturgy done in the name of the reform, none of this discredits the reform itself. The principles of liturgical design have solid theological grounding, and realizing them is a long and arduous process. We as a church are only in the early stages of that process. Mistakes will be made. New insights will be gained. But a church design or renovation project will be successful only if there is an extant vibrant liturgical practice for which to design. The building will support and enable it. Without a living liturgy, however, the building will remain little more than a tomb-like monument to a former age.