Grounding the Vision


31 July 2006

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If you ever get into a fight with a building, the building will win.  You can add on.  You can remodel.  You can knock out walls or dig a basement.  You can rearrange furniture.  You can change the entrance.  You can landscape.  You can redirect the flow of traffic around the building.  You can restrict parking.  But if you want the building to do something, it will only do what it was built to do.  If you want it to do something else, it won’t.  It can’t.  It has to act according to its nature.

This past year the North American Academy of Liturgy held our annual meeting at a hotel in San Diego in January.  A year earlier, members of the academy from San Diego tried to change the location of the conference to a different hotel.  This is an academic organization.  It meets each year in winter in climes like Tarrytown, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; and Toronto, Canada.  These people work indoors for a living.  In their spare time they read.  The academy has met in places like San Antonio and Phoenix, and there is a meeting planned for Savannah, Georgia, but normally people actually attend this meeting for the sake of the meeting, not for the location.

So it was odd that members would object to the location of a particular meeting.  You may think it was odd to object to San Diego in winter, but this is not a group that thinks in terms of sun; it thinks in terms of learning.  Typically, no matter what city the meeting is in, the academy gathers in a downtown hotel within easy access of several major houses of worship – a hotel like this one, for example.  And that’s why members objected to meeting in San Diego.  It was the San Diego members themselves who objected on the grounds that in reality the meeting was not planned for San Diego, but for Mission Bay, a suburb of San Diego, strategically located on the Pacific Coast, far from the squalor of the city, and too remote for the heady meeting of an academy that wants freedom of choice in restaurants and worship spaces within walking distance.

By scheduling the meeting in Mission Bay, the argument went, we were slitting our own throats.  No one would have a good time.  We would not have easy access to anything.  We’d be stuck in a glamorous resort hotel next to the ocean with nothing to do but enjoy the sun and relax in one another’s company.  Looking back on it, the fear of withdrawal from our harried civilization had paralyzed our membership.

The planners for the conference stayed the course, though, because they believed in this maxim: If you ever get into a fight with a building, the building will win.  Instead of trying to make the hotel fit our meeting, we adjusted our meeting and made it fit the hotel.  We discovered what charisms the hotel had, and we worked with them.  As you can imagine, the final evaluations for the conference gave the hotel higher marks than most others we had used.  People want to go back, and it was all because we let the building win.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has been in a fight with our buildings.  Right now I’m pastor of a church that was built in 1893.  [2, 3] It’s a historic building.  It holds a lot of memories.  We need to fix it up a bit, but we don’t want to lose it.  Still, it presents some challenges.

The church was designed for the liturgy of its day; it had a high altar against the back wall and two side altars, where, if necessary, other masses could be said at the same time as the principal mass, because there was no concelebration.  The tabernacle was situated above the high altar, against the back wall.  A communion rail separated the sanctuary from the nave.  At that time, people received communion infrequently, so they came to mass not so much to share communion as to adore Christ.  For most people the focus of their prayer was not the altar but the tabernacle.

Our church was renovated after the Second Vatican Council.  The high altar was removed and a freestanding altar placed in the center of the sanctuary.  The tabernacle sits where a side altar used to be.  The communion rail is no more.  We still have problems.  We now have a lot of empty space against the back wall.  It’s nice for Christmas decorations, but has limited use otherwise.  People stand for communion at the head of the main aisle, but there is no room for more than two communion ministers there.  At a funeral, the casket completely blocks the center aisle, leaving no room at all for a communion procession; so we move the faithful departed over to the side, out of the way.  The baptismal font has been shoved to every conceivable corner of the room.  There is no obvious place for it.  To baptize adults by immersion at the Easter Vigil, we bring a temporary font to the sanctuary.  It works, but it makes baptism appear like something of occasional importance.  The confessionals were removed in favor of additional seating, and the cry room/storage area next to the altar now serves as the reconciliation room once a week.  When I gave a tour of the church to my cousin in his wheelchair, I apologized to him that the reconciliation room was up a step from the nave.  He said, “That’s all right.  People in wheelchairs don’t sin much anyway.”

Incidentally, there are no restrooms in our church.  Never have been.  If you have to go, you exit the church, go down some steps, across the street, up some steps into the former school building, across the hall, down some steps, and – if you’re a woman – across the cafeteria in order to find a free toilet.

We need to make some changes, and they are coming soon, but there is only so much retrofitting we can do to a building like this.  If we try to make the building do something it can’t, it won’t.  In this case, we think renovating this building will adequately serve the liturgy, but that is not always possible.  In our parish, we think it’s OK to let this building win a few rounds.

But we did not have that sentiment at St. Regis, the previous church I served.  There we were worshiping in a 1960s square all-purpose room with a low ceiling, up a prodigious flight of stairs from the parking lot.  To prepare for Sunday mass you had to use a Stairmaster at home.  The sanctuary was arranged against one wall and people sat on 3 sides around it.  It wasn’t bad, and a lot of wonderful things happened in that building.  But the acoustic stifled our attempts to make music.  People entered the building through 5 different doors, preventing efforts to start forming the community prior to the service.  And the carpeting was turquoise – bright turquoise.  Very few people argued that we needed a better worship space, but everyone had a different opinion of what it should be.

If you’re part of a parish that is building a new church, one opinion you will hear people say a lot is, “I want a church that looks like a church.”  That is a remarkable statement.  It supposes there is a cookie cutter from which churches are stamped.  Churches, according to the popular mindset should have a steeple or a cross, stained glass windows, gothic arches, a slender nave, statues, stations and enough candles to roust a slumbering communion of saints.

But what does a church look like?  According to liturgical principles, a sanctuary has three main furnishings: an altar, an ambo and a presider’s chair.  A church also needs seating for the robust participation of the assembly of believers as it exercises its diversity of ministries.

[4] So when we built the new St. Regis Church in southeast Kansas City, we built a church that we thought looked like a church, but it doesn’t look like most other churches around.  It is a square room again, but this time the altar is in the middle and the seating is on two sides.  If you imagine an open book, the sanctuary of this church is the spine.  You walk into the church through a common gathering area past a baptismal font and the ambo, and you occupy seats that put you very near one of the three main furnishings of the church – the altar, the ambo and the presider’s chair.  No matter where you sit, some of the action of the mass takes place near you, and no matter how far back you sit, your face can be seen by half the congregation.

Shortly after we opened the new building, a couple from a neighboring church came over one Sunday morning.  I greeted them before mass in the new gathering area.  They turned up their noses and said, “We’ve come to get a look at this new church we’ve been hearing about.”  I had the feeling they were filling out a grade card.  I welcomed them, and they entered the church.  After mass, they did not hesitate to register their disdain.  The woman walked up to me, still standing in the gathering space, and announced, “Well, I don’t like your church, Father,” as if the church I belong to is different from the church she is as the body of Christ.  She said she didn’t like my church, which I could have taken to mean the people, but she meant specifically she didn’t like our building.  She came that morning to evaluate, not to worship.  Then to top off her report, she said to me in disbelief, “Why, you don’t even have an altar.”  I was dumbfounded.  I asked, “How could you possibly spend one hour in that building and not see the altar?”  She said, “You know what I mean.”  Well, I think I know what she meant.  She meant there was no high altar.  There was no back wall.  But she revealed a common problem with the arrangement of sanctuaries in typical Catholic churches: people don’t know what the altar is, and if you tell them the altar is the most important furnishing in the church, which the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states, they may not readily understand you mean the table.  In the old days the altar the cross and the tabernacle headed the central axis of the church.  So you called the entire sanctuary the altar.  And you genuflected to the entire complex, not specifically to the tabernacle.

The tabernacle at St. Regis is in a separate prayer chapel.  So we had to instruct people that when they enter the church they should bow to the altar, not genuflect.  Still, many people genuflected, even though there was no tabernacle in the direct line of view.  It was especially amusing to watch visiting morticians at funerals.  They didn’t know what to do.  So they would wheel in the casket and then genuflect to the organ.  Catholics have been taught that when you go into a church you walk up to a pew, you genuflect, and then you go in, as if your genuflection has to do with the pew, not with the tabernacle.  Some Catholics genuflect when they go to the movies.  It’s a ritual you perform to show yourself worthy of occupying this sacred space – even if the tabernacle is not there.  But when it’s not there, you bow to the altar, because the altar represents Christ the living stone.

At St. Regis we followed several principles: We wanted the altar to hold the center of attention.  We wanted people to see one another’s faces so that they could worship God as a body that whose members share life.  At communion we avoided using previously consecrated breads from the tabernacle, and served everyone from the bread and wine consecrated at that mass, so that the altar became a living, breathing piece of furniture in the sacred space, an altar of sacrifice where we brought our gifts, and a table of nourishment where God offered them transformed back to us.

In the end, we got a church that looks like a church, but only if you’re willing to ask the questions anew, what should a church look like?  Today we have flexibility in design due to construction techniques, a more developed ecclesiology and the advance of communication technologies.

[5,6] But it was not always this way.  In the early days of the church, Christians gathered for mass at someone’s home.  Church architecture was based on principles such as these: We need a place large enough for the community to gather.  We need to provide a table for the sacred meal, and people need to be comfortable while the word of God is shared in proclamation and preaching.

[7] Churches also needed ventilation.  You remember the story of Paul’s farewell visit to Troas in Acts of the Apostles 20:7-12, which included one of the longest homilies in Christian history.  I quote: “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.  There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting.  A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer.  Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.  But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’  Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left.  Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.”  I’m not making this up.  The story amuses as it inspires, but it also tells us about the basic architectural needs of a first century eucharist, especially when the preacher talked too long.

After the fourth century, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire, the classic basilica-style building went up as the basic model for churches.  [8,9,10] But the first Christians borrowed the idea from public buildings.  At the time they had several choices – there were theatres where people sat to watch plays; there were temples where people sacrificed to idols; there were arenas where they watched chariot races.  But the first Christians did not choose any of those buildings as the model for their churches.  Instead, they chose the basilica.  The basilica was used for public gatherings where speeches could be heard.  It was a large rectangular building with a high ceiling to protect people from rain.  The upper walls were pierced with windows to let in sun.  An apse at the back helped with sound reverberation and oriented people toward one end.  That was the building the early Christians adopted for the purposes of worship when congregations were too large to fit into one house any more.

Over the centuries, that basic plan held because it was flexible enough to be sized for congregations large and small.  The roles in the liturgy were pretty well defined.  The liturgical action could be carried out simply or elegantly within its walls.  In a world without electricity, the basilica accommodated the needs of sound reinforcement and light.

[11,12,13] After the Second Vatican Council, however, the Catholic Church entered a brave new world.  It was earmarked primarily by the liturgical renewal, but it also happened during a time of technological advances.  [14] Both these forces had an immediate impact on church architecture.  It put us into a fight with our buildings, and we still have not fully understood the results.

The council had two battle cries, each holding the other in check.  [15] One was aggiornamento – bring the church up to date.  [16] The other was réssourcement – get back to the original sources.  So, look ahead to today, and look back to the beginning.  Notice what was missing in these contrasting themes: there was no desire to just stay put, or raise up the Middle Ages as if they were the golden age of worship.  In regard to worship, the réssourcement put us in touch not just with the basilica style of church, a public building where someone was the leader and everyone else visited; but with the older model, the house church, a building where someone was the leader, but everyone pitched in.  [17] The liturgical renewal opened up the liturgical ministries.  For many centuries, the priest read the readings, ate and drank the only communion consecrated at that mass, and distributed communion to the faithful himself from a tabernacle.  The responses of the mass were assigned to altar servers, and a choir sang the propers and commons.  It was all conducted in Latin, a beautiful language, but an unfamiliar one.  The mass of the middle ages was prayerful; it formed many people in the Catholic tradition.  But the bishops at Vatican II knew we could do better.  They promoted the diversity of ministries that have become commonplace in Catholic parishes: sacristans, lectors, servers, deacons, communion ministers, cantors, choirs and people to bring up the gifts.  All these existed in one form or another prior to the council, but the church has opened almost all of these ministries to women as well as men, and has multiplied the number of those who assist at mass in parishes large and small.

The council also awakened a sense of ministry within the assembly.  Even those who sit in the pews are not merely attending, they are participating.  They have a role to play.  They sing, they make the responses, they adopt the postures and gestures of the liturgy, and most importantly they join their hearts and minds with the priest as he lifts the eucharistic prayer to God.  The people call the church their home, and they exercise ministry within it.

With all these changes in liturgical ministry, how does a church look like a church?  In the Catholic imagination, a church has a certain appearance, but the revised liturgy of the council has placed new demands on the building – demands that we have not ever faced before.  Many of us worship in buildings that were constructed prior to the council, and we are using a liturgy that does not completely fit.  And if you get in a fight with a building, the building will win.  The building will determine how extensively your ministers and assemblies will be able to fulfill the wishes of Vatican II.

Of course, some new buildings have gone up since the council, and these have nobly striven to link the building to the worship.  It is common to see fan-shaped buildings where people gather on three sides of the altar.  This has the advantage of letting people see one another and join their voices in song, silence and prayer.  But in many of these churches the sanctuary space has been reduced in size so that it has become difficult to distinguish the areas around altar, ambo and chair.  The council invited us to look at these furnishings afresh, and we still need more models of how they can occupy distinctive areas in proximity to the worshiping assembly.

[18,19 20] These new buildings have come up for two reasons: a population that expands to new areas, notably the suburbs; [21] and the natural deterioration of buildings that causes them to be replaced, a phenomenon that can happen anywhere in rural or urban areas.  In those latter cases, a building that has served a community for generations may have to be retired.  It is hard to let the building go, but people will do it if they realize the building has already died of old age, if the cost of fixing it up outweighs the cost of building anew.  In some cases, though, people will contribute to a more expensive restoration project than to a less expensive new construction.  These are difficult matters for pastors and parishes to work through together.

Still, very few congregations have had the courage to say something more theological: “We need to retire our old building because it does not permit us to celebrate the new liturgy in its fullness.”  [22] They will consider major surgery, but they may discover that the patient is beyond repair.  Some buildings need to be retired because the sanctuary is too remote, the acoustic is too bad, communion under both forms is too difficult to administer, and the area outside the church is too small for the liturgy’s ancillary rites and processions.

It has fallen to this generation to do something about it.  Never before in the history of Catholic architecture has the church been faced with such a profound dilemma.  What do we do with buildings that have served us well and have meant so much to our communities, what do we do with historic buildings when the liturgy of the church is inviting us to another, richer form of celebration?  We are the ones who have been asked to figure this out.  We are the ones who are taking a stand in one community after another to say, “Yes, this old church has served us well, and it has meant a lot to us because of the generations that have preceded us.  But we need a better worship space, and future generations need it too.  Not to change our building may seem as though it honors the past, but it handicaps the present and hobbles the future.  This old church has served us well, but history has selected our generation to make a difference in architecture that will help future generations pray.  Centuries from now, people will look back on us and thank us for having the courage to change the course.  Because we did, we enable our children and grandchildren to engage in all that Catholic worship has to offer.”  Our generation needs to say that.

The changes are not just ecclesiological, they are also technological.  [23] A fourth-century basilica needed windows and candles for light, as well as resonant surfaces for sound.  Now we use electrical light and reinforced sound in our houses of worship.  These changes have been broadly accepted by cultural Catholicism.  You can even find electric lights shaped like candles in churches and at votive shrines around the world, even though the Catholic Church does not permit their use for mass.  Electric light and sound should have been hard for Catholics to accept.  Our piety is incarnational.  [24] So is our morality.  We use the natural products of life as windows back to God.  We worship with bread and wine.  We use oil, palm branches and ashes.  Even the pipe organ began as a musical instrument relying on wood, air, bone and metal – an instrument someone could physically pump before the invention of electrical power to put air under pressure, and before electronics imitated natural sound.

So windows and beeswax candles fit Catholic piety more than artificial light and paraffin.  And buildings shaped for natural resonance appeal to our way of music more than the multiplication of speakers and electronically reinforced sound.  Early church buildings allowed the spoken human voice to be heard without artificial amplification, and they also influenced the kind of music we created.  Gregorian chant flourished for centuries because a resonant space lent a mystical quality to its unaccompanied sound.  Choirs sang homophony and polyphony in spaces that rendered lovely music even more gorgeous.  The basilica was designed with windows that let in sufficient light for the congregation to find its way indoors where they would need no further light because there were no participation aids to read in the middle ages.  Candles could be arranged at the altar for those who needed additional light when praying from the liturgical books.  The basilica was designed in a way that the presider could be heard from the front.  Eventually choir lofts were arranged in the back and the ambo was placed along the side.  In this way the sound produced by choirs and preachers could be heard throughout the building.  But churches were not built for congregational sound.  They were designed in a way that the congregation could hear the sound that the ministers produced.

That was then.  This is now.  We have electricity.  We don’t need windows.  We don’t need resonance.  We have sacrificed what nature offers and created basement churches illuminated by neon and carpeted with polyesters.  Some people blamed the new mass for the loss of a sense of sacred and the poor quality of prayer in many of our churches.  But we have new technologies, and we have not always employed them well.  The new mass probably rescued us from becoming completely lost in a world of artificial light and sound.

Many nondenominational seeker churches are finding success through an aggressive use of electrically produced sound and light.  Big screens allow thousands of people to watch small actions; electronic music raises the decibels and the heart rate.  Far from resisting artificial light and sound, some churches are diving into it, and they are succeeding in drawing numbers and fulfilling the spiritual needs of many people.  Catholic churches have resisted this movement, often with a lame and ecumenically offensive excuse such as “It’s too Protestant.”  What should drive our liturgy is not what makes us different from other Christian believers whose baptism we should revere; rather, what should drive our liturgy is the kind of incarnational piety that gives the Catholic Church its juice.  We will probably thrive best if we stay close to the principles that anchor our liturgy and look for ways to get our buildings on board with the whole project.  In many cases, this will mean new buildings because if you fight the building you have, the building will win.

[25,26] Here are some things I think we need to consider as we go forward through the unchartered waters of architectural liturgical renewal:

[27] 1. The altar is central to Catholic churches – not the cross, not the tabernacle.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal calls the altar “the table of the Lord to which the People of God is called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist” (296).  Catholic churches need to be constructed for the mass.  You can celebrate mass without a tabernacle; you cannot celebrate mass without an altar.  It is upon the altar where this miracle takes place; the Holy Spirit transforms bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ.  And it is from the altar where we are fed.  We need the cooperation of architects to make the altar central in the building, but we also need the cooperation of presiders, sacristans and communion ministers to ensure that the people of God are fed at mass from the altar.  Too often we dispatch ministers to the tabernacle for extra consecrated breads because the body of Christ is the body of Christ.  But the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and that, in the instances when it is permitted, they partake of the chalice (cf. no. 283), so that even by means of the signs Communion will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated” (85).  Those parishes that continue to use previously consecrated hosts from the tabernacle at the communion rite of every mass are hurting the work of good liturgical architects who are trying to answer the call of the church for the proper arrangement of furnishings in the sanctuary.  Of course people are going to want the tabernacle to occupy a central place in the church if they are fed from the tabernacle at every mass.  But that is not the design of the liturgy.  The design of the liturgy is that people are fed from the altar, from the furniture that represents Christ Jesus, the living stone, from the bread and wine brought forward at this mass as a sign of their sacrifice and transformed by the Spirit at this mass in answer to their prayers.  To make the altar central is to underscore this core belief in the Catholic Church, that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, given for our salvation, and for our strength on the journey to heaven.

[28] 2. The ambo and presider’s chair need distinctive places in the sanctuary.  The liturgy of the word takes place apart from the liturgy of the eucharist, and the mass begins at the chair, which should be distinct from the other two locations.  Sanctuaries need ample room and clever arrangement of the furnishings, so that the purpose of these features is made clear.  And while we’re at it, sanctuaries should be cleared of all clutter.  It is a sanctuary, not a closet.  If there are items in your sanctuary that are not used during the mass, they probably belong somewhere else.  Move them away.

[29] 3. The people are ministers.  Everyone has a part to play.  If people are seated far away from the central action of the mass, they become observers, not participants.  During Lent in my parish the number of people who attend daily mass nearly doubles, which is great.  But it only doubles from the middle of the church to the back door.  The number of people who sit in the first pews always remains the same.  Catholics love the rear of churches.  They come early to get a good seat, and to most of them a good seat is not one that is close to the action; it is a seat that is close to the door.  Here is another maxim for church architecture, and it’s important to keep in mind whenever you do church renovation or construction.  No matter how you shape the seating in the church, no matter how many pews you put near the sanctuary, the greatest number of people will always sit closest to the restrooms.  Architecture will help, but we also need to catechize people into realizing that when we Catholics choose to sit in places farthest from the liturgical action, it is scandalous.  People will fight for the closest seats for a concert in Branson, Missouri, but cannot describe for you the view from the first pew in their church at home.  But let’s face it, for centuries we have distanced people from participating at mass; we are only now inviting them to take a stronger role in singing and praying.  But if we use the old models of church architecture, we can expect the old models of Catholic behavior to endure.

[30] 4. Catholic piety is incarnational.  Just as in the word-made-flesh God used the world to reach us, so we use the world to reach God.  As we go bravely into the world of electronics, we need to find the principles that keep us linked to the things of the earth.  If we need sound reinforcement for our churches to hear the ministers’ spoken word, can we keep our churches reverberant enough that the assembly’s voice will be heard, that choirs will be heard without further amplification, and that pipe organs will still be prized for the handcraft and artistry they represent?  On the other hand, do we have something to learn from megachurches using big screens for worship?  St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City is now equipped with two of these, regularly in use for every public papal event.  How can we insure that our liturgies celebrate God and creation, the human person and the environment?

The history of church architecture teaches us that there is no standing still.  As each generation rises and falls, it tinkers with churches.  It uses the genius of its own times to bring improved standards of safety and beauty.  It celebrates the past and builds on an ever-lengthening heritage, and it remains open to the Spirit of God, who draws us up and onward to a better day, fuller life, and more authentic liturgy.

Blueprints look like solids, but they are liquids, and they can change their shapes to accommodate the needs and ideas of every age.  But we need to be willing to change, too.  We need the wisdom to know what makes a church look like a church, and that’s what this conference is about.  But we also need the leadership to bring bodies of worshipers along, and that will come with authentic prayer rooted in a belief in the transcendence of God, and with authentic charity that puts our faith into practice.  When our leaders become trustworthy, they will bring the entire church gladly along the path of renewal.

We also need courage, because change is hard.  When you are facing something as immovable as a building, it seems nearly impossible that things could be different.  But they can be.  Sometimes you work with the building; sometimes you replace it.  The building wins, so if it does not have a winning style, it needs to be put aside.

Let us not forget who is all powerful, who is in charge, and who resides in a Temple not built by human hands.  All our efforts have this purpose in mind, to bring fitting praise and glory to God who made us all.  We can honor God by joining in the act of creation, by returning to God buildings we have made, buildings that demonstrate what we have learned about prayer and charity.  When we build them in love and build them for love, church buildings will do what we ask them to do.  They will praise God, and we will all win.

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