A Worthy Setting

by Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA. Homiletic & Pastoral Review. October 2004.

In his recent encylical, On the Eucharist and its Relationship to the Church, the Holy Father reminds us that the Church has always felt the need "to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery."

Unfortunately over the past thirty years or so a number of the Catholic churches built or renovated in this country are not, in my opinion, very worthy settings for the Eucharist. Some churches have been downgraded and trivialized to the point where they are hardly recognizable as Catholic at all. The mystery has been lost. As an architect specializing in church design, I am involved in an attempt to rescue the Eucharistic inspiration from this unfortunate trend by designing new and renovated churches which are more worthy of this great mystery. So, for those of us directly involved, the Holy Father's words quoted above are encouraging.

A number of books and articles have been written commenting on this desacralizing trend because many people have sensed that we are in a battle that, while not widely publicized, seems to go on unabated. This is not to say that all new or renovated Catholic churches have been downgraded but certainly there are enough, in this country, to cause serious concern, as implicitly reflected in the words of the Holy Father. This trend can be witnessed in the construction of new churches and in the renovation of the old ones. The former has been documented in a book by Michael Rose, Ugly as Sin, and the latter in his book, The Renovation Manipulation and in an article of mine, Church Renovation (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Dec. 1997). So, I do not think we need review the various manifestations of this trend, but rather, on a positive note, let us examine some of the causes and a few possible architectural solutions.

In the pre-Vatican II days, the altar and the tabernacle, the two embodiments of the Eucharist, were together in one place. The tabernacle was located on top of a large altar. Surrounding these was placed, on the back wall, all the sacred art, stained glass, marble statues, crosses and paintings, intended to inspire the faithful. The priest stood there, with his back to the congregation, celebrating Mass. Everybody's attention was focused on this one spot. But after Vatican II, the new liturgical directives decreed that the altar be made freestanding and independent from the tabernacle so that the celebrant might face the congregation. This single change produces four important problems for the designer:

Where is the tabernacle to be located, now that it had been detached from the altar ? How do we treat a blank, empty back wall, shorn of all art ? How do we give importance to a freestanding altar in a large space? What do we do with the statuary and paintings displaced in the change?

I think the numerous efforts to address these four questions have opened up a Pandora's Box of some deplorable architectural solutions which have created the unworthy churches we see today. If we can find truly worthy solutions to these questions, I think we will be able to design Catholic churches that will be settings worthy of so great a mystery.

The Displaced Tabernacle

The question of where to locate the tabernacle is perhaps the greatest single problem and has caused the most widespread confusion. In some churches you have to look around to find it. Some tabernacles are off to the side, out of view, in some side chapel, or set in a wall someplace. Others are located in the sanctuary but in a secondary location. Some, fortunately, are still given a conspicuous place directly behind the altar. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003, no.314) is quite specific:

In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.

However, generally the tabernacle is not placed in a prominent location, much less beautifully decorated. Some tabernacles, I think, are quite ugly as I have mentioned in an article on the subject, God in a Box (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 2000). This random placement of the tabernacle gives the impression that it is no more important than the lectern, the baptismal font or the organ. Is it any wonder, then, that many people are unaware of His Presence? Many pass in front of the tabernacle, treating Our Lord as though he were a stranger, without any sign of recognition, a genuflection or a bow. A number of bishops at a US Bishops Conference (fall 2001) expressed deep concern about the matter. The (then) Archbishop of Newark, NJ, Theodore McCarrick said, ”I’ve always had concern over the location of the tabernacle. If the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen, our Catholic people are missing something very important in our theology and spirituality, and when revisions are made, I hope we can emphasize what the code says, that the tabernacle be placed in a place that is prominent and conspicuous."

A separate chapel is a good solution when there is sufficient space away from the sanctuary. This is normally done in cathedrals or large churches. However, in most churches there is not enough space, and consequently the tabernacle must be located in the sanctuary area. If it is to be conspicuous , I think the best solution is to locate it on the axis of, and directly behind, the altar, since it stands to reason that anything located on the axis is important and, conversely, anything off the axis is of lesser importance. Since the law of bilateral symmetry requires balance and if the tabernacle is located off the axis, what object do you place on the opposite side for balance the lectern, the baptismal font or a potted palm? Certainly nothing in the church, besides the altar of course, is more important than the tabernacle and to place it off-center is to downgrade it by its very placement. Furthermore, for it to be properly decorated, it should itself be beautifully designed as well as the surrounding area which supports it. To place it on a little column against a blank wall does not do it justice.

The Blank Wall

Let us now consider that visually dominant wall behind the freestanding altar. Before Vatican II, this back wall was ordinarily filled with a large, heavily decorated reredos containing various kinds of art work [the crucifix, marble statues of Our Lady or of the saints, light fixtures and oil paintings] and functioned as a supportive setting for the altar and the tabernacle. In many of the neo-gothic churches, an enormous marble wedding cake structure dominated the entire wall. Leaving aside considerations of relative artistic merit, all of this served the useful purpose of not only unifying altar, tabernacle and reredos but placing them in the most conspicuous place in the church. All eyes were fixed there since all the liturgical action took place there. But when the altar was moved forward, the tabernacle relocated and the wedding cake dismantled, nothing was left except a blank wall and maybe a single, large crucifix.

This dominant blank wall situation continues today no matter what the style or size of the church. The barrenness mitigates against any sense of the sacred. Most people, I think, sense that something should be there. This is born out by the fact that flags, banners, organ pipes, potted palms or posters are installed to relieve the bleakness of that blank wall. However, it is evident that none of these decorative substitutions are capable of producing a true sense of the sacred. The story is told that in the early days of the liturgical renewal in Germany, a new church was built in which all the walls were painted white. When asked about this treatment, the architect replied that "it showed the immensity of God"! Unfortunately today many congregations are forced to gaze at blank walls which are more likely to serve as blank screens on which to project the daydreams of wandering minds rather than raising the mind and heart to God.

To retrieve some of the mystery and sacredness that has been lost, it seems to me that more attention should be directed to this wall, which serves not only as the immediate surround and support of the tabernacle, when it is placed against it, but which necessarily commands everyone's attention. This is a great opportunity for architects and artists to create works of art, in sculpture, paintings, stained glass or mosaics, which could inspire devotion in the faithful and contribute to a setting worthy of so great a mystery.

The Lonely Table

When the altar, the location of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, was separated from the back wall, it stood alone and naked in a large space without the support of the inspirational artwork of the reredos on the back wall. It emerged as simply a table, three foot three inches high with a few candles to keep it company. This does have the advantage of dramatizing its unique character as the table of the Lord which had been lost among the ponderous wedding cake statuary of the old churches. However, the loneliness of its new position remains a problem. In many places its design has been downgraded and thereby lost some of its power. For instance, to abide by the new rules, many parishes have simply left the existing altar, relocated the tabernacle elsewhere, and built a new altar out in front. As many of the new altars are makeshift and rather ugly, they appear insignificant in comparison to the remaining grand, old altar ensemble behind them. Even when it is located in the middle of the sanctuary area, the altar's sparse proportions, vis-à-vis the large space surrounding it, do not command much veneration. Even creating large, square chopping block altars does not help much in giving them importance. In some renovations we find, as well as a displaced tabernacle, we find a moving altar, whereby the altar is moved out from the sanctuary into the nave and surrounded by folding chairs, replacing the pews. And so the altar loses its profound sacramental importance and its sense of permanence and stability. The freestanding altar does indeed present a real architectural challenge.

How do you give it the sacred nobility it deserves? The problem here is due to the fact that it is physically a small object, dwarfed by its relationship to the normally large space surrounding it. But this small table is, liturgically, the very heart of the whole church since it is the locale of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and should be treated with all due respect.

One solution, historically, is to place a covering or housing over the altar to proclaim its importance. This was done in one of two ways, either employing a tester [a canopy suspended from the ceiling] or a baldachin [a canopy supported by four columns that could be fabricated of marble, stone or metal]. Certainly other solutions can be found, but the canopy idea appears to be one that is logical and beautiful, and can add significantly to the grandeur of the altar.

The Lost Art

When the reredos, with its statues, paintings and stained glass, was removed, practically all other artistic works followed suit and were also removed. Many churches were left with little or no art except maybe a crucifix. Some were left with only a bare cross. Many artistic representations of the passion of Our Lord disappeared. Statues of the saints, with devotional candles in front, were also removed. All of this has been done despite the explicit directive found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003, no.318):

Thus, images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, in accordance with the Church's most ancient tradition, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful in sacred buildings and should be arranged so as to usher the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there.

Some of the modern art is often so abstract that it does not inspire any kind of devotion. Bereft of any inspirational art in the church or images of saints to pray to, it follows that the private devotion of believers suffers. James Hitchcock in Recovery of the Sacred and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy, among others, have written about this removal of the religious art of images. This is not to say that all the old art was good. Much of it was sentimental, candy-cane, shlock art, but it did demonstrate the devotion of believers, a devotion which they are now denied. Nor is the new representational art always worthy. Images of the Risen Christ, installed as a replacement on some back walls, can perhaps elicit some devotional appeal, but for many people it ignores the significance of the Mass as the re-enactment of the passion. At times it is so secularized, that it is ugly and morally offensive. As far back as 1977, Pope Paul VI warned of this situation:

As for those who, in the name of a misunderstood creative freedom, have caused so much damage to the church with their improvisations, banalities and frivolities, and even certain deplorable profanations, we strongly call upon them to keep to the established norms; if the norm is not respected, grave damage could be done to the very essence of dogma.

The present Holy Father reflects this concern in this current encylical when he says, "The treasure (mystery) is too important and precious to risk impoverishment or compromise through forms of experimentation or practices introduced without a careful review on the part of the competent ecclesiastical authorities. Furthermore, the centrality of the Eucharistic mystery demands that any such review must be undertaken in close association with the Holy See."

We certainly need good art in our churches, as the Holy Father tells us in his Letter to Artists:

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs Art. Art must make perceptible - and as far as possible - attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable.

In 1997, John Saward wrote in The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty:

In the Eucharist there is a beauty, a hidden loveliness, beyond the beauty of all art Christ is beauty, and He becomes present to make us beautiful. The holiness of beauty is ordered to the beauty of holiness. Sacred art is intended to encourage saintly life. Both are transparent to Christ, radiate the splendor of His truth.

Beautiful art requires talented artists. When new art is commissioned, it should be created by the most capable artists and craftsmen since God deserves the best. As Pope Paul VI has said in an address in 1977:

High artistic standards should be followed when commissioning artists and choosing works of art for the church.

Certainly there are many talented artists and architects in this country who are capable of doing excellent work, but they are not often given the chance. And when they are, they are sometimes expected to work practically gratis. They should be paid a normal professional fee, and their personal devotion and enthusiasm should not be exploited. Some of our better artists seem to be employed to produce their best for museums, McMansions and Disney Worlds, and our churches are left with barren walls and mediocrity.

To Recapture the Vision

These few suggestions are proposed to help find solutions to improve the confused situation we are in today. The truth is that we have lost not just an architectural style but a total vision of the church as a sacred space. Our forefathers had this vision as is evidenced by the legacy they left us in the great church architecture and art of the past. Their architecture strove to capture the unseen through the materiality of the seen, and by so doing, incarnated this vision. It was the vision of the sacred based on a zealous faith, ...the sense of that unique place where we gather to worship God and give him glory. If we can regain this vision, we can create great art and build great churches for the future. Never has the need been more urgent to inspire faith and hope in the millions of people seeking God's truth in His Church. Never has the time been more ripe to launch out and create great and magnificent architecture worthy of 2,000 years of Catholic faith and art. Never have architects and artists been more challenged to employ their time and talents than in this, the most noble of all pursuits.

Presently, we are faced with three options, none of which has the creativity, capacity and boldness necessary to produce great churches for the future. Option number one is to do nothing and let the current trend continue. Option number two is that of the extreme modernists [of the reigning Art Establishment, heirs of the Bauhaus style], which has been dominating the field for some time now. This is not so much architecture as mechanical engineering. Their airplane hangar-like churches and massive abstract, mechanized forms, have been in vogue in some places for several decades now. But it is hard to see how this fashion can last, much less inspire, since it pointedly and aggressively ignores not only nature but the human being. Option number three is led by the traditionalists who, in recognizing the problem and desiring a solution, want to rescue the Catholic tradition by returning to the safe and proven styles of history, classic, Romanesque, gothic, baroque, etc.

However, it is not a matter of style. The fact is that the Catholic Church has always been the mother and patron of the contemporary art of every age in its history and has never adopted any particular style of art as her own. Every style was contemporary in its own time. If this had not been the case, there would have been no creativity at any time, and all Catholic churches today would be at best Roman basilicas or at worst, caves. There is so much to be learned from the past including the classical tradition's foundation on both the world of nature and the human, the mandatory basis for any true architecture sacred or profane. We ignore history at our peril. But to be knowledgeable about the historical principles of architecture and art, which are ageless, does not mean that we must simply copy those outward forms or styles. To do so would be to ignore the two things the modernists get right, that is, the pragmatic use of the new building materials and methods, and the freedom of the creative spirit. Nor should we seek to create a new style based on those principles, even if that were possible. Rather we need to recapture that lost vision of our forefathers, based on a deep faith.

In the meantime, we should be demanding excellence in design by attracting capable artists and architects who have imagination, are well versed in the doctrine and liturgy of the Church, and have a profound understanding of so great a mystery. Catholic churches can give glory to God by attracting and encouraging people to worship Him through the beauty and power of the material setting of the church, which has the capacity to send a silent but potent message, and the essence of that message is the Eucharist. If the setting is unworthy, that is, dull, ugly and uninspiring, it will contribute to turning people away from God. If the architecture and art is beautiful and reflects the orthodox liturgy and doctrine of the Church, then people will be drawn to God, who is all-beauty and all-truth.

Fortunately there is hope for future when the Holy Father concludes the encylical by saying:

I have asked the competent offices of the Roman Curia to prepare a more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important subject. No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality.