What Makes a Church Catholic?

by Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA.
A lecture given at "Theology on Tap," Greenwich, CT. May 5, 2005

Some years ago a Protestant was visiting for the first time a Catholic church with a Catholic friend. After entering the front door and looking around, the Protestant expressed admiration for the beauty and warmth of the architecture and decor. He noticed that at the far end there was a "table" that appeared to be placed in a position of importance. Over the table was a crucifix...and on the table was a gold box...with candles on each side...it appeared to be the focal point of the decoration. He turned to his Catholic friend and asked, "What is in that box down there on the table?" The Catholic answered, "That box is called a tabernacle and we believe that Jesus Christ Himself is really, truly present in that box." Stunned silence followed. Then the Protestant said, "If I believed that, I would go down that aisle on my knees !"

The Protestant may not have been a believer but intellectually he understood it: If that is Christ Himself there, He deserves all our profound love, worship and adoration. Christ's name is Immanuel...which means "God-with-us" and He is with us literally in His Church....not the Church in general...but in every Catholic Church building. And that is what makes the Catholic church different from other, non-Catholic churches. In other Christian churches...they have great choirs and hymns, they can have great sermons and scripture readings..they can have prayers....they have great architecture and art...but they do not have Jesus Christ really and truly present. They do not have, in a word, the Eucharist...and this is what makes our churches sacred, unique and wonderful. GOD IS THERE. Of course God, as the Trinity, is everywhere; but it's only in the Eucharist that Jesus Christ, as the Man-God is present. He is present during the holy sacrifice of the Mass...which is the re-enactment of Calvary, in holy communion...and He is present in the tabernacle.

For over two thousand years the Catholic Church has been a sacred place of worship for millions of people...it has taken the best of the classic world and become the creator of Western Civilization...it has been the mother and home of most of the fine arts including architecture sculpture, painting, mosaics, stained glass, furniture, tapestries, and music ....it has been a sacred place of Sacrifice, of Presence and of Glory.

We, the People of God, go there to worship Him, to participate in the liturgy....we go there not only for Holy Mass, but to confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to be baptized, to get married, and to die...the most private, personal acts a person can perform throughout his life. But even when there's no liturgy going on...we go there to pray before the living presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the tabernacle.

Our recent Holy Father, John Paul II, designated this past year as the Year of the Eucharist, and in his encylical On the Eucharist and its Relationship to the Church...he reminded 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 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.

Today there are many Catholics who come to the church looking for God and are disappointed and dismayed because He doesn't seem to be there anymore. They find themselves entering into what appears to be a department store, a school auditorium, a country club or a hotel lobby or a combination of all three. They have difficulty in finding where the Blessed Sacrament is located.

They are bewildered by the loud talking immediately after Mass; they are put off by parishioners attired in jogging suites and tennis shoes; they are disappointed with bare walls and lack of any recognizable liturgical art or candles. They find no quiet, devotional spot in which to kneel and pray. They find the atmosphere similar to the secular spaces of their everyday life devoid of any sense of devotion or sanctuary. They wonder what happened to that sacred place they used to know, and they ask "What happened to the glory?"

The mystery has been lost. As an architect specializing in church design, I have been for many years 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 four of the causes and a few possible architectural solutions.

The Displaced Tabernacle
The Blank Wall
The Lonely Table
The Lost Art

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:

"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, in many churches the tabernacle is not placed in a prominent location, much less beautifully decorated. Some tabernacles, I think, are quite ugly. 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. ..." Quoting Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe : "... we have all experienced a lessening of devotion to the Eucharist, a loss of the sense of the Real Presence; the sense of the sacred has suffered. I can't help believing that placing the Eucharist in a separate chapel, often hidden and often small, is part of the reason we have a crisis in belief in the Real Presence....Out of sight, out of mind is what has happened."

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 Our Lord 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-ˆ-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 (now Pope Benedict XVI) 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."

Pope John Paul II expressed this concern when he said, "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."

We certainly need good art in our churches, as Pope John Paul II told 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.

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 His Holiness concluded 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.

I will end with two great quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) :

This is what is lovely about Catholic churches, that within them there is, as it were, always worship, because the eucharistic presence of the Lord dwells always within them.

The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved.