|The ambulatory encircling|
the Church of Santa
Costanza on the Via
Nomentana in Rome
After a recent posting in which I mentioned a number of churches whose interior arrangement I liked, Julie B-G wrote me saying:
I've tried to look at photos of the four churches whose layouts you like, but it's hard to see enough of them to really get a feel for the total liturgical space. Could you summarize what are the design elements that you think make for a good layout, especially with respect to processions?
First, let me say that while I like the layout of these churches, the buildings themselves, at least in three of the four instances, are remarkably unattractive. There is a sterile, even unfinished, quality about them that makes them more suitable for storing farm machinery than for prayer. The fourth example, Saint Mark’s in Vienna Virginia, is not particularly appealing but neither is it gawd-awful ugly and the liturgy team usually does a superb work in decorating to interject some elements of aesthetics.
The other three—Saint Bede’s in Williamsburg VA, Saint Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg MD, and Saint Mary Abbey, Delbarton, in Morristown NJ all follow a circular plan with the altar in the center. The congregation is gathered around the altar from every side, the Eucharistic Sacrifice takes place in the midst of a priestly people. In the Abbey Church, the rear half of the congregational circle is reserved to the monastic community and I don’t recall their being either a worthy ambo or proper presider’s chair—though it may be my memory failing me and I could be wrong in the second instance. I would consider this a (an easily remediable) design flaw. In the two parish churches the presider’s chair and the ambo have sufficient gravitas to distinguish Presider from assembly and Word from Sacrament. What the circular arrangement precludes, of course, is the idea that the priest is offering the Mass on behalf of the faithful rather than with them. The uniqueness of the priestly ministry is preserved by the space around the altar being reserved to the priest (and deacon), as well as the appropriate liturgical vesture being reserved to the ordained ministers. The priest, standing vested at the central altar and voicing alone the Eucharistic Prayer remains a strong symbol of Christ the High Priest and yet there is also a strong sense of the baptismal community being an integral part of the action. It is a move away from the pyramidal ecclesiology with the clergy above the faithful to seeing the ordained being at the heart of the community of the faithful.
What the Abbey Church has, and I seem to recall St. Bede’s having as well, is adequate processional space. We need to have not only wide aisles but sufficient free-space throughout the liturgical area, to allow for uninhibited congregational movement that doesn’t back up and stall. There also needs to be the sort of “gathering space” where the rites that introduce the Candlemas and Palm Sunday processions can be held as well as enough distance from the worship space to make a procession more than a rather silly formality. Of course, sometimes these preliminary rites can be held outdoors but not everywhere, especially in early February. The Corpus Christi procession is one that would normally leave the church building and go to some alternative site for Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament before returning to the church to repose the Sacrament. The Rite of welcome and naming at the beginning of the baptismal service is another rite that can involve a procession from the entrance to the church to the sanctuary, though liturgical purists tend to insist that the font be placed at the entrance of the church and not at the altar area. The greeting and blessing of the body at a funeral is yet another occasion for a procession from the narthex to the altar. The wedding processional is an entirely different matter as the way we generally do it in the United States does not include the processional in the liturgy proper. Nonetheless, from a pastoral perspective, you better have an aisle that accommodates a bride’s fantasy of sufficient drama. Weddings are a particular pastoral challenge as, when it comes to the fantasy of every little girl—and more so her mother—tradition trumps theology every time. However, at the end of the day, processions add a note both of solemnity and festivity and we need to look and see how they can be better used in the rites.
A circular church is particularly well suited—again if there is sufficient free space—for most processions (but again, not bridal processions) but may strike some as being very novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two of my favorite churches in Rome are circular and both date from before the sixth century, although one (and the more beautiful one)—Santa Costanza—was not originally built as a Church. The other, San Stefano Rotondo was built in the fifth century to hold the relics of Saint Stephan brought from the Holy Land was built in imitation of the Anastasis: the circular and domed shrine over the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. During the Middle Ages the Knights Templar often built their conventual churches on a circular plan in imitation of the same shrine. The Rotunda of Galerius in Thessaloniki, though originally built as mausoleum for a pagan emperor was converted to use as a Christian Church by the year 326. The Cathedral of Split in Croatia, the oldest still-serving Catholic Cathedral in the world, is yet another church adapted from a pagan mausoleum and constructed on a circular plan. San Vitale in Ravenna, and its Carolingian copy, the Cathedral of Aachen, are also circular churches, though the sanctuary in both these church was in an eastern apse projected out from the octagonal/circular nave.
The fourth church which I had mentioned and particularly like is Saint Mark’s in Vienna Virginia. In Saint Mark’s the sanctuary—quite spacious—juts out into the assembly so that the faithful gather around from about 180o. The ambo is particularly impressive, perhaps just a bit too much in relation to the altar. Saint Mark’s is a very impressive parish complex and the main worship space (there is also a smaller “day chapel”) is aesthetically quite harmonious though I wouldn’t go so far as to say “beautiful.” I think one of the things that redeems it is that while there is sufficient light for the liturgy, one isn’t caught in a blazing glare of electricity. (Careful, I think I am channeling the Dowager Countess.) There is something very soothing, even centering, about the worship space at Saint Mark’s. On the several occasions on which I have been present there for Mass there has also always been some very simple yet remarkable decoration of the worship space. The décor never calls attention to itself, but again always seems to help the worshipper quietly center himself or herself in preparation for the liturgy. I don’t think there is a magic formula for church design but from the places I do like I would suggest the following principles:
1. A space that draws the attention of the faithful to the ambo and to the altar while also making them aware that they are part of the worshipping community and integrally involved themselves in the Eucharistic action.
2. A space that is simple, even minimalistic, but of sufficiently generous proportions to encourage an awareness of the Transcendent Presence drawing us to prayer
3. A space in which while all items (lighting fixtures, seating, organ and permanent instruments, statuary, candelabra) are beautiful and beautifully crafted, no furnishing, other than the altar, draws attention to itself.
4. An environment that is conducive both to personal quiet prayer and communal worship.
5. A building that, while simple, uses quality materials and does not “cut corners” in what is the peak and summit of our Christian life—the worship of God
I suppose there are more points to consider but these are the ones that come to mind.