Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Need for Sacred Space

A section of the
tapestry of the
Communion of
the Saints in the
Cathedral of Los
I mentioned in a recent posting that while I am committed to the Liturgical Reforms instituted by the Church during and after the Second Vatican Council, I still think we have a long way to go in developing the liturgical forms these rites take to bring out and maximize their spiritual depths.  There are several obvious flaws: while the language of the earlier translation was banal and without poetic tones, the current translation is not only equally prosaic, but aurally incomprehensible.  The translation principles of Liturgiam authenticam are fundamentally flawed and, as anyone who as a student had to unravel the complexities of Cicero knows, one cannot bring Latin syntax into intelligible English.  We need a translation which is not only substantially (as opposed to literally) faithful to the original, but which has some literary polish to it.  And then there is the music.  Directors of music and liturgy (though I suspect that most often the real problem are the priests) need to get over their fear of “bringing out old treasures as well as new” from their storeroom (cf. Matt 13:52).  It has taken us centuries to build up a repertoire of great music for the liturgy and it will take us centuries more to add pieces of equal value and worth.  In the meantime we should not be afraid to selectively use the treasures of the past even if they are in a language many (ok, most, almost all) people do not understand.  On the other hand, the Mass is not colonial Williamsburg and the new must be used alongside the old even if most of the new is not of the same excellence.  And much of the new, by the way, is of the same excellence.  Composers such as John Rutter, John Tavener, Bob Chilcott, Herbert Howells, or Malcolm Archer are contemporary musicians writing excellent Church music.  And of course there is a difference between worship and concerts.  While there is no problem in having the occasional soloist or choral piece, especially during a time appropriate to reflection, better to have music that invites the congregation to participate more fully in the liturgy and not just render them passive attendees.   
But where I would really like to begin is with architecture. I realize that we are entering an extremely subjective topic: much of it comes down to a matter of personal taste.  I am a huge fan of contemporary architecture.  As with contemporary classical and ecclesiastical music, not all contemporary architecture is good.  Some of it is ridiculous and some is even horrid—I think, for example, of the post-modern Canadian Embassy in Washington DC.  Some of it is magnificent, though located in an inappropriate context: for example, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art (ironically located directly across Constitution Avenue from the aforementioned Canadian Embassy) or les pyramides du Louvre in Paris.  (Both these buildings are the work of I.M. Pei, and while superb in themselves are somewhat alien to their immediate surroundings.)  The Sydney Opera House is an example of a fascinating structure in a perfectly located environment.  The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria Egypt is another outstanding example of contemporary architecture.  I could go on, but let me move to church architecture. 
As much as I like contemporary architecture, I have yet to see where it has been made to work well for liturgical space, at least in large spaces.  The monastery chapel of the Carmelite Nuns in Baltimore is an example of a contemporary small worship space that is conducive to prayer.  I found the chapel of the Benedictine nuns at Jamberoo Abbey in Australia to be similarly prayerful.  I also found the same in the Abbey Church of Our Lady of the Genesee upstate New York.  But when this translates to large space such as a parish church or a cathedral, I have yet to find good examples of contemporary church architecture.  The Abbey Church of Westminster in Mission, British Columbia is absolutely horrible.  I have very mixed feelings about the Cathedral in Los Angeles.  I was deeply moved when I visited there, but I think I was (and continue to be) overwhelmed by the tapestry of the Procession of the Saints from the baptistery to the altar.  Take away the tapestry and I am not so sure about the interior of the building while the exterior looks like a TD Bank on steroids.  It is actually, I think, an eyesore.  (Again, I realize this is very subjective.)  As long as we are using the steroids analogy, Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco is nothing more than an overgrown agitator from a washing machine.  The two British examples of contemporary church architecture: the Catholic Cathedral at Liverpool and the Anglican Cathedral at Coventry would have both been better unbuilt. 
I think the flaw in contemporary church architecture is the same flaw that has made many contemporary secular buildings so hideous.  There is innovation for innovation’s sake—shock for shock’s sake.  It doesn’t lead us to prayer.  There is no sense of the sacred, of the mysterious. 
Some think that the solution is a return to previous styles of architecture.  There is a school of Catholic architecture, more or less led by Duncan Stroik of Notre Dame University, that builds churches in retro style.  I will give Stroik and his better disciples credit where credit is due: for the purity of line and the excellence of craftsmanship.  But I have to pan them for their retreating into the past rather than moving forward and making right out of the mess of modern churches. 
I remember once being on a tour of the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington DC.  The National Cathedral looks like it was just lifted out of a fourteenth century village in England and plopped down on Mount Saint Albans in North West D.C.  About half-way through the tour, one member of the group raised her hand and said to the docent: “When you build an American Protestant Cathedral in a pre-Reformation European style, are you saying that neither America nor Protestantism have anything worthwhile to contribute?”  Good question.  Our American heritage has a wonderful architectural heritage of Protestant Church construction.  Look at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.  Look at the First Congregational Church in Litchfield, Connnecticut.  Look at Old North Church in Boston.  Why did the Episcopalians build a “Catholic” and English Cathedral?  It’s lovely, but it is a testimony against our American culture. 

In the same way, for architects today like Stroik, James McCrery, or David Meleca to go retro says something about how they—and their clients—see our contemporary culture and that, in turns, has vast implications for our mission of “Church in the Modern World.”  Now, don’t misunderstand me, from their work I have seen—either in person or in examining photographs—I cannot say enough good about the quality of design and execution.  My problem is with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of their work.  It fits the “Reform of the Reform” mentality that the Church needs in someway to take shelter from our modern world in its past glories but this isolationism encourages a false and even gnostic ecclesiology in which the Church retreats into itself and abandons its mission to confront the world with the Gospel.  It encourages the Christian to step out of his or her world to pray and creates a false dichotomy between the (arcane) sacred and the secular rather than empowering us, as a Church, to sacralize the secular.  


  1. My favorite church has to be the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, which is my parents' parish. I am most interested in your comments on church music as I sing in my parish choir, and am the semi-official music librarian. We use GIA's blue Praise hymnal, and also use various traditional and modern pieces. I've also read Thomas Day's "Why Catholics Can't Sing," and that is fortunately not true in my parish. It also helps if the priests can sing, and ours can.

  2. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame is probably the leading showcase for Liturgical Renewal in the United States. I have been in the basilica for vespers but never for Mass. I have seen the Mass televised from there and I think the liturgy is outstanding though I am not overly fond of the architecture itself. I have been to Mass several times in the Sisters' church at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame. The liturgy is good, very good but not as good as the basilica's. On the other hand, the renovation of the Sisters' Church I think overall is one of the best renovations of an older space i have seen. The only reservation I have is the tabernacle which is well situated but a bit too out of style with the rest of the church. It is a lovely tabernacle, cradled in natural wood branches and would fit fine in a contemporary church, especially in a rural setting but is out of place in what is basically a German Romanesque church. while the other furnishings are contemporary in style they are discreet enough to harmonize the old and the new. but i am wandering here.

    1. My parents, brother and myself attend Christmas Eve Mass at the Basilica every yea. Right now, ND is overhauling the to install a new, larger organ in the organ loft. They received a large financial gift for the organ and work to install it. ND has had slate flooring installed in the Basilica for improved acoustics, is strengthening the loft to support the added weight of the new organ, and the organ itself is to be installed in October. The choir director at my parish was rather interested in the model ND bought for the Basilica as it's more powerful than the organ it's replacing.

  3. Architecture of churches is one of the neuralgic issues that still haunt us from the "liturgy wars." You are correct that it is very much a subjective exercise, but surely any contemporary design (regardless of decoration) must reflect the demands of liturgical praxis, and thus should be guided by the principles espoused in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. How does one interpret the notion of a "gathered assembly" in an architectural sense around the altar? If "full, active and conscious participation" is the aim, then why do we still configure internal liturgical space in both modern and retro buildings as if the people are spectators at a performance by others. If we can get that part right I'm not so much concerned about the externals.

    1. I hope to bring this up in the third posting on this topic.