Monday, February 29, 2016

More on Liturgical Space

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. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Francis Does It Again!

Last week Pope Francis entered the fray (yet again) with a statement suggesting that contraceptives might be used to prevent the spread of the Zika virus or to avoid a pregnancy that might be endangered by the mother’s suffering from the virus.  When asked if contraception might, in this case, be “the lesser of two evils” the Pope first drew the line on abortion, which he declared to be “an absolute evil,” even comparing the saving of the life of the mother over the child to “the way the Mafia acts.”  (A bit strong, but point taken.)  The Pope went on then to say that avoiding a pregnancy, on the other hand, is not an absolute evil, implying there might be some room here to use contraceptives both to avoid spread of the disease and to justify contraception where the virus is a threat to mother and potential child.  
Pope Francis then went on to cite the story that Pope Paul VI had agreed that nuns in the then Belgian Congo might take a drug that suppresses ovulation to avoid pregnancy consequent on rape.  The Congo, then a Belgian colony struggling for Independence in a particularly vile war, was torn by brutal warfare in the first half of the 60’s.  The Church—because of its ties to the Belgian colonizers, was a special target of the rebels and there were numerous martyrdoms of clergy, religious and Catholic laity by the Simba forces.  Religious women were particularly victimized by rape.  A fictionalized account of the violence of the time—and a stinging indictment of American involvement in what would become a most savage war—is the novel The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  Again, this book is fiction but Ms. Kingsolver did a superb job in providing the historical setting for the novel and explaining the socio-political-economic status of the Congo on the outbreak of the war as well as what was at stake for the United States politically. 
Well, back to Pope Francis.  The Krazies are screaming heresy and are up in arms over Francis’ failure to condemn contraception in any and all cases.  The hive is swarming with angry wasps.  Even Michael Voris—who is usually somewhat trepid about a direct attack on the Pope—finds this a bridge too far.    One Loon wrote on her website “How long can the see of bishops let this go on for before they pull the plug on this shit show?”  I am not sure what “the see of bishops” refers to, but it sounds like Pope Francis might have a Simba Rebellion of his own. 
The Krazies are arguing that the claim that Paul VI authorized the nuns to take an ovulation suppressing drug to avoid pregnancy is urban legend and not true.  I don’t know what Pope Paul VI said at the time and despite my efforts at research I can’t come up with a reliable source to tell me.  But I am old enough to remember that it was reported at the time (and so it is no “urban legend”) that the Pope had authorized the nuns to take steps to avoid pregnancy.  He may have been misquoted—I don’t know—but it is, as I say, no urban legend. 

At the end of the day, the Holy Father is saying nothing different than the vast majority of parish priests would tell their parishioners.  Pope Benedict is a noted theologian.  Pope John Paul II was a philosopher.  Pope Francis is a pastor who can cut through the over-intellectualized crap for common sense solutions.  Sometimes, like the Scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, we take a very simple thing and build it up into a burden, heavy on others’ shoulders, and make no effort to help bear the weight.  But as Pope Francis consistently reminds us: Compassionless Christianity is no Christianity at all. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Need For Sacred Space III

Box Pews in a Colonial New
England Meeting House--
probably the worst seating
devised for churches but quaint.
I mentioned in my previous posting on the importance of integrating sacred space with contemporary architecture that I have usually found traditional Cistercian churches to be highly conducive to prayer, both private and liturgical.  One of the things that I like about monastic architecture is the seating arrangements, in particular the arrangement of the choir stalls. 
And one of the biggest challenges in making sacred space, contemporary or traditional, compatible with the liturgy is the challenge of seating the congregation so as to facilitate congregational participation and adequately symbolize the role of the assembly in the liturgy. 
Pews are a Protestant invention.  Before the Reformations of the 16th century, there was the occasional bench or chair placed against a wall or a column for the elderly or the infirm, but the congregation was used to standing for the entire Mass or other service.  Even today, in Russian Orthodox churches, it is the universal practice that the nave is without seating despite the fact that the Liturgy lasts for several hours.  It was only with the Protestant emphasis on the sermon—which often lasted an hour or more—that permanent seating became a fixture in European churches. 
One of my favorite American churches is Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia.  This was the parish church of George Washington—or, I should say, one of Washington’s parish churches, as he was also known to attend services at Christ Church in Alexandria.  The current church building was finished construction in 1774.  One of the curiosities of Pohick Church is that when you enter, your attention is drawn not to the altar –which is sort of inconspicuously stuck away off to the right, but to the three-decker pulpit which dominates the center of the church.  Another curiosity of the church are the pews.  They are the traditional box pews, family enclosures, where the seating runs along three sides of the box, leaving some family members with their backs to the preachers and others with their backs to the altar. 
I am certainly not advocating this type of seating as it is so idiosyncratic, simply pointing out that the custom of pews is not only Protestant in origin but often was ill thought out. 
Most churches, Catholic and Protestant, in the 19th and early 20th century went for a theatre arrangement where the pews were lined up to face the altar and pulpit as if the sanctuary were a stage, the Liturgy a dramatic production, and the altar and pulpit merely part of the set design.  Such an arrangement facilitated the congregation remaining passive and all the “action” being left to the sacred ministers who were then more or less performers. 
In the first millennium and a half of the Church, without fixed seating the laity were not so confined to dramatic silence.  To go back to my allusion to Russian Orthodox worship, I must admit that I find it somewhat disconcerting to see worshippers roaming the church, venerating icons, lighting candles, making prostrations during the Liturgy.  It strikes my Catholic sensibility as not unlike the old pre-Vatican II days when people read their prayerbooks, said their rosaries, or simply nodded off while the priest “said Mass” on their behalf but without them taking an active role.  On the other hand, in the Russian Liturgy when the Greater and Lesser Entrances are made or the deacon comes out and stands in the middle of the assembly to sing the various litanies, there is a strong sense of faithful being in the midst of the action.  Also, of course, the Liturgy of the various Byzantine Rites (Greek, Russian, Melkite, Romanian, etc.) are highly participatory with the priest(s), deacon(s), choir, and congregation in a sort of four-way sung dialogue almost throughout the entire Liturgy. 
Maybe the reason I like the choir-seating typical of monastic communities is that it gives us the comfort of a seat while still being in the heart of things, a sense that the liturgy is happening in our midst rather than “up there” while we are confined to our pew “down here.” 
I believe that good architecture is first and foremost functional.  This does not mean that we reduce the building to pure functionalism—far from it.  We cannot abandon aesthetics.  But I do believe that the architect needs to examine closely what is to happen in the space, how it is to be used, and then design the building as a sort of “skin” to enclose the space and the sacred actions within. 
Understanding the nature of the Catholic liturgy as it was reshaped after the Second Vatican Council the theatrical arrangement no longer works.  The Eucharist takes place within the assembly of the faithful, not separate from them.  The entire assembly—not only the sacred ministers—are intimately involved in the Liturgy. Although the roles of priest, deacon, and the faithful are essentially different from one another, they are seen more as an integrated whole and less as a hierarchical distinction.  We need to reposition altar and ambo and presidential chair as well as the seating for the faithful in such a way to reflect this integrated relationship. We also need to design the space in such a way that the seating doesn’t confine people or limit their participation in the sacred actions.
One aspect of the Liturgy that seating arrangements just seem to impede are processions.  Processions are a key part of the Liturgy—not only the three great processions of the Mass (the Entrance, the Procession with the Gifts, and the Communion Procession) but those processions proper to various feasts such as the Purification, Palm Sunday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.  I am not sure how to resolve this conundrum, and I am not sure that that seating is the only challenge we face in trying to restore full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy, but we can leave it to the liturgical and architectural pros to make suggestions as how to do things better. 

I have seen a number of churches whose basic layout I have liked.  Saint Bede’s in Williamsburg, Virginia is one.  Saint Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg Maryland is another.  The Abbey Church of Saint Mary’s Delbarton in Morristown, New Jersey is a third.  Saint Mark’s in Vienna Virginia is yet a fourth.  I wish I could think of more, but unfortunately I really can’t.  The trend these last ten years or so—coincidentally (?) concurrent with the papacy of Benedict XVI—has been that sort of Duncan Stroik return of South Side of Chicago style typical of pre-WWII large city churches.  (Again, I compliment Stroik and his fellow nostalgists on the elegant lines and fine craftsmanship of their work, it is just their timidity about breaking new ground that I find, well, disappointing.)  But in regard to the aforementioned churches that I do like their layout, the buildings themselves are invariably ugly.  Are there no architects today that can design sacred space to be theologically and liturgically principled and also prayerful, spiritual, and aesthetically pleasing but just not white-bread replicas of where our grandparent’s worshipped?   

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Requiem Aeternam Dona Ei, Domine II

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Roger B. Taney, died on October 12, 1864.  Taney had been appointed to the Court by President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and had sworn into office seven Presidents.  He was the first Catholic to be appointed to the Supreme Court.  Taney, a Marylander, was pro-slavery and had authored the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision which ruled that Blacks are not citizens of the United States and have no standing in law to sue.  Needless to day, the Justice and President Lincoln did not see eye to eye on the matters of the day.  Taney’s death provided Lincoln with the opportunity to name a new Chief Justice and he chose Salmon P. Chase.  The Republican Senate confirmed Chase the same day he was nominated.  (Curiously enough the Presidential Election of November 8th 1864 had intervened between Taney’s death and Chase’s nomination.)
Taney’s funeral was on the morning of Saturday, October 15, 1864.  Shortly before 6 AM, the presidential carriage rolled up to the North Door of the White House and President Lincoln, attended by Secretary of State Seward and Postmaster General William Dennison entered the carriage for the short ride across Lafayette Square to the Taney Residence.  There, in the parlor by Taney’s coffin, the President stood respectfully while a priest from Saint Patrick’s parish recited the traditional Latin prayers for the faithfully departed.  Lincoln stayed until Taney’s coffin was closed and carried from the house and placed in the horse-drawn hearse and then the President returned to the White House for his day’s work.  The Civil War was still his chief preoccupation. 
After leaving the President standing in the road, holding his hat in his hands, Taney’s coffin was conveyed to the old Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station near the site of what is today the National Gallery of Art.  A train was provided to take the funeral party to Frederick, Maryland where a Requiem Mass was sung in Saint John the Evangelist Church, Taney’s home parish, and where he was interred in the family plot in the churchyard.  No representatives of the Administration attended the Mass or internment. 
I was somewhat surprised that today’s funeral for Justice Antonin Scalia followed the current liturgical rites. Given the Justice’s own predilection for the pre-conciliar rites as well as his son’s own fondness for the Extraordinary Form I would have expected the Mass to have been a Requiem Mass with Black vestments and at the old “high altar” versus apsidem.  In fact it was a good example of how the Novus Ordo can be celebrated on a formal occasion in a cathedral setting. I did notice, however, that the sign of peace was omitted.  And as for the homily—it was extraordinary; I don’t recall hearing a better one for such an occasion, or for that matter, on any occasion.  It had theological depth and personal touch.  It shows that Father Scalia, like his father, is a man of intellectual probity as well as being superbly articulate.   

Finally, the word going around the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington is that the Scalia family and Father Paul Scalia in particular, asked President Obama not to attend the Funeral Mass.  There was some apprehension that the scene at Senator Kennedy’s Funeral with Cardinal O’Malley’s effusive greeting of the President, would be repeated with Cardinal Wuerl.  Vice-President Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for their part maintained a very discreet presence at the funeral.   The Scalias, like many conservative Catholics, find the President to be a symbol of secularism in modern American Public Life.  Father Scalia made the point in his homily—and a point that I agree with—that not only must we not banish faith from the public square, but we as Christians must bring our faith into that public square.  If it is true that the Scalia family expressed their preference that the President not attend the funeral, they should take responsibility for it rather than let the President be the scapegoat for those have criticized him for not being present.  However, again, history shows us that there is no precedent requiring a President to be at the funeral service of a Supreme Court Justice.