Church architecture: can a sense of the sacred be recovered?

Church architecture: can a sense of the sacred be recovered?

Christian Xavier

In the year 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a liturgical document concerning the construction and renovation of church buildings throughout the United States titled Built of Living Stones (BLS). It was a series of guidelines established to supersede those of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW).

EACW was released in 1978 in the United States by the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy but carried no canonical authority; however, it was hailed as the authority for those who employed the "spirit of Vatican II" as a licence to not only construct architectural monstrosities in the name of the Council's liturgical reform, but also literally to gut existing churches and cathedrals of much of their Catholic identity.


It is ironic that the experts who have used EACW to justify their own agenda on the Catholics of America, are more often than not the same people who would deny any binding status to Humanae Vitae.

Although Built of Living Stones leaves many loopholes for those intent on de-spiritualising Catholic ecclesiastical structures, the concept of uniform and national guidelines pertaining to ecclesiastical structures is significant.

Meanwhile, in other Western nations, there has been an epidemic of liturgical ignorance, and because the church building plays a fundamental and an actual role in the liturgy, the design of many ecclesiastical structures has suffered in parallel with the liturgy.

But while having the necessary guidelines for ecclesiastical structures is a step in the right direction, it is also most important that those implementing the guidelines and designing churches conform to the guidelines.

One only has to look at the Jubilee Church in Italy that was built as a commemoration of the Great Jubilee Year in 2000 to see just how ugly a church can be when the wrong architect is chosen. This church, which was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Rome, employed an American architect of non-Christian persuasion to design this new landmark.

Here lies the problem: how can a man who is not only unfamiliar with the liturgical practices of the Catholic Church but has no faith in its doctrines design a sacred space in which the liturgy is celebrated? The short answer to this question is, he cannot. For, looking at the Jubilee Church, one has to conclude that it possesses few characteristics which a sacred structure should have.

A parish church in my diocese provides a further case in point, though it is typical of many others.

Entering the nave of the church, one quickly notices the resurrected Christ on the main cross above the altar, the absence of kneelers, the neon lights installed inside the glass tabernacle, the holy water trickling down from a chain hanging from the ceiling, the sanctuary lower than the people, the majority of the walls constructed of glass, the baptismal font resembling nothing other than a lap pool and the whole structure generally shaped like a theatre.

Early in 2003, when I attended Mass in that church, one parishioner informed me that the community of parishioners had exerted considerable influence in the design of the new church.

This brings us back to the problems of widespread liturgical ignorance and the wrong choice of architect.

How many parishioners would have read what Pope Pius XII wrote in his great encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei (62), in which he states that "one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table-form; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer's body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings"?

Contrary to widespread belief, documents such as Mediator Dei remain as valid and relevant today as they were when originally issued.


The General Instruction for the Roman Missal (314) states that the tabernacle should "be made of solid and inviolable material that is not transparent". In other words, tabernacles constructed of glass are unacceptable as this not only creates a security problem - as glass is easily penetrated - but it constitutes a permanent exposition, which is strictly forbidden, as stated in Redemptionis Sacramentum (138): "The Most Holy Sacrament, when exposed, must never be left unattended even for the briefest space of time."

There is also the problem of church fixtures which are completely inappropriate. While there is no explicit ruling on lights inside a tabernacle, it is most unlikely that neon lights would be deemed suitable by the great architects of the world. But as a remarkable and holy priest has told me many times: "You can't legislate against bad taste".

In order to design an authentically Catholic church, one not only needs architectural skills, but an intimate knowledge of the liturgy and and a solid faith in the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

The issue of church design continues to be an urgent one in many countries, both in the building of new churches and the restoration of old ones. For how can the laity be expected to respect the liturgy if the very buildings in which it is celebrated tend to undermine what the Church proclaims, that the liturgy is sacred.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. In the United States, a significant revolution is gaining momentum, countering the influence of certain prominent individuals who over the years have stripped Catholic churches of their distinctive identity.

The Church in America is blessed with groups such as the Adoremus Society, the Sacred Architecture Institute and Della Chiesa. These groups boast of some world leaders in the field of ecclesiastical architecture. In addition, a significant number of architecture firms have produced some breath-taking designs in recent times.

Church for 2010

Franck Lohsen McCrery Architects put forward a design titled "The Church for 2010" (pictured on both pages), this design is only a taste of what the faithful in America are witnessing. It is individuals and groups like these that are implementing the true liturgical reform of Vatican II in their designs for new ecclesiastical structures.

Not only are they constructing new churches that the faithful in some countries can only dream of, but they are initiating what are commonly referred to as re-renovations. Here they attempt to return churches to their original Catholic identity, years after they have been "renovated" by misguided experts. Unfortunately, some churches have been vandalised to such a degree that they are almost beyond repair.

Duncan Stroik describes the church building as a "Catechism of Stone", while Michael Rose has written in his book Ugly as Sin that "the problem with new-style churches isn't just that they're ugly, they actually distort the Faith and lead Catholics away from Catholicism".

We have seen over previous decades our altar rails and baldachins ripped out, our sanctuaries lowered (some lowered below the seating level of the congregation), pews removed to be replaced by temporary seating, and our tabernacles relocated to the most obscure places.

All this brings into question the mindset of not only the architect, but the priest implementing the design.

We should always ask those involved with the construction or renovation of a church building: "Why do you seek to build a House of God? Is it for His glory, or yours"? Since the close of Vatican II, the Catholic faithful have witnessed many trying to alter a number of Church teachings in the "spirit" of that Council. It is undeniable that altered church structures have been used to assist this process.

An example of this has been the widespread removal of the altar/ communion rail in an attempt to lessen the distinction between the priest and the non-ordained faithful. As Pope John Paul II reminded us: "The particular gift of each of the Church's members must be wisely and carefully acknowledged, safeguarded, promoted, discerned and coordinated, without confusing roles, functions or theological and canonical status".

An authentic Catholic design of the church buildings can help underline this distinction.

From Jewish times before the coming of Christ, until Vatican II, laymen were not permitted on the sanctuary without good reason, e.g., as altar servers. Laymen today still do not have an inherent right to access the sanctuary, but many have assumed that right with the removal of altar rails.

Also a significant percentage of churches are now without kneelers, with their removal after the Council or, in more modern constructions, not having been initially installed. Through their removal, parish priests indirectly signal to congregations that kneeling is no longer necessary, even during the consecration. This is a trend I have personally witnessed too many times to count.

While the US has been witnessing a significant revival of the sacred in many churches and dioceses, countries such as Australia have stalled on the road of authentic liturgical reform.

Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald observed the current state of sacred spaces in Australia and sarcastically suggested that she should start a movement that she deemed necessary in Australia called "Pagans for Proper Churches". In an increasingly atheistic society, Farrelly observed "that everywhere, under every log and rock, nice old churches are being melted down into nightclubs or ad agencies while the new, bursting-at-the-seams versions have the common-or-corporate look so down pat it's hard to pick 'em from the general high-street line-up".

Things have sunk so low liturgically in Australia and elsewhere that it is possible to go nightclubbing in a blue stone neo-gothic structure, formerly a beautiful, ornate and timeless tribute to Christ, but it is seemingly more difficult to locate a genuine sacred space in which to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice.


The time has come for bishops' conferences to address the situation at hand. We have liturgists, both ministerial and lay with adequate knowledge of the Sacred Liturgy and the function that the church building fulfils within the liturgical celebration, in order to establish guidelines for the construction and renovation of churches.

As Michael Rose warned in his new book Tiers of Glory, "Without the willingness to learn from past mistakes and to study and appreciate the works of the past masters, those charged with creating new sacred places will perpetuate the crisis in church architecture for years to come".

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