Church art and architecture: 'sacramental role' is central

Church art and architecture: 'sacramental role' is central

Msgr M. Francis Mannion

The US Bishops are currently reviewing the 1978 liturgical document 'Environment and Art in Catholic Worship' (see November 'AD2000'). Despite the lack of episcopal authority and admitted shortcomings of this document, it continues to be invoked in Australia and elsewhere as the 'bible' for new church design and existing church renovation. In light of this, the comments of prominent US liturgist, Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, are particularly relevant. While no 'traditionalist' himself, he nevertheless presents the case for a more traditional approach to church art and architecture.

Msgr Mannion is President of the Society for Catholic Liturgy in the US, and the following are extracts from his keynote address during a Liturgical Architecture Consultation, at Notre Dame University. Given this academic context, the use of some technical language was unavoidable.

The Catholic liturgy since Vatican II, it is often said, lacks glory, beauty, majesty and splendour. It has become pale, lifeless and uninspiring. This observation is not valid if what is lamented is the absence of the triumphalism that accompanied Catholic worship in certain post-Tridentine expressions; yet, I believe that the observation is fundamentally sound.

This problem derives, I believe, in great part from an impoverished Trinitarian, cosmic and eschatological ['last things'] artistry in our places of worship, and an inadequate presentation of the vision of eternal life, of Christian hope in heavenly things, of the return of Christ in glory and the lordship of Christ over history.

Architecture plays neither a sacral nor a merely functional role, but rather a sacramental role, in Catholic worship: the place of worship is neither temple nor "meeting house," but sacramental building. To say that liturgical architecture is sacramental is to say that architecture participates in the sacramental order of the Church. Architecture enters intrinsically into the action of the liturgy.

[Yet] it is an axiom today that the assembly is the primary symbol of Christian worship. This theme appears constantly in discussions about art and architecture. The origin of this principle, as far as I have been able to trace, is Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (28).

What are the liturgical consequences of the assertion of the symbolic primacy of the assembly? Principally, that the sacramental ritual is downplayed in theological and practical importance. If the sacramental rites are not primary, then they must be secondary. The liturgical symbol system, consequently, is no longer regarded as the revered medium of God's presence and action, but as the subjective creation and self-expression of the worshipping community.

It is no accident that the Protestant congregational churches have historically set art and architecture in a rather secondary and subservient role in public worship. Catholicism will be led inevitably in the same direction if it fails to renew its theological conception of the complex structure of the liturgy.

Catholic orthodoxy (that is, right belief formed through right worship) is profoundly connected today as in the past to matters of visual representation in worship. We need only reflect on the history of the Reformation to remind us of this truth. The whole range of Christian images and iconography has never been regarded as merely decorative in function. Representations within the liturgical assembly of Christ, Mary, the saints and angels, as well as imaginative anticipations of the life of eternity, are critical to sustaining a strong and compelling vision of the Christian reality.

These aspects of faith cannot be adequately expressed, engaged or advanced by the verbal alone. The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is eminently true of the liturgy. Sacrament, as St Augustine pointed out, is word made visible. If Christ, Mary, the saints and angels are not visibly represented in churches, it is easy for them to be subtracted from Christian consciousness.

Body of Christ

Today, more than ever, Catholics need reminders that liturgy is never the act of isolated self-expressing communities, but always the action of the whole Body of Christ whose horizon is the Kingdom of God. Therapeutic idioms, expressed in an ethos of warmth, intimacy, personal affirmation and security, are not conducive to expressions of glory or energetic praise of God. They lead generally to an ethos of sentimentality, emotivism and personal and group self-absorption.

Much of the problem here derives from what I would call "the cultural canonisation of the intimate relationship." We have lost a sense of the dignity of being neighbours, fellow citizens, even respectful strangers. Today, it is widely believed that human relationships, to be authentic, have to be intimate or at least friendly.

[Yet] the appropriate kind of intimacy to be sought in worship is not psychological intimacy in the accepted cultural sense: it is theological intimacy, that is, the bonding of persons of all degrees of relationship, which occurs by their participation in the Trinitarian life of God through sacramental initiation and incorporation.

While church buildings exist first and foremost for the celebration of the official liturgy of the church, they have also traditionally served as places for popular devotions (public and private), as well as for contemplation and meditation. The understanding that the function and character of a church building is not exhausted by the requirements of the official liturgy of the church is of long standing.

However, the mood in the Church in the past 30 years has been against the devotional and, in particular, against the devotional as it impinges upon or operates alongside the liturgy. Many people have lamented the stripping of Catholic places of worship of devotional elements and artifacts. Overcoming the alienation of ordinary Catholics from modern church styles will be served in great part by a recovery of the devotional and the "religious" in the art and architecture of the liturgy.

The emerging era in church art and architecture will be a postmodern one; postmodernity in art and architecture allows a more adequate embrace and reappropriation of architectural tradition.

The postmodern alternative to modernism recognises that symbols, including art and architecture, communicate impressionistically, as a whole, to a considerable degree subconsciously, and in a manner that is not always rationally accessible. It understands that rite, art and architecture generate a wide variety of reactions, perceptions and emotions in participants.

Received tradition

Postmodern Catholic architecture will also be able to pick up and renew traditional idioms of church architecture, thus restoring greater continuity with the Catholic architectural past. It does not fear quotation from the received tradition of church architecture. It does not share the bias against the medieval, Renaissance and post-Tridentine eras that have been such a pervasive feature of Catholic thinking in recent decades.

Whatever the arrangement, the ordering of space and the orientation of elements within church buildings are highly significant. The question of the orientation of the altar and the priest at Mass is the most controversial aspect of this issue. While the "conservative" desire to return simply to preconciliar arrangements must be rejected, there is something to be said for priest and people praying in the same direction, as long as the altar and the place of the people are closely coordinated. There are certainly strong historic precedents for such a proposal.

The position of the tabernacle in modern liturgical arrangements remains unresolved at both theoretical and practical levels. Popular sentiment in favour of its traditional prominence in churches has not been adequately analysed and explained. Something in the sensus fidelium on this matter remains impervious to the current liturgical rationale. In my opinion, a more adequate theory of the tabernacle and of its significance and placement seems called for.

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