Vatican II, church architecture and "reform of the reform"

Vatican II, church architecture and "reform of the reform"

Sidney Rofe

After the close of the Second Vatican Council, nearly forty years ago, many Catholic churches around the world suffered from the debilitating impact of liturgical reform gone wrong. Only in recent years have we seen moves to repair this situation with a "reform of the reform".

During this period, no clear direction was given as to how liturgical renewal should be implemented in terms of church architecture. As a result many innovations were incorrectly applied to churches in the name of Vatican II - involving iconoclasm, a loss of sacredness and symbolism, a diminishing of hierarchy, clericalisation of the laity, confusion over the sacrificial and meal aspects of the Mass, and an over-emphasis on community-focused worship at the expense of the central Christological themes.

Misguided values

Documents such as the notorious Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) did much to promote these misconceptions, resulting in the desecration of many beautiful churches and the disruption of parish communities all around the world. Considering its status as an unofficial document of the United States Bishops' Conference, it is surprising how much credence EACW was given and continues to be given around Australia.

An example of this was recently seen at one church in country New South Wales, where parishoners were given a series of "reflection sheets" aimed at educating them about the liturgy and future changes to their church design. EACW is referred to extensively as if it were authoritative.

One example of the faulty theology promoted in these "reflection sheets" sees the assembly cited as the "primary symbol of Christ's presence". Yet anybody who has read the Catechism of the Catholic Church would know that Christ is most present in the Eucharistic species (CCC 1088).

This over-emphasis on the assembly as the focal point is a recurring theme in church renovations and new church designs.

A recently built church in Sydney (see picture below) exemplifies how architecture can promote community-focused worship. The church is arranged in an antiphonal style with one side of the congregation facing the other, similar in arrangement to the House of Representatives in Canberra. Although unconventional, this arrangement of itself is not the central problem. This is to be found in the lecture-theatre style tiered seating which raises the congregation up above the altar.

Two consequences result from this arrangement. Firstly, the people are made more prominent, thus reducing the altar's iconic status within the Mass. For, to be successful the altar must not only be a point of focus, it should also be the termination point of people's vision. One only needs to look at the main altar in St Peter's Basilica to understand that no matter from which direction people enter that space, the altar with its prominent baldachino is the focal point of the whole building.

Secondly, the raised seating makes this church look more like a theatre or sports hall, where likewise the people can become involved through active observation rather than active participation.

The theme of the assembly is also picked up in the guidelines for liturgical change included in the Conservation Plan for St Patrick's Cathedral, Toowoomba. Again we see the promotion of a communitarian approach to church architecture. The document speaks of "once again" designing for the "assembly gathered in prayer" - as if the church wasn't already a domus ecclesiae.

The Latin word ecclesia means much more than an assembly. Originally from the Greek word ekklesia, it denotes a solemn convocation especially of a sovereign people. It also means to call out or to summon. This implies there is someone doing the summoning, and someone being summoned. In the Christian experience, it is God who calls His people together to worship Him in the liturgy.

Icons of faith

In many respects our traditional churches promote the idea of domus ecclesiae better than the new ones. One need only look at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney to see the layers of history reflected in the stained glass windows, statues, and memorials that keep alive the memory of Catholics who have worshipped there over the generations. These icons of faith give breadth and dimension to the concept of ecclesia. For the ecclesia is not just those living on earth; it also includes those who enjoy the rewards of heaven.

A church building, in fact, does not belong to the people. It is a gift given to God by His people. The people build this house of God in order to to worship Him with due honour and purpose. St Mary's, therefore, like many other treasured churches, is not only an icon of heavenly realties, it is also an icon of earthly endeavour by the faithful to worship God across the generations.

All that is done to enrich, decorate, etc, is for the greater glory of God. If the building were merely for the people, there would be little justification for the great expense involved in building such a grandiose structure. For a Church is an icon of the Heavenly City, not merely a meeting house. The liturgy which occurs within it opens up a dialogue that is primarily with God.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the present liturgical confusion, a call has come to re-examine the teaching and spirit of Vatican II, particularly from figures such as Cardinal Ratzinger, Msgr Klaus Gamber and Fr Joseph Fessio, with the so-called "Reform of the Reform" movement.

In the architectural field, the likes of Steven Schloeder and Duncan Stroik have attempted to find an appropriate architectural expression for this renewed appreciation of the Church's liturgical and cultural traditions. (Although the work of these two architects also shows there is by no means a consensus on the issue of an appropriate architectural expression of Vatican II's reforms).

Stroik totally rejects the precepts of modernism, because they are rooted in the rationalistic sentiments of Enlightenment philosophy. Instead, he seeks to restore the sign, symbol and typology of church design through the pursuit of classical and gothic architectural stylism. However, in branding all contemporary architecture as debased, he also cuts off any opportunity for legitimate progress in church architecture.

Sacramental role

Schloeder, on the other hand, recognises that contemporary architecture has something to offer, provided it does not lose sight of its traditional and symbolic origins. For Schloeder, this means forging a vibrant architecture rooted in the Church's traditional forms that speaks to contemporary society of the Incarnation.

Monsignor Francis Mannion, appointed by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to set up a new Liturgy Institute, believes that church architecture plays a "sacramental role". He argues there is a new era of architecture on the horizon that will be "neither an anti- modern return to tradition nor a logical development of modern trends".

Indeed, the once unified world of modern architecture is giving way to a whole new set of ideas.

At present there is no consensus on an appropriate architectural direction for new Catholic churches. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: architectural modernism can never again be accepted as a legimate expression of Catholic church building.

This new vision will not see any convincing expression until architects and artists rediscover the value of tradition as an inspiration for contemporary forms. As Msgr Mannion says, the "genuine achievements of modern liturgical architecture should be gratefully embraced, even as we seek to move beyond them, recognising their limitations".

So how can this confusion best be addressed?

In many cases, if one does not have the support of the parish priest or local bishop, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent needless destruction from occurring. The recent "renovations" to St John's Cathedral, Milwaukee, instigated by the just-retired Archbishop Weakland, shows that even Vatican intervention may not be enough to halt unnecessary church alterations.

The best approach to protect our churches is for more laity to actively promote them as sacred buildings. This can be done in a number of ways.

Firstly, a church should be treated primarily as a temple of God, rather than a meeting house of the community, with people's behaviour reflecting this appreciation.

Secondly, Catholics need to be informed about the theology of church architecture, e.g., What does an altar represent?, Where should the tabernacle be placed? or Why are kneelers used?

Of course, many people don't have the time to read and interpret all the relevant Church documents. But there are books written by those who have, the best of these being Architecture in Communion by Steven Schloeder. This provides the reader with a wealth of information on the subject, and re-establishes a sacramental and symbolic understanding of liturgy and architecture.

Thirdly, informed parishioners should not wait for the iconoclasts to show up. Once one has a better understanding of church architecture, share it with the parish! This should be done in consultation with the parish priest and might take the form of a series of information sheets, or short announcements from the pulpit.

Even though there is no immediate threat, it doesn't hurt to encourage greater appreciation of the sacred nature of a parish church and the elements within it. At the very least, it will allow people to approach the liturgy with a more profound understanding of the sacred mysteries.

Information society

In today's "information society", knowledge is power. If iconclasts show up at the parish promoting their communitarian ideologies, one needs to know how best to respond before their deception takes root among the unwary.

Fourthly, don't totally disregard what liturgical experts say. Often the problem is not so much what they say as what they don't say. Referring to the altar as a "holy table", for example, is true as far as it goes, since the altar is the table of the Lord around which the community gathers. But it is not just a table; it is also an altar of sacrifice - the point where heaven and earth meet in the profound mystery of the Eucharist.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to make our churches places truly worthy of God's presence. This can only happen if more Catholics develop a deeper theological, cultural, historical and symbolic understanding of church buildings.

Until this happens, new church designs and renovations to existing churches will continue to cause grief and confusion at the pastoral level, not to mention distorting the authentic message of Vatican II.

  • Sidney Rofe specialises in the design of Catholic churches with the firm WIM architects in Brisbane. He is currently completing a thesis on "The Theology of Church Architecture" at the Queensland University of Technology.

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