I. The Trashing of the Sacred
Years ago when I was being interviewed for an architectural job to do a seminary and chapel for a religious order, I met with a bishop of that order. In the course of the conversation, I asked him what he expected from me in the design of the chapel. After a few moments, he said, "Make us pray!" I have often thought of those words, and I have realized that indeed architecture, as well as the other arts, does indeed have a tremendous impact on us... particularly on how we pray. Good art can help us to pray and bad art can turn us away from praying.
Of course the purpose of church architecture has always been to make us pray. The church building has always been considered a sacred place where the People of God go to worship Him through participation in the Holy Mass, to confess their sins, to pray before the tabernacle, to attend Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, to be baptized, to get married and to die... the most intimate acts which any person performs in life.
The church was the kind of place that arouses the kind of devotion expressed by a Protestant years ago. He was making his first visit to a Catholic church with a Catholic friend. After entering the front door and looking around, the Protestant expressed admiration for the beauty and warmth of the church. He noticed that up at the far end there was a "table" that appeared to be placed in a position of importance. Over the table was a crucifix... and on the table was a gold box... with candles on each side... it appeared to be the focal point of the decoration. He turned to his Catholic friend and asked, "And what is in that box down there on that table?" And the Catholic answered, "that is called a tabernacle and we believe that Jesus Christ Himself is really present in that box". Stunned silence followed. Then the Protestant said, "If I believed that, I would go down that aisle on my knees!"
The church was a sanctuary. In every Sunday bulletin of the First Presbyterian Church in a southern city where I grew up, there was this quotation: "I came here to find God because it is so easy to lose Him in a busy world." I don't know how the Presbyterians are faring these days, but I do know that today in many churches things have changed. There are many Catholics who come to church looking for God and are disappointed and dismayed because He doesn't seem to be there anymore.
They find themselves entering into what appears to be a department store, a school auditorium or a hotel lobby or a combination of all three. They have difficulty in finding where the Blessed Sacrament is located. They are bewildered by the loud talking immediately after Mass; they are put off by parishioners attired in jogging suites and tennis shoes; they are disappointed with bare walls and lack of any recognizable liturgical art or candles. They find no quiet, devotional spot in which to kneel and pray. They find the atmosphere similar to the secular spaces of their everyday life devoid of any sense of devotion or sanctuary. They wonder what happened to that sacred place they used to know, and they ask "what happened to the glory?"
It is no wonder that devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and confessions are way down since the tabernacle is hidden away somewhere and the rooms of reconciliation are completely out of sight. Why shouldn't people chatter away after Mass, appear in jogging outfits, or seldom dream of kneeling in prayer if they don't feel as if they are in a sacred space but a school auditorium? Blank walls, abstract art, banners and chairs are poor objects for devotion.
There are possibly two reasons for this great loss of the sense of the sacred. The first is that the designers, in their zeal for change, have so twisted the established norms that they have created only secular art while eliminating the sacred. At the same time, they have used "Vatican II" as a warrant for taking these liberties. Secondly, they have done this by utilizing bad art to the point of producing works that, in the words of one Vatican II document, "are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend genuine religious feeling either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense."
Many Catholics wonder if this loss of the sacred is what the "Post Vatican II Church" intends? desires? mandates? Fortunately the answer is NO. Initially many reforms to the sacred liturgy were set in motion by several Vatican II documents. A few of these were:
- Pulling the main altar away from the back wall and placing it closer to the congregation in order that the people could see and participate more fully by "gathering around" the altar,
- Seats for the celebrant and ministers were to be provided,
- The Blessed Sacrament was to be reserved either on the altar or in a side chapel or other suitable place and
- The number of sacred images was to be moderated.
These liturgical reforms began to be reflected, quite naturally, in the designs of new church buildings and in the renovation of existing churches. Altars facing the people sprang up as the "wedding cake" marble ones disappeared; altar rails vanished; tabernacles traveled to side niches, columns, walls and separate alcoves; sacred images, paintings and tons of decoration vanished; pews circled new altars; handsome pulpits were abandoned or eliminated; confessionals disappeared, or were relocated; and baptisteries and sacristies switched places.
Many of these liturgical reforms have produced good results in their architectural solutions. Unfortunately, however, many of them exceeded the established norms to the point where the sacred dimension was eliminated altogether. This trend was basically a reflection of the "secularization" and "desacralization" underway in those days.
- The highly desirable idea of placing the main altar to a more central location became an excuse to turn the church into only an auditorium or a public meeting room.
- Seats for the celebrant and ministers were not always satisfactorily arranged... sometimes the "president's chair" looked more like a throne, even though this was specifically prohibited by the norms.
- The re-location of the tabernacle from the "old" back altar to some other, undistinguished place without nobility or decoration has had the disastrous effect of an increasing disregard for the Sacrament itself, although this was certainly not the intention.
- The moderation and the relative positions of sacred images have resulted in eliminating most if not all sacred art leaving blank walls, even though the norms indicated that at least some should be maintained.
Some proponents of these changes used "Vatican II" as a warrant for these excesses. However, nowhere do the Vatican II documents mandate any kind of change of purpose, much less desacralization. Quite the contrary, they speak of "turning men's minds devoutly toward God." By 1970 it became necessary for Pope Paul VI to warn that, "Liturgical reform is not at all synonymous with so-called desacralization, and is not intended as an occasion for what is called secularization. Thus the liturgy must keep a dignified and sacred character."
Still the trend continued until seven years later the same Pope stated, "The course of these recent years shows that we were on the right path (with liturgical reforms). But unfortunately, in spite of the vast preponderance of the healthy and good forces of the clergy and the faithful, abuses have been committed and liberties have been taken in applying liturgical reform". ..."As for those who, in the name of a misunderstood creative freedom, have caused so much damage to the church with their improvisations, banalities and frivolities, and even certain deplorable profanations, we strongly call upon them to keep to the established norm; if the norm is not respected, grave damage could be done to the very essence of dogma."
II. RETRIEVING THE SACRED
Pope Paul VI
How can we retrieve the sense of the sacred in sacred art? We are not speaking here of the liturgy per se. This is a subject beyond the scope of this article. We are speaking of the architectural and artistic expressions of the liturgy in our churches. We can and should follow the advice of Pope Paul VI in keeping to the established norms that aims at "turning men's minds devoutly toward God" by instilling a "dignified and sacred character" to the design. One way to accomplish this is start insisting on "good art" that is, excellence in design. There is no substitute for excellence. We should return to the idea that Our Lord deserves the best we have. Not that excellence alone will bring back the sacred, but if we challenge the artists to acquire a deep understanding of the liturgy and imbue them with the idea that essentially sacred art is meant to give God glory by fostering real piety in the faithful, then much progress can be made.
Excellence means having faith in the arts and artists of our own day. Many people have the romantic notion that if we could just retreat to the old days, we will somehow recapture the sacred. They want to copy the old, "safer styles, whether Gothic or Classic or Romanesque. This position ignores the discoveries and needs of this contemporary age to which the Church must always speak. It is the ghetto mentality of retreat. If this had been the mentality of the Abbot Sugar in Paris, he would never have had the creative courage to "Invent" pointed arches, usually supposed to mark the break from the Romanesque to the Gothic...and the Church of that time would never have approved them even if he had!
The fact is that the Catholic Church has always been the mother and patron of the "contemporary" art of every age in its history. Every "style" was "contemporary" in its own time. If this had not been the case, there would have been no creativity at any time; and all Catholic churches today would be at best Roman basilicas or at worst, caves.
Contemporary designers are just as capable of bringing forth the sacred as the designers of the past. We should not make the mistake of thinking that "contemporary" means only "Bauhaus," the glass-box architecture parodied by Tom Wolfe. It is a much richer and varied affair than that. In this age of "post-modern" architecture, there is a well-founded freedom of creativity, utilizing many new technical innovations. Certainly today the design field has gained a great deal of experience that does speak to our times. We should, of course, preserve the best of the past, especially objects of sacred art, and use them, if sparingly. The Church has always had constant care for great art. Just witness the wonders of the Vatican Museum alone. An historical church such as ours certainly believes in guarding the arts of its history!
The key is excellence in design, whether contemporary or of any ancient "style". There are Gothic churches poorly designed and some "contemporary" ones that are well designed, and vice versa. There are criteria of good design, no matter what the style. If these criteria are not followed, we get the "depraved forms, lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense" that the Vatican II Constitution warned against.
Perhaps one reason why many have been turned off by the "modern" is because they have only seen mediocre or bad examples. There are so few good examples because the top architects, artists and craftsmen have been largely ignored and have not been invited to work in the liturgical field. The competent liturgical craftsmen have either died or gone into some other business.
When we do study the past, we are amazed at the geniuses the Church employed to build and adorn the churches with magnificent paintings, murals, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass windows and mosaics. Where do you find a Michelangelo today? Since there are so few examples of good work in the U.S., many still look to Europe for good art. After 200 years of existence, why do many Americans persist in believing that only European art is good? The point is that this country does possess many talented architects and artists who are capable of doing excellent work, but they are not given the chance. And if they are given that rare opportunity, they are expected to do their work practically "gratis." Today they are employed to produce their best for office buildings, muses, bathrooms with saunas, mansions, banks and Disney Worlds... and our Churches are left with barren walls and mediocrity.
Ultimately this demand for excellence, and the generosity to pay for it, must come from the faithful themselves. When we, the faithful, acquire a really deep, practical faith, then we will generously put our money where our heart is.
Finally, what did Vatican II say about all of this anyway?
"Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God, which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God."
If we are daring enough to push ahead in demanding excellence at the source of the design process, we can go a long way to salvage the sacred. We can recapture the glory of the church as a place of sacrifice, presence and beauty. Liturgical architecture and the sacred arts can mightily reinforce the sense of His presence with the beauty of their design. And when we do sense His glory in His church, we'll come closer to Him, and we'll want to fall on our knees... and pray.
back to top | home