Perhaps the announcement this past week by Benedict XVI that the Vatican will become more intensely active in matters that pertain to global warming and environmentally sensitive use of resources will effect more than just a small part of the Vatican’s consumption of natural resources. The intent should really mark the direction of new developments in Church design and architecture that will incorporate eco-sensitive activities not only in Rome, but in each and every parish world wide. One can only imagine that ecclesiastical acceptance of ecologically friendly practices would enhance the notion of the Catholic Church’s organically rooted concept of enhancing the role of God’s creation in all of its temporal and liturgical activities. There are some really practical applications of “green-sensitive” technologies that could be applied throughout the global Church that would preserve natural resources and enhance the integral religious experience.

We could start with an effective use of existing materials such as marble and granite from antiquated structures when planning a renovation of our churches and liturgical spaces. As much as multipurpose sites such as modular churches and convertible “liturgical” gyms do not really add credibility to the architectural integrity of the Church’s worship, they might however allude to a very pragmatic aspect to parish design of both form and function. Not only should a parish community consider the cost of building a new church, they should consider the potential reuse of building materials from previous structures when designing new spaces. At the same time, new parish churches and buildings should try to incorporate modern technologies into the design that will result in the most environmentally friendly and ecologically sensitive building than can be placed into a particular area. In a similar manner the highest quality of material expressions should be cultivated from local craftsmen and artisans. For example, religious examples of statuary might be better served if a local artisan in stone or metalwork be commissioned to produce works for particular churches. Not only would the artistic commissioning create at atmosphere of local participation and continuity, but such a commission would economically benefit artisans that are uniquely and locally situated to provide quality interpretations of liturgical works. The local enhancement of creative energies towards religious expression in the visual arts would better serve the local community with the establishment of a local guild rather than “catalogue ordering” from foreign craftsmen and liturgical suppliers. What better way is there to express the local appreciation for religious expression than to have artisans from the local parish community?

But let’s get back to the thought of reuse of existing materials. It does not make “organic” sense to build a granite church in the New Mexico desert, just as a pueblo styled Church does not seem at home in Manhattan. It also does not make any practical sense to discard reusable materials such as brick and granite and marble when they might be reintroduced into a new Church design. Perhaps architects and liturgical designers should carefully consider reconstituting certain aspects of an old building’s accessories into the new building. Frequently we see this done with stained glass when they are incorporated into a new church, but perhaps certain aspects of an old building’s materials can be reused as well. An example might be reusing marble and granite in new church construction to enhance the new sanctuary and at the same time provide a tangible and visible link to a parish history. Other resources with appropriate modification might be reused as well in new parish construction, for example re-milling and reconfiguration of pews that are constructed of older hardwoods and natural materials could find a home in a new building. The alternative reproduction of existing basic accessories to parish worship would most likely result in either destruction of the older materials or their consignment to a resale status. Such a consignment to resale really does not lend itself to the proper expression of good stewardship of natural resources, nor to positive use of the Church’s temporal materials.

From a purely practical perspective it would make sense to design modern churches with the latest available environmentally safe materials from natural woods, to use of natural stone and the application of nontoxic chemicals in preparation of the new liturgical site. Just as a thought when designing liturgical spaces the unnecessary use of petrochemicals and artificial materials should be limited to only those materials that provide qualitative structural quality. Principles of good engineering need to work closely with the designers of sacred spaces so that structural safety works in coordination with modern innovations such as efficient heating and cooling aspects to a parish building. With this in mind, practical considerations of reoccurring costs should be considered. Perhaps a solar heating and cooling solution could be applied to a local church whose location lends itself to such solutions, just as other effective solutions can be applied to new buildings not in tropical or warm climates. There should be an active harmony in the design that incorporates the best technologies the modern world can offer along with high sensitivities towards to environmental impact of the building in the long term. This is often easier said than done, but we do need to start somewhere. In the twentieth century parish churches were often built with little or no regard to the future use of costly oil. As a result we have quite a few magnificent and beautiful structures that are impractical to heat in the winter as well as cool in the summer. The price of oil was minimal at the time of their construction. Today many parishes cannot afford the cost to keep such building heated. Their designs did not lend themselves to future environmentally sensitive needs of shrinking global resources. Our parish communities too are more inclined to a size that is less cavernous and more organically in touch with the local community.

Another consideration that should be made when designing a new church is the use of natural light in the building. Natural light is cost effective and permits a parish to better utilize parish utilities and is consistent with the developing concept of ecosensitive architecture and design. If indeed there is a need for artificial lighting then the most resource effective technologies available should be deployed. A great example of this would be the use of lighting accessories that provided optimal utilization of energy with the least expense to funds and resources. Fluorescent lighting as opposed to incandescent lighting comes most commonly to mind.

When it comes to the design of liturgical spaces an issue that sometimes escapes from the design phase of the new church is the need for a natural and human element of our own humanity in our church designs. What I mean by this is that frequently our churches are designed with a closed and antiseptic aspect to them. Frequently the aggornimento mentioned by John XXIII regarding the opening of the churches windows practically does not happen. Our churches are hermetically sealed from the external elements, windows don’t open and the wind of the Holy Spirit is often artificially provided. We need to open up our churches windows and doors and escape from the perfectly contrived Broadway production mode of liturgy and realize that our faith and sacraments are the deepest expressions of our most ancient and primitive desire to worship the Creator of the natural world. God does not need our crying rooms, environmentally controlled worship spaces and the thermostatically correct baptismal font. Pastors as well as architects need to make provisions in all of our liturgical design to feel the changing seasons, hear the crying children and sometimes clean up the uniquely human accident that the cold waters of baptism sometimes causes. At the same time, when we consider the Sacrament of Baptism there is no need to design an Olympic pool with all modes of running water for a baptistery. A moderate application of the sign and symbol of baptismal waters is sufficient to complete the sacramental task.

Sacred spaces differ from major league ball parks in their design as well. Architects and priests should realize when designing a new church or redesigning an existing one that the celebration of the Eucharist is not akin to visiting Yankee Stadium. One of the most revered accessories in Catholicism is the pipe organ. Its usage is intended to enhance our worshipping experience, not make it the same as a rendition as, Take me out to the Ballgame! The placement of the organ, as well as the placement of the choir area really needs to consider simply…music enhances worship; it is not a rite unto itself. When considering our musical heritage as well, the Church has an extensive collection of musical expressions of liturgical hymns of praise. Pastors should be specifically aware that there is a difference between a hymn of praise from a processional hymn. In the same way, one would not sing, Jingle Bells to celebrate a mid July devotional feast. However, I am digressing… these musical issues are intended for a later subject of future discussion.

Everyone involved in a parish planning of a new church should be made acutely aware of the symbiotic relationship between our expressions of faith and the natural environment. Our use of truly simple elements such as bread and wine and water is reflective of our most essential elements intended for human nourishment. The fact that these elements made from the earth, and fruit of the vine are transformed into our Eucharistic Lord’s Body and Blood express the magnificent manifestation of the Word made flesh and transcends our human understanding and comprehension. We should not plan and integrate sacred spaces that forget this basic organic link to the earthly and the eschatological significance of our sacraments. We are a worshiping people, trying to define the indefinable and participating in the mystery of God’s cosmological existence. Our liturgical worship space should equally reflect our appreciation of our natural and indigenous environment as well as our anticipated appreciation of the mysteries of the Divine.

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