Celebrate the Sacred Arts…in our Catholic architecture!

Chartres Cathedral’s famous Rose Window
upcoming convocation for artist at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel next
month includes architects as well as artisans. Their inclusion into the
gathering is a superlative move on the part of Pope Benedict XVI. The
presence of architects will allow Benedict to emphasize very strongly
to the designers of new buildings that are used as sacred worship
spaces; they need to design the structural aspects around the
functionality of our Catholic rituals and Sacraments. Quite often,
designs for Catholic Churches has been constricted by a flourishing
movement of architects and designers to consider all aspects of Church
designs that are based on a horizontal development of the actual
building without a cognitive appreciation for the vertical dimensions
of the Church’s proportions.

What this really translates as is
simply this: Catholic Churches that neglect particular aspects of the
Church’s ancient rituals and architectural heritages. A great example
of this 21st century deficit of Catholic design is the obviously absent
presence of a choir loft. Most architects design Catholic Churches with
a prominently visible space in the front of the Church, close to the
altar as the space intended for musicians and their accessories.
Honestly, the placement of the musical components such as the organ,
drums and ancillary human singers tends to provide constant distraction
during the celebration of the Liturgy. The documents of the Council
made no reference to eliminating the choir loft in our Catholic
Churches. The Council introduced the notion that instruments other than
the pipe organ may be used in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.
However, it did not confine our musical expressions to exile the use of
the permanent organ as part of the liturgical worship.
it seems our Catholic liturgies are becoming more and more similar to
evangelical Christianity, which places a great emphasis on contemporary
music in their celebrations, with an entertainment effect that is meant
to draw the congregation into an assembly that might include a theater
in the round performance. Seemingly the attention is given to the
musical performer as they practice before the liturgy, take time to
practice new pieces of music with the parishioners and proceed to lead
the community in song in a dictatorial Eva Peron style of waving their
hands. Every second of our Liturgy in the post Vatican II Church seems
cluttered with the Ministry of Music, which seriously detracts from
prayer and meditation of the sacred mysteries taking place.
experience, this author can honestly say, Catholics are not singing
more at Church; the musicians are getting more visible and intrusion in
their performances of liturgical theater. Music is intended to enhance
the sacred liturgy, not displace the actions of the Priest and his
people. When Benedict XVI meets with architects, artisans and
craftsmen, hopefully one of the first conversations will be simply
this: Build choir lofts again!
With the restoration of the Mass of
Blessed Pope John XXIII the interior of our parish structures should
always be altar-centric and then the rest of the Church built around
the site of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. First and foremost, we are a
people that are focused on the Eucharist. The celebration of this
sacrament should be the central praxis of our architectural and
artistic representations. There has also developed a practice that
places the baptismal font in an attention dueling position with the
monster music pit and the location of the reserved Blessed Sacrament.
Directly resulting confusion of signs and symbols is the result. The
Sacraments of Initiation are indeed critically necessary for membership
into the Catholic Church; however, the signs and symbols of the waters
of Baptism should not compete for visual attention with the Eucharistic
altar. Additionally, the horizontal praxis should never induce
sacramental reduplication of symbols and visual competition with the
musical instruments.
When parish communities contemplate the
building of a new church, they need to prayerfully ponder the
considerations. The process of construction of a Catholic Church is
something sacred to the individual parish community and at the same
time integrated with the entire prayerful gathering of Catholic
throughout the world, past, present and future. The initiation of the
parish church needs to make the altar the first consideration of
planning, and then the rest of the project will fall into place.

the restoration of the Mass of Blessed John XXIII the liturgical
function of the parish structure should incorporate the ritual needs of
both the pre-Vatican II liturgy and the Mass of Paul VI in a seamless
and transparent manner. Both rites are legitimate options of
celebration therefore our Catholic Churches should offer facilities to
accommodate these sacred celebrations in one church, with one altar.
Special considerations should be adopted that enhance the multiple
methods for the reception of Holy Communion either kneeling or
standing. The distribution of the two species of Holy Communion should
also constitute an important point. Church aisle designs should
facilitate ease of movement for the celebrant and the faithful for the
celebration of the sacred rites and the reception of Holy Communion.
The movement should ideally converge on the altar as the place of both
sacrifice and celebration.
The development of the Roman liturgy
since the Second Vatican Council has not always been considerate of the
organic development of our sacred rituals from the Apostolic epoch. The
liturgy has involved as an embodiment of both aspects of lex orandi,
lex credendi. The liturgical celebration of the Roman liturgy
incorporates the cultural, artistic and historical foundations of the
Western Church. When we design a new church, all of these elements are
pivotal to our understanding of both signs and symbols of our ancient
Catholic faith. Pope Benedict, in his Spirit of the Liturgy clearly
touches on the symbiotic relationship between the liturgy and the
living expressions of what the Church believes and exhibits clearly
through its sacred rituals. The Holy Father, in the restoration of the
pre-Vatican II form of the Mass clearly indicates the deep historical
and cultural traditions of our liturgical celebrations that mutually
and ritually should coexist between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II
liturgical revisions. It appears the Pope is calling all Catholics to a
more sensitive understanding of the temporal evolution of the liturgy
and the cultural appreciation of the liturgy’s transcendence of time
and space. After all, our Catholic liturgy incorporates the Church
Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant into our
sacrificial and sacramental celebrations. There is indeed room for the
mutual coexistence and liturgical expression of both forms of the Roman
The upcoming conclave of artists with Pope Benedict XVI
should bear great results, while the vast heritage of the Church’s
artistic, cultural and spiritual dimensions are considered at the
meeting. Perhaps we have come to the evolutionary point of inspiration
by the Holy Spirit that allows us to selectively take the qualitative
“best,” of our rituals and reconsider the mediocrity of artistic
expression that has influenced us since the Council. Artists, craftsmen
& architects exercise a vocational trade that transcends beyond our
temporal understandings of what is sacred and holy. Their
accomplishments are insights into the glory of God and His
manifestation in all Creation. Artistic appreciation and development in
essence provides us a bridge that connects our ritual actions with
God’s presence and indeed His eternal existence.
Another factor that
should be part of the understanding of our parish communities of faith
is the respect that should be accorded to our highest qualitative
expressions of Church art and architecture. Reintegration of materials
such as stained glass and statuary from our older buildings, or even
suppresses parishes deserves attention and consideration. Many works of
art have graced our sacred spaces and are part of our historical and
cultural Catholic heritage. With the proper design, restoration and
preservation many architectural and artistic pieces can and should be
preserved as qualitative examples of past generations, preserved for
the future and used in our liturgical present.
The American Catholic
bishops have made a remarkable attempt in, On Living Stones, to call
attention to the need for quality expressions in our churches design
and architecture. Perhaps the future success of our artistic expression
in Church art and architecture will be delegated to vocational artists
that celebrate the Catholic faith and are part of our parish
communities. Secular influences in architecture and even the
influential contributions of evangelical Protestantism have contributed
greatly to our Catholic alienation from sacred spaces. Hopefully with
prayerful consideration and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are
entering a new age of artistic expression and understanding that will
rival the Renaissance and bring a new age of sacred art and
architecture that integrates our Catholic beliefs, our Sacred heritage
and our ritual expressions of sanctification through our Sacraments.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author
and journalist writing on Catholic topics and issues. He attended Saint Charles
Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia,
where he studied both philosophy and theology. He writes frequently at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com
& http://nothing-left-unsaid.blogspot.com
. Hugh writes about his Irish Catholic
upbringing and educational experiences at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com
. He has contributed works to Catholic News Agency, Catholic Online, The
Irish Catholic, Dublin, the British Broadcasting
Company, London and the Philadelphia Bulletin, Pewsitter.com, Blogger
News Network & The Catholic Business Journal.

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