On the Building Committee?

Your parish priest has asked you to serve on the committee to help to plan your new parish church, or perhaps to remodel the old. You panic, for although you want to be of help, you know nothing about the task at hand. You know that, since Vatican II, church architecture has taken a different turn and has produced buildings to worship in that “don’t look like churches.” You wonder if you’re supposed to be involved in planning something for your parish along those lines.

Your pastor gives you a copy of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), (USCCB, 2011) and points out the section on “the arrangement and ornamentation of churches for the celebration of the Eucharist” for your reading. He also hands you Built of Living Stones (USCCB, 2000), the guidelines of our own American Bishops. You glance through the two documents; what to make of it all?

A very handy guide is Denis McNamara’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books, 2009). He takes seriously the contention that many of our churches today no longer “look like churches” and explains this phenomenon in the light of the historical situation. He also provides a rich theology of the church edifice based on the tradition of the Church, Sacred Scripture, and texts of the Liturgy itself.

Sacramental Symbolism

Above all, the sacramental symbolism of the church structure is stressed — that it is more than simply a functional covering for God’s people at prayer, but also a “symbol of the Father’s house toward which the people of God are journeying” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No.1130). The church, itself, and all the “requisites for divine worship should be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities” (GIRM, No. 288).

It has been my good fortune to know a number of young and good traditional architects with whom I have worked — James McCrery, Duncan Stroik, Thomas Gordon Smith, Steven Schloeder — who do excellent work in recovering the Church’s architectural tradition. Dr. McNamara is quick to point out that the Church has never “canonized” anyone style as the Church’s style. The illustrations in his profusely illustrated book are from all periods, even the contemporary, showing that a monumentality, symbolism and serious materials all help to make a church “look like a church.”

Sign of the Body of Christ

It should stand out in our neighborhood as a sign of the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Lord, a symbol of the Heavenly City and a sign of God dwelling with His people here and now. To help the parish building or remodeling committee and its members, I’d like to walk through the church and its components in this article with some of the aforementioned sources in mind.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal specifies that the elements of the church building should express the hierarchical order of the People of God at prayer (No. 294). Thus the sanctuary for the altar and ministers is to be marked off from the body of the church, by elevation or some other means. Traditionally, it was often a rail which some are using again. The people have their place affording active participation, and the choir has its, as well.

Heart and Center

The heart and center of the church is the altar, a multivalent symbol. Of late, all the emphasis has been on the table aspect, but the GIRM stresses the sacrificial aspect as well. The altar is primarily a symbol of Christ. He is the altar, for in his humanity dying on the Cross, he was the sacrifice, victim, priest and altar, and as such is made present to us at Mass. Since Christ is one, normally there should be one altar. The altar should, if possible, be made of stone or marble, evoking the sacrificial rock.

As a table, it symbolizes the heavenly banquet and the Last Supper, at which the Eucharist was instituted. Tomb aspects can also remind us of the Lord’s saving death and resurrection. It should be free of the back wall so Mass may be celebrated facing the people and yet have sufficient room on either side, so Mass may be celebrated ad orientem (facing liturgical East), as Pope Benedict has taught. No matter which way we face, he reminds us, we face God, and a reminder of that is the cross suspended over the altar, on the altar, or the processional cross (of a size to be easily seen), so we offer our sacrifice with that of His Son to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Candlesticks may be on the altar, or on either side of it.

The Tabernacle

The Catechism places the tabernacle after the altar, and I think that is fitting because, in a way it is an extension of the altar. Pope Pius XII, at the Assisi Liturgical Conference in 1956, warned against disassociating the two. My own opinion is that more harm has been done after the Council by removing the Blessed Sacrament from the main body of the church than any other change.

Before, people were quiet in prayer waiting for Mass to begin, and now our assembly is a noisy one, of socializing rather than prayer. Liturgists tended to think that if the tabernacle were in a separate chapel like in cathedrals, people at Mass would not be distracted by the Blessed Sacrament and would pay more attention to the unfolding modes of Christ’s presence at Mass.

I think this fear was unfounded, an academic preoccupation, rather than a pastoral problem. The GIRM states that the Blessed Sacrament must be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that “is truly noble, prominent, conspicuous, worthily decorated and suitable for prayer” (No. 314). In many churches the back wall behind the altar and on the central axis is the favored spot. This seems to be a good solution if there is a suitable distance between altar and tabernacle.

The bishop may opt for a special chapel for the reservation of the Eucharist, especially if the church is historic with many tourists visiting or if the church has the practice of continuous adoration of the Eucharist. In remodeling an old church, it is possible to use the old high altar as a place of reservation, and many fine old altars would serve this function well.

In the words of Max Thurian, once a monk of Taizé, before becoming a Catholic priest: “The church by its beautiful layout, its tabernacle radiating Christ’s real presence, should be the beautiful house of the Lord, where the faithful love to recollect themselves in the silence of adoration and contemplation.”

The Ambo

The ambo is the place for the reading of the Word of God. It should have an inherent dignity, but should not be equal to the altar. Some think that the Council said that the altar and ambo should be similar because the Liturgy of the Word and of the Eucharist are equal as two modes of the presence of Christ. Christ is present in the proclamation of the Word in a real but transitory way and not in the enduring sacramental way in which He is present in the Eucharist, so such a theory is quite erroneous. The ambo should have a big enough top for the lectionary (or Gospel Book) and sermon notes. The microphones and acoustics should be adequate.

The celebrant’s chair is not to be a throne (unless in the cathedral), but a dignified chair showing the function of the priest who presides over the Mass in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ, Head of the Mystical body). He presides in charity and makes the sacrifice of the Mass possible, and his chair symbolizes that authority. The GIRM expresses a preference for the basilican position of the chair at the head of the apse, but admit other possibilities, especially if the tabernacle is placed there. The deacon’s seat should be near, and there should be places for concelebrating clergy.

The GIRM waxes eloquently about sacred imagery as a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy and encourages images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints (No. 318). Dr. McNamara distinguishes between liturgical art, which draws the connection between the earthly liturgy of the Mass being celebrated and the heavenly liturgy of which it is a foretaste and an eternal memorial.

The Apse

The apse may well have a mural of all the saints gathered around the throne of the Lamb, or a crucifixion scene with the Father, the Spirit and angels in attendance. Such would draw one into the Liturgy, whereas devotional images, statues, paintings, icons of particular saints, patron saints, and shrines need their own niches or side chapels that are a part of the whole, but not the major feature.

A misunderstanding of “noble simplicity” has banished all such from white washed churches and made them very antiseptic, not filled with heavenly light and color that murals, mosaics, paintings, and stained glass windows would provide, all helping our churches to “look more like a church.”

The GIRM does not treat baptisteries, although in many places they are placed near the entrance of the church to symbolize that it is through Baptism we enter the Church, and the font is often placed on the same axis as the altar to show Baptism as leading to the Eucharist. Sometimes the sacrament can be administered by immersion, so that possibility should be foreseen. Confessionals and/or reconciliation rooms may be situated nearby to draw out the connection of Penance as a quasi extension of Baptism.

I hope this little walk through the church building and its furnishings, its purpose, its layout and its symbolism will encourage the faint of heart to take their place in working with pastors and architects that are trying to build beautiful churches for the Church, the Body of Christ, to worship in until they reach the Heavenly Liturgy in that Jerusalem which is above.

FATHER DIMOCK, O.P., currently is chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich. Before that, he was prior of the Priory of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C., and has served as a professor of Liturgy and Sacraments at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, where he also served as academic dean and vice president.