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Design Reveals Meaning of "Church"  
Denis McNamara, PHD  

People involved in the task of building or renovating a church can tell of architectural "factions" often present within a parish. At times the disagreements can become heated, with parties sometimes even threatening to withhold donations for the project or move to another parish. The American bishops' document on church architecture, Built of Living Stones (BLS), acknowledged this difficulty by writing that building a church "may be difficult and the fabric of the assembly may fray and even tear" (BLS, #261). But does the average person in a church care much about the coordinate points on a graph when deciding the tabernacle's location? Or would anyone leave a parish over the chemical properties of gold or marble versus polyester carpet? Of course not. In my experience as a liturgical consultant, I have seen people react to what they think artistic decisions mean about the importance of the Blessed Sacrament or the nature of the altar. These disagreements are not about facts, they are about the sacramental realities those facts represent. As G. K. Chesterton noted, Christians are not divided by religious practices, but by beliefs. Because the church is a sacramental building, every architectural decision is a statement about the truths of the Catholic faith.

When the designs presented to a building committee do not match the Catholic theology understood by its members, fireworks can erupt. Of course, individuals or subgroups might have personal preoccupations or not understand the sacramental nature of the church building. But disagreements often arise from misunderstandings about the nature of the liturgy itself, giving undue emphasis to one element or another, whether it be the role of the priest, congregation, music, or artwork. A beautiful church will express churchliness not from any shallow understanding based on individual preference, but from the deepest theological understanding of what a church is. Developing a complete sacramental understanding of the church building as part of the symbol system of the rite can help overcome the disagreements that arise in the field of liturgical architecture today.

Constituent Elements of the Liturgy
A church building is a setting for the liturgy, but as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) reminds us, it is not simply a gathering place. It has a sacramental value that signifies and makes visible the Church (CCC, #1180) and includes "signs and symbols of heavenly realities" so that it will be a sacramental "foretaste" of the liturgy of heaven (Sacrosanctum concilium, #8, 122). As such, the building not only provides for the earthly congregation, but also makes present in the rite the whole orderly array of the supernatural realm: priest acting as Christ (in persona Christi), angels, saints, and the souls in purgatory. When any of these elements of the liturgy are out of balance, a problematic design results.

Theologian Francis Mannion has addressed this issue with great clarity, and his ideas can serve to inform liturgical architecture ("Catholic Worship and the Dynamics of Congregationalism," Masterworks of God, Hillenbrand Books, 2004). Mannion argues that the composition of liturgy is understood to have three irreducible and distinct parts: ordained ministry, congregation, and rite. All three are required and distinct; they cannot be replaced by or folded into one another. When liturgical understanding gets out of balance in favor of the ordained ministry, the result is clericalism. Similarly, if the structure of the rite subdues the participation of priest or congregation, ritualism arises. Lastly, and most significant today, congregationalism results when the congregation subsumes the role of priest or rite.

In each case, architectural implications follow. When the rite or the priest begins to overwhelm the liturgical role of the congregation, attention to sight lines and proper sound equipment falters. Seating might wind up behind columns or in lofts. The resulting individualization of both the priest and the congregation might mean that devotional areas spring up that can overwhelm the primacy of the sanctuary itself. Conversely, in an attempt to establish the place of musicians as members of the congregation, large choir areas might be placed very near sanctuaries. If cluttered with music stands, wires, and seats, this musical aspect of the rite can visually overwhelm the primacy of the sanctuary in a new type of post-conciliar ritualism.

The larger problem faced in many parishes today is congregationalism. This is understandable given the amount of theological persuasion needed in the pre-conciliar years to promote the proper role of the congregation. After decades of rightly emphasizing the congregation as part of the body of Christ that actively participates by offering itself with Christ to the Father, certain exaggerations arose that still affect church design. Because, in congregationalism, the rite is often seen as a product of the congregation, the primacy of the gathered congregation tends to overwhelm all other architectural choices. Some churches placed the priest celebrant's chair among the congregation.

At other times, the nature of the altar as place where the "sacrifice of the Cross is made present" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #296) and heavenly banqueting table was subsumed by an understanding of the altar as merely a humble table for the community meal.

Rather than being fixed to the floor as a symbol of Christ's eternal nature, altars were sometimes intentionally portable, designed to be picked up and moved during different liturgical seasons or because the church building was seen as a multipurpose room. Sometimes supernatural elements like images of angels and saints, incorrectly considered as merely devotional and therefore individualistic, were considered detrimental to communal participation and removed from old churches and rarely considered for new ones.

Similarly, the reserved Eucharist was sometimes understood as being for personal devotion alone rather than evidence of Christ's continuing abiding presence among the community, and tabernacles were therefore moved to side areas or even outside the body of the church itself. In other designs, an undue attention to ensuring the congregation's view of Baptisms at the Easter Vigil has meant that baptistries have been moved into the sanctuary itself, standing behind, or at the side of the altar, and reversing the theological distinction between the initiation ritual of Baptism and the Eucharist as fulfillment and destination.

In some recent renovations, I have found choirs and elaborate organs with myriad pipes have been erected behind the altar, making for visual distraction that detracts from the primacy of the altar and its ritual action.

Full Understanding and Proper Balance
Bringing the role of the priest, rite, and congregation into proper balance can be a difficult task that requires a clear understanding that these elements of the liturgy should not dominate one another. Rather, they enrich each other and evidence the sacramental nature of the liturgy. Because the liturgy is woven from signs and symbols, making those symbols both full and clear is an important concern. It means avoiding the pitfalls of both liturgical minimalism and liturgical exaggeration, and this in turn requires an understanding that church building is itself part symbol system of the rite rather than a merely neutral shell for ritual action. And because sacraments confer grace by signifying, it behooves us to do this effectively, allowing for the active and fruitful participation of all involved by making that participation as deep and as fruitful as possible by keeping all of the elements of the liturgy in balance.

A liturgically balanced church allows each worshipper to see, hear, and participate both internally and externally. It will also signify, however, the role of the priest as an "icon of Christ the priest," who never ceases to plead for us with the Father (CCC, 1142). It also allows for the proper manifestation of the rites as composed of stable and well-understood symbols. These allow us to remember the deeds of those who came before us as well as give a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy: images of the heavenly beings who worship with us; music that gives our ears the sounds of the heavenly citizens singing the praise of God; and the colorful, radiant, gemlike quality of heaven described in the book of Revelation. When the building becomes an emblem of the meeting of heaven and earth, it demonstrates the true nature of the liturgy, and committees can rest in knowing that they have ably found unity in the very deposit of faith found in the Church and the liturgy.

Denis McNamara, PHD,
is the assistant director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois. He wrote Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Chicago.

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