The sanctuary of the church in which I grew up – St. Elizabeth in Hanau-Kesselstadt, Germany – was dedicated in 1964, at the height of Vatican II. The church building was a new construction, and – in line with its time – essentially a huge block of cement. Upon entering the sanctuary, one faced a vast space empty of decorations, with a free-standing altar and a huge modern crucifix hanging from the ceiling. Two wide open side chapels, to the right and left of the sanctuary, held a smallish statue each of St. Elizabeth and of Mary, the Mother of God, with the Christ child. And that was it, in terms of visuals. We had a parish priest who was dedicated to the principles of the Liturgical Movement. Our newly-built church was full not only for the Sunday Masses but also many liturgies in between.
This summer, I revisited my childhood parish, for a Sunday morning Mass. What I saw surprised me and encapsulated for me the changes in the ecclesial landscape 50 years after Vatican II, at least in Europe. Although I attended the one Sunday morning Mass, the sanctuary was sparsely populated; the priest who presided was from Hong Kong. More startling for me were the colors that had been added to the bare cement walls of the sanctuary behind the altar and in the side chapels: graceful lines of read, orange, yellow, and a touch of green. I had to smile – in 1964, the bare cement had seemed so eloquent, so different from the clutter traditionally found in catholic churches. By 2013, the barrenness of the sanctuary must have spoken to the worshipers of emptiness instead. So someone added colors. More surprising still was a large statue that had been put up next to the tabernacle. It was a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (an icon for what the Liturgical Movement had regarded with keen misgivings).
What had happened in my parish church? The answer, in many ways, is simple: 50 years happened. And what seemed quite prophetic in 1964 might speak very differently today. However we position ourselves vis-à-vis the changes in the sanctuary space though, the one undisputable fact is that people no longer flock to St. Elizabeth on Sunday mornings; and I think the church built in 1964 is sad — even if someone gave it more color.