Construction on Christ Cathedral Begins

la-1474064124-snap-photoAs The Orange County Register reported yesterday, the 10th of February,

“after several months of agonizing over cost estimates and design plans, Bishop Kevin Vann [blessed] the Christ Cathedral sanctuary before it is sealed off to be renovated into a Catholic cathedral.  … Yesterday’s event [was] an opportunity for everyone involved in the project – contributors, parishioners, architects, engineers, designers and volunteers – to sign their names and write their prayers on the concrete floor of the building before construction begins.”

Approximately 7 to 12 million more dollars will need to be raised to complete the Cathedral, but the diocese is confident that this will be done before the expected completion in October of 2018. 

Pray Tell has covered the evolution of the famed Philip Johnson-designed former Chrystal Cathedral into the new Christ Cathedral extensively, by Johnson Fain, from the initial concepts, until the approval of the final design in September of 2016. 



  1. I vote the same as I did in the fall–keep the cross but lose the baldachin. I think the latter separates the presbytery from the congregational area excessively, besides competing with Johnson’s design.

  2. I agree about losing the baldachin. It will be tremendously intrusive, as is the “bedhead” behind the sanctuary which seems to serve no useful purpose at all.

    I’d also dispense with the cross and have a proper large processional (but still portable) cross that lives on a stand in the sanctuary area when it is not being carried in procession.

  3. I’m not entirely familiar with the shape of the ceiling, but I suspect that the emergence of the “bedhead” reredos and the heavy, floating baldachin results from the lack of a proper vertical axis (“axis mundi”) over the focal points of ritual action. (Fr. Daniel McCarthy, OSB) Of course, the entire enclosure of the People of God is a place of Divine manifestation, but there are places within that assembly where particular manifestations occur. The axis mundi is essential for a sacred space and need not be perceived as an exclusionary impediment. The question of fan-shaped or choral configuration of the assembly aside, perhaps the axis mundi at the altar could be accomplished by some sort of modern kinetic sculpture such as the one at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.

    1. @Kevin Vogt:

      And therein lies the problem. The vertical axis argument is not a good one. Several points here:

      (1) In previous eras, the purpose of the baldacchino or a sculpture was to delineate the “holy of holies”, the part of the building where sacred things happened. Our post-Vatican II theology of the assembly, however, tells us that it is actually in the entire assembly that sacred things happen, not just in thw sanctuary area.

      (2) For 40 years and more now, on the continent of Europe (and I’m thinking especially of France, but not exclusively), they have realized that erecting visual “barriers” around the sanctuary area was a way of keeping people out, rather than drawing them in. We, too, have understood that to a certain extent — cf. the disappearance of altar rails and such.

      (3) A baldacchino has the same effect as a barrier, even though it is floating above. It says “Keep out: this is not your space.”

      (4) The best way of delineating the space where the ministers generally operate is by either a change in flooring (preferably not steps — see below) or by artefacts that do not act as barriers: for example, candlestands or plant pots at the corners, etc.

      (5) A good example of how to do this is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Here you will find no baldacchino, no cross floating above the sanctuary area. Instead there is an open space, indeed a welcoming open space, delineated by a change in the pattern of the floor tiles. No vertical axis structures here, but instead sheer openness.

      (6) Too many people are unaware of the optical “illusion” generated by steps. It is this: when you as a presider stand at the altar on a predella raised above the people by steps, they seem significantly closer to you, viewed from above, than you do to them, viewed from below. The more steps up there are, the more the illusion is accentuated. In other words, sanctuary areas raised on steps have the effect of distancing the priest from his people, though because of the illusion the priest himself does not realize that this is happening. That’s why the best designs use raked floors for the assembly, with the sanctuary area at a lower level than the nave (and transepts). Look once again at the Cathedral in LA for a recent example of this.

      When you have both steps and structures placed above the stepped-up area, the subconscious effect is an increase in the distancing.

      One would think that competent church architects would be aware of all these things, but alas many of them seem completely ignorant of them. They are still designing in the manner of a bygone era, one in which the assembly were passive spectators of holy events taking place in a space separate from them.

      In the case of Christ Cathedral in Orange, they are dealing with the constraints of an existing building, so a raked floor is probably not possible. But they could easily dispense with the other “noise factors” in the design and create a really welcoming space for the entire community. The baldacchino, if it remains, will serve to “compress down” those in the raked side upstairs transepts as well as holding at arms’ length those on the floor. Even at this stage, it is not too late to rethink those parts of the design that distance the people. Having a vertical open space would not only be preferable, it would probably save them money!

  4. One of my principal liturgical peeves is the downplaying of the congregation’s role in the offering portion of the Eucharistic Prayer. Many popular treatments of the EP, including conservative ones, don’t even discuss it. People of that bent often say that after the Words of Institution the congregation is primarily occupied with adoration of the consecrated elements (not something so active as offering those elements), and thus kneeling is its proper posture. As a group, bishops in North America seem to take this point of view, showing how deep their eucharistic theology is not. Taking extra architectural steps to put the congregation in a second-class space—as Paul Inwood so incisively details here—seems to embody the same highly objectionable thinking.
    However, if a bargain were offered to keep the baldachin in return for having the congregation stand for the offering portion of the Eucharistic Prayer, I think I’d take it.

  5. I’m disappointed with this arrangement and would have preferred the original plan, but with four large incense braziers, one at each corner of a slightly raised bema. This raised platform designed to connect the altar to a capacious reading desk sufficiently elevated for all to easily see the readers. Design and color or hangings are important for this ambo to stand out along with the altar and cathedra.

    I’ m thinking of a large processional cross at a vested altar, or one decorated in vivid colors (a violet, red, and gold table or lare cube perhaps). This is to give the altar prominence in a building with so much natural light pouring into a space of white, glass, and earthy tones in the floor.

    In a bow towards tradition, the churches of the mideast and the Mediterranean usually have a large number of oil votive lamps spread throughout the church. These are donated by families along with the oil, wicks, any fragrances, or donate candles. These would be suspended from the ceiling and hung low over the interior space and can be easily lowered.

    Unlike this fixed tester/canopy, these lamps when spread out over both the sanctuary and seating areas visually unite people to the ceremonial spaces. This creates a natural and almost magical effect, especially at night or in a very dark environment, as one usually finds in ancient basilicas and churches.

    I’m assuming the lighting for evening services can be adjusted throughout the cathedral using a dimmer to enable the enhancement of this visual effect. It reminds me somewhat of the now defunct “Tavern on the Green” in Central Park. It had a similarly magical atmosphere to it with multiple crystal chandeliers suspended from tree branches. Radically different from one of glaring flood lights or track lighting aimed directly at the diners..

    The bishop’s chair seems too close to the altar. So compressed into a space it robs the sanctuary of a processional route from cathedra to altar.

  6. Openness and sparseness can also communicate feelings of distance, coldness, and sterility. Building materials, style, and lighting have a lot to do with that. An old untouched Victorian church can have more humanity, warmth, and feel more inclusive than an open modern building – which is why I think a lot of laity say they want “churchy” looking churches when consulted about new construction projects.

    Have studies actually been done in regards to whether or not sanctuaries defined by baldachin, reredos, communion railings, etc actually make people feel less participative or included in the Mass? I may be misremembering, but I recall a while back reading a study done by Notre Dame University in the 80s or 90s where they found that most laity don’t feel more included in the Mass just because some jobs can now be done by the laity (like readings and offertory procession). So long as the sanctuary is a space marked separate from the congregation it will always be perceived as an off limits “Holy of Holies” regardless of how “open” the design is.

    I myself don’t disapprove of the use of a backer wall, baldachin, or cross, though I think the design should be more vertically oriented.

  7. “Churchy” looking churches is the problem when building new edifices or remodeling older ones for worship. After the destruction of the temple and its inefficacious sacrifices it would take four centuries for any, if many, Christians to think of a worship space in any shape likened to a basilica. The worship space ought to be designed around its purpose and its participants. Because God is all powerful and almighty and ever glorious doesn’t mean the space in which he is worshiped has to be outsized. I’ve been in great cathedrals and too many of them look and are treated like museums in which some people are making private devotions at shrines of various kinds. I was in Sagrada Familia in Barcelona last fall, a truly magnificent piece of architecture, but it was crawling with tourists taking snapshots and buying up souvenirs from gift shops. But it sure is “churchy”! In my diocese, the reactionaries who get to oversee new construction are determined to make them more “churchy” even if it inflates the cost beyond all reason. What they usually mean by the term is higher ceilings and seating arrangements that keep many of the faithful at a great distance from the altar and ambo. Stained glass windows are once again de rigeur even though its been centuries since their appeal to non-literate people served a truly useful purpose. Now, they’re just pretty and maybe inspiring. Whether they lift the heart and mind to prayer let alone the love of God is an open question.
    The Crystal Cathedral was an iconic edifice for Protestant worship, constructed as it was to give extra prominence to the preacher, the organist, and the music director. Did I mention the TV cameras? Redesigning it into a space suitable for Eucharistic worship is an incredible challenge. I admire those tasked it for trying their best. I join Paul and others in their specific critiques and suggestions.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      Of course, the vast majority of “churchy” looking churches are not tourist attractions, and even a modern looking church can become a tourist trap.

      As for churchy looking churches being places “in which some people are making private devotions at shrines of various kinds” – how wonderful! That would seem to be the opposite of a museum. Part of a church building’s function should be to encourage people to make church and prayer more than a one hour obligation. Mass shouldn’t be the one and only thing that goes on in a church building.

      And stained glass can still continue to teach and inspire, which would certainly make it a “truly useful” addition. A lot of people learn visually, particularly children. Having studied art, I definitely fall on the side that considers stained glass and other imagery to “lift the heart and mind to prayer let alone the love of God.” They can also give the wandering mind and eye something to focus on.

  8. I acknowledge the difficulty in the conversion and the good work done by the architects involved.

    The problem with omitting the baldacchino seems to be what is behind it. Without some vertical element, the primary visual focus of the space would be the organ pipes. I doubt anyone would think of that as a suitable solution.

    That being said, is there some reason why modern churches have to look like the iconoclasts won at Nicaea II? Perhaps I am an old reactionary, but I feel that if we are to take the idea that “we join with all the choirs of heaven as they acclaim . . .”, the environment should somehow reflect that we are at one with the heavenly host.

    1. @Charles Kramer:
      “That being said, is there some reason why modern churches have to look like the iconoclasts won at Nicaea II?”

      Or, less polemically perhaps, that assume somehow that the faithful at large desire to become third order Cistercians when the evidence of such desire is pretty thin on the ground….

      Stained glass windows did not only teach the illiterate. They modulated sunlight (stained glass was also carefully painted to do that) levels that varied over the course of the seasons at different latitudes. Most importantly, as a theological symbol, they functioned as the icons of Western Christianity – portals through which metaphysical realities were denoted and apprehended.* They’ve not lost that dimension except by forgetting, which need not be conceded as inevitable.

      High vaults (I am not talking as high as French cathedral vaults, but say more like 15-20 meters for a large-ish parish church) have a variety of functions. They improve the natural acoustic for a liturgy sung in the normative manner of the Roman rite. They can create a sense of exaltation that is inviting (if too high, it becomes overwhelming – the needs of the reformed Roman rite does not favor gigantism, but neither does it favor meeting spaces more fit for mere conversational speech).

      And then there are quality materials and, at least for new churches, a multi-generational vision of commissioning of worthy liturgical art.

      * Hence the reaction of stained glass masters like Charles Connick of Boston to the perspective-depth style of Tiffany, LaFarge et at. by reviving the two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional understanding of stained glass as an icon of the supernatural (which revival was, interestingly, more in keeping with the modern embrace of the integrity of form with function – two dimensionality being more functionally “honest”).

  9. I too love art in churches, but it depends on how it’s employed to serve the liturgy. I think the subject matter, stained glass, mosaics and the such should first and foremost be used today to train the worshiper’s eye and force his attention to the altar and the sanctuary, the baptismal font ,particularly if the font is prominently located where public baptisms are celebrated regularly, the presbytery area and presider’s chair, and the ambo. The latter and a processional route to it for the deacon bearing the gospel book, and, of course, the sermon. Also, the ambo and bema are becoming once again an important location for other readings associated with the LOTH.

    If interior art isn’t directed to the primary points of liturgical action, the space will very likely become a display area, as with pictures in an exhibition ,or a museum (often a junk shop) of curiosities and secondary points of devotional interest. How many times do we see a plethora of altars in side chapels, or against the walls filled with cultic displays, reliquaries, etc? One can expect to find these in historic places of pilgrimage where gatherings and services are commonplace. However, in the great majority of parishes and other edifices today (specifically since Vatican II) side chapels with altars all too often go unused. They’re an unjustified expense, become little more than a monument to the pastor’s ego or a liturgical designer with pull in the parish, or an expression of exuberant devotional fervor of a church benefactor. I’ve found these excesses detract from the major focal points for the liturgy. Better the funds go towards a new organ or the repair of the current instrument, and/ or salaries for an improved music ministry.

      1. @Dunstan Harding:
        I’ve never been inside, but it’s long on my list (it’s about 90 minutes away from me if traffic is reasonable, but usually I am going to other parts of Cape Cod, which I tend to do off-season, and very rarely in-season – I prefer the Other Cape (Ann)). So I’ve not had the chance to assess its aural/acoustical properties, which are as important as visual properties (though much harder to discuss at length). The only thing that gives me pause is the odd placement of the organ works over the aisles. But visually, it’s a stunner, though I realize it would be the cause of consternation for people wedded to the We Know Better Than to Do Things That Way Any More(TM) parties of design.

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