Perspectives on Catholic architecture: a response to Dennis McNamara

Liturgical architecture and art, not unlike the liturgy which they serve, have evolved substantially over time and have developed varying expressions relative to liturgical needs and cultural affinities. Taking periodic stock of these developments is a commendable and much needed exercise, since not all art and architecture will stand the test of time.

In his beautiful and thought provoking book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Dennis McNamara does just that as he evaluates what has happened in the arena of liturgy and church architecture since the Second Vatican Council.

The unmistakable thread running through Dr. McNamara’s book is that there is one true faith, one true liturgy, and one truly sacred style of architecture: the classical tradition. The importance of architecture in this triad is emphasized by the extension of the old adage: lex orandi – lex credendi to also include lex aedificandi (pp. 11-17). McNamara, however, places lex orandi between brackets and argues for a stronger connection between lex credendi and lex aedificandi. He suggests that the law of our faith should dictate the way we build (p. 9). Indeed, sacred architecture expresses and impresses a certain theology, whether intended or not. However, the primary function of a church is to serve the liturgy that is celebrated in and around it. As such, the building always provides a theological statement, even if that is not its initial intent. Thus, lex orandi – lex credendi – lex aedificandi are necessarily bound together and go hand in hand.

The greater part of the book consists of a detailed and carefully crafted argument for the classical tradition as the best suited lex aedificandi for the Catholic lex orandi – lex credendi. Having argued this point, McNamara goes on to paint a very bleak picture of what has happened to the liturgy and church architecture after the Second Vatican Council before offering a clear alternative: the classical tradition. In addition to decrying the use of non-Catholic architects, modernist architectural and artistic principles, and unworthy materials, he raises two notable concerns. The first is that the post-Vatican II theology of liturgy is too horizontal, overly emphasizing the role of the assembly to the detriment of the role of the priest-celebrant. The second is that churches built after Vatican II were intended to look like every other building in the neighborhood and feel like home rather than stand out as places of worship and call people to contemplation and adoration (pp. 195-209). He ascribes the latter to a betrayal of “the intentions of Vatican II through antiquarianism that overly glamorizes the house church” (p.204).

In response I would like to comment on three of McNamara’s supporting arguments for his overall thesis. First, he argues that church architecture must be revelatory of the Heavenly Jerusalem which is most successfully accomplished by the classical tradition. Second, he argues that church architecture has to reflect the divine attributes of truth, beauty and charity. He again claims that this is best achieved in the classical tradition. Third, he argues that Catholic liturgy and architecture should be subject to the principle of ‘historical continuity’ which culminates in and continues to draw from the classical tradition.

Church architecture and its relationship to the Heavenly Jerusalem (pp. 71-81 and throughout the book).

Dr. McNamara eloquently connects the liturgy and the Heavenly Jerusalem as he likens the liturgy to an “anticipated experience of that heavenly Jerusalem, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, a blessed vision of peace where sin and death no longer cause anger, pain, strife and discord” (p. 213). He further suggests that in the church building we can “see an image of that heavenly reality available to us,” and when entering the building “we enter into its glorious presence to be renewed by God.” (p.213)

One cannot but agree that in order to have such an anticipated experience of heaven the liturgy and the building need to reflect an “aesthetic of heaven” (p.192). However, here is where I depart from McNamara. McNamara’s aesthetic of heaven is most fully and even exclusively embodied by the classical architectural tradition and the presence of certain materials as “gold, silver, limestone, marble, silk, gems, linen, wood, paper, leather, ink and glass” (p.193). How can the experience of the Heavenly Jerusalem be limited to one architectural tradition and one grouping of materials? Is it truly impossible for other traditions and materials to reflect the essence of Heaven, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “perfect communion with the Holy Trinity” and “supreme happiness” (CCC1027)? ”What this will look like,” the Catechism goes on to say, “we cannot imagine except through biblical hints such as ‘life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom’” (CCC1027). Those who worship in adobe churches in New Mexico, or in churches inspired by African architectural principles and materials in Burundi, or in a Matisse Chapel in France may very well experience a desire for the Heavenly Jerusalem just as those people do who worship in the most perfect example of classical architecture.

The church building is to reflect the divine attributes of truth, beauty and charity (pp. 19-29 and throughout the book).

The divine attribute of truth is revealed both through Holy Scripture and Tradition. First, turning to Scripture we find the Temple of Jerusalem described in great length. Although the first Christians continued to pray in the Temple, the liturgy most characteristic of Christianity did not take place there. About the place for Baptism and Eucharist, arguably the two most architecturally demanding forms of Catholic worship, we find just this: “Look there is water, what is to keep you from baptizing me?” (Act 8:26-40) and “He will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.” (Mk 14: 15 and Lk 22: 12).

In contrast to the limited information provided in the Scriptures, our Catholic architectural tradition is extremely rich and shows great variety ranging from house churches to Basilicas, Romanesque and Carolingian churches, Gothic marvels, Renaissance “temples,” Baroque wonders, Rococo delights, revivalist and neo-buildings, diverse 20th and 21st century churches and many other architectural styles indigenous to non-European countries that have served the liturgy well. Indeed, the church throughout the ages has benefitted from very diverse architectural techniques and traditions which have served the liturgy well and which have been true to Catholic theology.

As for the divine attribute of charity, suffice it to quote the Most Reverend Michael Francis Medley, Bishop of Owensboro, who spoke of the architectural grandeur of the cathedral church and its relationship to charity during his ordination Mass on February 10, 2010. “Our church, indeed, has a triumphant face. But such triumph is but drama and theater if we do not embody, day in and day out, year in and year out, our witness to the poor and vulnerable in our midst: to the vulnerable unborn, to children and youth who turn to us for formation, to the hungry, to the homeless — the abused, the immigrant, the stranger and the powerless. So long as our witness to them is powerful and prophetic, our triumphant song and liturgy is pleasing to God.

The relationship between architecture and charity is clearly not a stylistic issue. Rather, it is based on such characteristics as accessibility and hospitality which both the building and the community ought to posses in order to be truly Catholic and to serve the liturgy well.

The attribute of beauty is the most difficult to define. Still, what is certain is that it cannot be held hostage by one (albeit important) architectural tradition. McNamara proposes Thomas Aquinas’ three criteria for beauty as necessary characteristics for good architecture: integritas or the way in which the art reflects the integrity of the message and embodies integrity itself; claritas or the way in which the art reveals the message rather than obscures it and uses clarity in its shapes, forms and colors; consonantia or the way in which each element of the building and the art works together, as well as the way in which the message and the architecture resonate. To these three criteria one might consider adding: fortitudo or the way in which the art gives expression to the weight of its own message; humilitas or the way in which the art realizes it’s role as messenger rather than becoming the message itself; hospitalitas or the way in which the art is accessible and hospitable to the viewer and user. The latter three are great companions to the former and safeguard sacred architecture from becoming too self-indulgent, loosing its connection with the liturgy it ought to serve.

Historical continuity (pp. 195-209).

The concept of historical continuity has readily been adopted by those promoting a “reform of the reform” as well as by those searching for a more clearly defined liturgical and Catholic identity. They accept that the Second Vatican Council is simply the next step in the history of the church and as such is to be accepted. However, they also hold that the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II by many bishops, theologians and liturgists wrongly created a break in the historical trajectory of the Catholic Church. This misinterpretation, they argue, has resulted in an architectural and liturgical wasteland.

Key to this argument is the interpretation of Vatican II. Evaluating the past 50 years and trying to use honest tools to do so is not an easy task. Anscar Chupungco offered the following insights in an address on January 21, 2010 at the University of New Castle in Australia. He said that those critiquing the liturgical implementation of Vatican II “should know how to critique liturgical developments in the light of Vatican II’s liturgical principles, like the central position of the paschal mystery, the place of God’s Word, active participation with all this implies (use of the vernacular, congregational singing, lay ministry), and the ecclesial dimension of the sacraments and sacramentals. These constitute the guiding principles to decide whether things are liturgically acceptable or not.”

Indeed, an evaluation of post- Vatican II liturgy and sacred architecture from the perspective of historical continuity is, using Dr. McNamara’s words, not best served by a betrayal of “the intentions of Vatican II through antiquarianism that overly glamorizes” pre-Vatican II conditions. Rather, the impact of Vatican II should be interpreted based on principles divined by the Council Fathers themselves.

In summary, McNamara is right to argue for the kind of architecture that reveals a glimpse of the Heavenly Jerusalem. He is also right to propose that the kind of architecture and liturgy that does this best is informed by historical continuity, embraces the divine attributes of truth, beauty and charity, and is characterized by integritas, claritas and consonantia. It is surprising, though, that he touts one architectural tradition as the one true expression of these principles.

For some 2000 years the Catholic Church has embraced a multiplicity of liturgical styles and architectural forms in order to respond to the needs of the time and the rich diversity within the church. The most inspired and inspiring times in those 2000 years have been when the church took to heart that to serve the whole world in each successive age it can be neither regressive nor insular – either in its liturgy or its architecture.

It is completely understandable that an individual or a group of Catholics might prefer to worship in churches that adhere to the classical tradition. However, it is not acceptable to propose this preference as a mandate for the entire Catholic Church. Neither history, nor tradition, nor Church teachings impose one architectural style. On the contrary, the Church has invited and continues to invite artist and architects of every age and of every place to “promote new works of art that are in harmony with the character of each successive age” as long as this art “nourishes faith and devotion and accords authentically with both the meaning and the purpose for which it was intended.” (GIRM 289)

Those who continue to search for authentic forms of contemporary architecture to house 21st century Catholic liturgy and express 21st century Catholic theology should take these latter admonitions to heart. They should also learn from our rich Catholic tradition, read the signs of each specific time and place, and continue on their journey, never forgetting the essential connection between: lex orandi – lex credendi – lex aedificandi. This is because truly Catholic lex aedificandi evolves with the Catholic lex orandi – lex credendi of each time and place.

Dennis R. McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2009), Foreword by Scott Hahn, 256 pages.


  1. I do not believe that Mr. McNamara propounds the Classical style as the “one true expression”; his thesis takes a humbler stand: merely its efficacy. Indeed it is one style, among others, that is more efficacious than many examples found in the “wasteland.”

  2. I believe that McNamara espouses the classical style as an effective and proven form for the building of a church. While the Church clearly welcomes many different styles, it’s clear that some are more successful than others. It seems strange that so many ugly, dysfunctional, bland churches are erected with the amount of tradition, wisdom, and knowledge available, not to mention the advantage of modern building materials and practices. Of course, the same thing could be said of liturgical music… there again, so much diverse beauty and inspiration to draw upon, and a mandate from the Church to be creative in the service of the liturgy, yet much of what we have are songs derivative of TV themes, boring, trite, simplistic. Whether it be architecture, music, language, vestments, these things that should be most expressive and evocative of the faith, instead are restrained to satisfy many individual interests or avoid offending someone important.

  3. If it is true that McNamara says “that churches built after Vatican II were intended to look like every other building in the neighborhood and feel like home rather than stand out as places of worship and call people to contemplation and adoration,” then it reveals that McNamara has rejected the highest teaching authority of the church in the form of a document of an ecumenical council. Sacrosanctum Concilium clearly teaches that it is not the function of liturgy, therefore not the function of liturgical buildings, to call people to contemplation and adoration. It is the function of liturgy to build up the community through sharing of the Scriptures and of a memorial and sacrificial feast through the full, conscious, and active participation of the whole community. To focus on the transcendental, the heavenly Jerusalem, divine attributes and continuity with outdated historical periods and cultures is to entirely miss the purpose of liturgy in the first place. Contemplation and adoration are fine devotional attitudes and high culture may certainly contribute to the religious experience of some persons, but they are secondary, derivative practices compared to the communal celebration of the liturgy. Mr. McNamara has based an entire polemic on incorrect assumptions about liturgy in conflict with formal church teaching and an attempt to convince others that he has better tastes than they do. The man is to be pitied and shown the error of his ways and then may be ignored.

    1. “Sacrosanctum Concilium clearly teaches that it is not the function of liturgy, therefore not the function of liturgical buildings, to call people to contemplation and adoration.”


      Tom, where in the world does SC say this?!!? Please give specific citations. This seems awfully dismissive.

      “To focus on the transcendental, the heavenly Jerusalem, divine attributes….is to entirely miss the purpose of liturgy in the first place.” This just seems wrong to me. Can’t it be a “both/and”? Why must it be an “either” community “or” the divine?

      Your final comment is very unfortunate. Have you actually read Dr. McNamara’s book?

      Kudos to Dr. Van Parys for a very respectful and probing review.

    2. +JMJ+

      I think I share Fr. Erickson’s bafflement at Tom’s analysis of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s vision of the liturgy. What he calls “secondary” and “derivative” are what the human, visible, and active elements of the liturgy are subordinated to:

      “It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek.” (SC 2)

    3. Actually, I think I would argue that it is not Mr. McNamara who has “rejected the highest teaching authority of the church [sic]” in what SC called for; rather, those parish priests, building committees, and probably even bishops in certain cases, ignored what SC called for, in favor of their own interpretation of the “Spirit of the Council”.

      The fact that Mr. McNamara points this out in no way aligns himself with this dissension; rather, highlights exactly what this dissension looks like in a concrete form.

      And since we are so quick to judge a person’s motives and intentions by their writings which are rooted in theological and philosophical truths which have withstood the test of time, not simply an innovation of the past 40 years, might I suggest, Tom, a personal pilgrimage to Rome, where you might have your own heart elevated by the truths that these buildings convey– and then ask whether or not the double-wide trailer parish building, or the multi-purpose multi-function parish building, is even remotely able to do the same thing. I should think not.

  4. I will offer my usual church architecture observation that these discussions are far too focused on visuals and insufficiently concerned with the aural dimension of church architecture. That imbalance may have been fine during the many centuries when the congregation was not expected to hear clearly or understand much more than the homily/sermon (something that did get more emphasis in the 13th century and then again after Trent). But that is no longer the norm should obtain when considering building churches for the liturgy, and I would say this shift began when Pius X began his revolution of liturgical and sacramental praxis.

    Forms and gigantism (and I would particularly excoriate gigantism in this regard, but also deep domes that suck sound out of long naves and aisle/vaulting schemes that impair intelligibility, et cet.) that encourage the resonance of the natural acoustic to be too dry, diaphonous or distracting should not be encouraged. The clear, beautifully modulated natural resonance of the old Roman basilicas (for example, S Sabina for a large church, S Maria Maggiore for a cathedral) should be taken as a model.

    A church building must first work as an acoustical instrument. Reliance on amplification as a crutch to accommodate visual desiderata is a sign of things out of order; sound systems and other tricks have never been the everything-to-everyone that they need to be, and should be seen for the compromise that they are.

    Once you get the natural acoustic proportions right, the visuals can flow – and be argued over – from there.

    Anyway, discussions of the principles of Catholic church architecture that neglect the shift back to congregational participation are, I fear, for naught.

  5. I agree with Mr Saur that a good natural acoustical environment is paramount. Now, I’m not a Hegelian-community-above-everything-else-at-all-costs type person, nor do I believe that it takes a community for graces to flow. Through the mercy of God, a priest and an altar boy do just fine in an orderly confection of the Eucharist.

    Nevertheless, a good acoustic certainly helps an attractive feeling of togetherness. I once talked a lefty priest into doing an experiment with me. We started in a Church where the Altar was very close to the first pew, but which required a microphone for his voice to travel. He stood at the Altar, I in the fifth or sixth pew. He boomed, “The Lord be with you.” My puny voice answered, “And also with you.” (I’m happy that response will soon return to the original.) Next we went to a Church with a good reverberant acoustic, the Altar being at least 30 feet from the first pew. I stood in about the tenth pew. No microphone. The versicle and response had similar volume. He was amazed that he ‘felt’ closer to me even though he was physically farther away. That made a believer out of him. That experiement happened about fifteen years ago, and he still speaks of it when I see him.

    In a situation like that, the priest must use what an elderly Brittish friend of mine calls “the Vicar’s voice.” Projecting the voice, but not yelling or shouting. It works beautifully.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with Karl’s suggestion that the aural dimension of church architecture deserves more – and even a priori – attention. I currently serve as a musician in a new parish church supposedly designed and built according to the principles espoused by Dr. McNamara. There were compromises, to be sure, but the adoption of the classical style appears to have been limited to forms and ornamentation within that symbolic vocabulary. The classical approach did not result in “right natural acoustic proportions” and materials you would expect in such architecture (except a very beautiful, hierarchical tile floor…flanked by built- in carpet runners in the ambulatories, and integrated pew cushions!) The aural dimension an afterthought, the ephemeral technology of a PA system governed all aural-related matters of the design: non-terminating parallel ceiling panels integrated into the HVAC system and absorptive wall panels surrounding the congregation. The result: a very quiet room and praying congregation with no “tone.” This is a perfect example of what happens when the “visual” dominates without integration of form, material and proportion: cosmetics.

  7. Coincidentally I just finished McNamara’s book today. A few points…

    1. I never got the impression that McNamara was promoting any one style, though like liturgical music which holds Gregorian Chant in pride of place, he would certainly say that some styles more effectively convey the true nature of the Church more than other architectural styles. But he seems to make it clear that he is not canonizing any one style.

    2. He struck me as being quite enthusiastic and positive about the Modern Liturgical Movement and he highlights the architectural changes made in the 20s to 50s to make the altar more pronounced, keep devotional imagery from cluttering the sanctuary, etc. He would encourage us to re-read the great writers of the Lit Movement leading up to Vatican II. His strongest critiques are directed toward those ill informed architects of the 60s, 70s 80s (and today?) who have either never read the council texts or who see those same texts as informative but not directive.

    3. I was pleased from the very start of the book and continuing throughout, that he does not care to add any new energy to “liturgy wars” or to vilify other intellectual camps. For me, that is a message and approach that can never be proclaimed or adopted too much.

  8. Thank you for a fine review. I would only add two points in which I agree with the reviewer, but which would benefit from clarification. First, indeed there is no one style appropriate for Catholic churches, a point I made repeatedly in the book. In fact, at the end of the book I specifcally wrote that I refused to use the word style at all in the text. Moreover, I quoted a book entitled “Classicism Is Not a Style” for a reason–the classical tradition is not a stlye– it is a method, one which uses elevated expression, a poetic expression of structure and enrichmment which clarifies purpose/ontology. These are not stylistic points, they are points of meaning and clarity.
    Second, in listing the materials used for churches like gold, stone, wood, glass, gems, leather, silk, etc., I was using poetic language to indicate that all of creation has a liturgical end corresponding to different elements of the Mass: vessels, buildings, pews, books, vestments, etc. It was in no means intended to be a limiting list as much as a representative list of the broadness of materials that can be used liturgically. I should have been clearer, so I thank you for raising that point.

  9. I appreciate Karl’s points. But you might expect a musician to say that.

    I would urge caution in attributing “bad” architecture to Vatican II and its aftermath. Two things:

    1. Modern architecture was already disengaged from “traditional” aspects well before WWII if I remember my history right. If anything, it was the serious engagement of the council and its follow-up documents that got Catholic architecture out of its postwar doldrums.

    2. I may be generous in attributing “bad” architecture to artistic doldrums. More likely in more places, it was American pragmatism: build the school first–don’t forget the athletic fields. Or build one building that covers potluck suppers, Mass, and roller skating parties all in one.

    Conservatives, even including some otherwise fine people at Mundelein, sometimes strike me as all too eager to misdiagnose in an effort to bask Vatican II.

    1. Just to corroborate Todd’s point: The building that serves as our worship space was only supposed to be temporary, and would be converted into a gym after the “real” church was built. It’s been 55 years and a couple renovations later, and I think we’ve given up on any hope of ever having a gym. 🙂

      Also, if you do the math, that means the church was built in 1955.

      For the record, I think it’s a lovely, quaint little church.

  10. There were many pre-Vatican II churches that were ugly. But the focus was always clear. As soon as you walked in, you knew where the altar was with it six high candle sticks and the tabernacle dead center. The pews all faced toward the sanctuary and normally the altar was high enough for all to see even when standing in a full church. The more modest churches normally had the Blessed Mother on the left side and St. Joseph on the right and than any patron saints scattered about, but normally the sanctuary was not cluttered.
    Churches built after Vatican II or renovated after Vatican II placed the altar “closer” to the people, which normally meant moving it out into the nave and lowering it, with seating angled around it or new churches built in the round. All visual devotional elements were eliminated except for fabrics, color and a clutter of flowers and plants. The altar was only one or two step high thus making it invisible to a full church when standing, kneeling or sitting, except for the very few on the front rows.
    The tabernacle was hidden as well as as statuary, or the statues were placed in places not designed for them, like hung on walls willy-nilly.
    Acoustical concerns for singing were thrown out the window with the elements already described. I’ve attended Mass in churches were the altar is supposedly in the midst of the people with all around it. The focus of my body and eyes where I sat was on a back wall toward the doors of the narthex. I could not see the priest, lector, altar or ambo. All I saw was the back of peoples heads, people entering the church and a few faces that faced me. Not a good liturgical experience.

  11. “The tabernacle was hidden …”

    I always grin at this experience when recounted. Before the Council, the Real Presence was hidden behind the priest at the altar. Except for an occasional peek above his head.

    The post-conciliar complaint seems to be that we can’t have one-stop spiritual shopping: liturgy and devotion and everything else from a favorite pew facing the right direction.

    If anything, architects of modern styles do know sight lines. I remember one church where the pastor got finicky about the fundraising, so the building was downsized after the final design was completed. In shortening up the building, the choir loft particulars were retained. Funny how at Mass choir members could now see just the top of the preacher’s head–when they were standing. They never bothered to rectify the problem–go figure.

  12. Many churches built in the 50’s were really ugly. Often shoe box shaped, very plain boxes. No trouble finding the end of the shoe box with altar, tabernacle and six candles at the opposite end from where you entered. Lightly tinted not stained glass windows. Could have been the gym even if not built for that purpose. Far uglier than the churches that I have seen built after Vatican II.

    When I moved to Toledo in the 80’s, I first tried a very long shoe box church. Well, it was more like a modern railroad box car. The altar was a mile away. You couldn’t see the priest from the back, so it didn’t matter which way he faced. Took me only one Mass to say no to that parish.

    I found another shoe box parish that was smaller, about half the length of the bigger parish. It had good congregational singing, and a wonderful voluntary leadership group. Really ugly church, but I stayed. As I have repeated often, the Cleveland Vibrant Parish life study of 40,000 plus found liturgy and community are two top priorities, with the church building #10 out of 39 items.

    After a new job and house, I joined the REMODELED railroad box car parish. The liberals had turned it into a Cross with choir, altar, and vestibule across the middle of the box. Great liturgies; my first all sung Easter Vigil. Really impressive; it was taped and shown on local TV.

    Liberals and conservative can rise above mediocrity; less complaints about each other and the past might help.

    1. I would agree that the immediate post-war period was the nadir.

      Shoe-box shapes can be perfect acoustically (Boston’s Symphony Hall, often cited as the first concert hall designed with acoustical science principles, has a lot in common with some of the simpler old Roman basilicas). But placement and vusuals need to be handled with a care often absent during the post-war period.

  13. Erickson, Pinyan, and Owens:
    Here is what the liturgy is about according to Sacrosanctum Concilium
    10. Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.

    This is clearly different from contemplation and adoration. 14 times the council calls for “full, conscious, and active participation”. Contemplation and adoration are means used by liturgy, not its objective. Liturgy exists to strengthen people in Christian living. Architects need to subordinate the possibilities for individual religious experiences and their desire to express heavenly values to the practical needs of participatory communal liturgy

    I have been to Rome . I have noted that the basilicas were built for crowds to come together and celebrate, that the oldest ones did not have altars built against walls, that ancillary spaces were built for adoration and contemplation, that the Eucharistic chapels were not the focal points of the architecture, that much of the magnificence was installed to glorify the wealthy persons who paid for it and had nothing to do with liturgy.

    One person’s elevating is another person’s overbearing and a third person’s waste of resources.

    1. Tom,

      I think I can understand where you are coming from– but I also disagree.

      From the beginning of the use of the phrase “active participation in the liturgy” (1904), it seems to me that this has always been in a manner that first and foremost brings the individual at Mass to contemplation and adoration– not simply “doing something.” Indeed, contemplation and adoration of Christ could be the fullest, most conscious, most active form of participation there is during the liturgy.

      Also, I agree with your last statement. But there are still places in the world (Mexico, for example) where the physical church building in the most important thing in a community– all of someone’s extra resources would, and more for some, go toward the construction of God’s house. Who are we to criticize them for that? There are many in today’s society that would give the argument of Judas– but shouldn’t we use that for the poor? Christ’s response– “you will always have the poor, but you will not always have me” seems fitting. But it is a both/ and.

      Oh that we, in a modern Western culture, could see the value and beauty that those who came before us did, and some today still do… imho.

  14. Owens,
    Given that the participation of the laity in the Eucharist in 1904 was entirely limited to contemplation and adoration, it makes no sense that a call for change to full and active participation should be interpreted as encouragement for more of the same.

    Its fine that some people get great experiences from what is subjectively beautiful and other cultural elements, but don’t raise those values over actually participating in the words and actions of the liturgical service.
    To fully participate along with the rest of the community and also maintain a contemplative awareness of the content of the service is highly laudable. To go to a communal service and ask to have conditions which are designed to foster personal contemplation and culturally conditioned visions of heaven is to confuse the purposes and content of public prayer with those of private devotions.

    Intimate chapels designed for silence and contemplative prayer are a desirable addition to any parish plant. Their design elements are not appropriate for the communal worship space.
    A lot of mistakes have been made in church architecture since the liturgical reforms, but many are attributable to modern architecture in general and to misconceived attempts to design a space for participatory liturgy yet retain elements appropriate for inspiring or distracting people blocked from active participation in the event they were obliged to attend as spectators only.

  15. I’m terribly practical, you’ll have to excuse me…

    But if you wouldn’t mind, specifically what are some impediments to “active participation” as you see it that are present in classical architecture, and how do you see these impediments overcome by employing a more modern architecture in the worship space?

  16. Perhaps the reviewer missed this sentence in McNamara’s book from page 3:

    “Architecture is the built form of ideas, and church architecture is the built form of theology. Just as there is right belief and right practice, so there is right building. But right building is not limited in the worldly sense to one style or another, to modern or traditional, liberal or conservative. In fact, it shatters the supremacy of these terms and finds the middle road. Right building, like all things relating to the transcendentals, has the potential for an infinite variety of beautiful manifestations, provided, of course, that it is indeed manifesting ontological reality in a given situation.”

  17. Dear Mr. Poelker– thank you for your comment. Since you inquired in your comment, I can state clearly that I did not use the words quoted from the review. They were a paraphrase written by the reviewer, and so I hope I can say (with good humor and a genuine smile hard to indicate in a blog comment box) that the pitying and ignoring may not be necessary!
    Perhaps this quote from page 4 of the book will provide helpful in understanding what was actually claimed in the book:

    “through the mercy of God and in the Spirit we use sign and symbol to enter into the worship and praise of the eternal Godhead through the Lord Jesus Christ, a worship that pre-existed us and that we discover in the Church. In sacramental and ritual action, the Christian faithful thus receive the grace that sanctifies them as they gather as Christ’s Mystical Body, joining with the eternal cosmic and heavenly worship of God. In this sacramental liturgy, we pass through mere rubrical concerns to participate in the very life of heaven, having the great privilege to experience it in sacramental form of ‘signs and symbols of heavenly realities.’… Art and architecture are critical features of this process. They are not merely neutral backdrops for gathering, nor are they opportunities for sumptuous display alone. Liturgical art and architecture should instead be considered features of the rite itself, part of the cluster of symbols used in a particular order.”

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