Space, Art and Liturgical Consciousness

Over at America, Fr. Dennis McNally, SJ, painter, sculptor and professor of fine arts at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reflects on two experiences of liturgy in the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame in Paris, one in 1978 and one in 1991. “Is Paris Worth a Mass?” he asks, and if so, what sort of mass — in what sort of space?

McNally focuses on furnishings and the action that goes on around them. There is a certain ambiguity in his thoughts that I appreciate: his aesthetic can’t quite be pinned down; it is spacious and gracious, traditional and progressive, though it clearly has boundaries. His concern, so far as I can tell, is that place, space and action work together to serve the liturgy.

As an Episcopalian reader, Fr. McNally’s concerns resonate with me. Episcopalians have a rich architectural heritage in the US (as do our Anglican sisters and brothers in the UK and other parts of the globe), yet we struggle with what to do and how to do it in the spaces we have. In short, Fr. McNally’s insights have a wider applicability than their immediate context.

Anyone who can invoke the “Romanesque Revival Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the modernist Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles” in the same breath is, I think, someone worth the attention. (You might also want to check out some Fr. McNally’s own artwork and other writings.)

16 comments

  1. An excellent article with many good points to make.

    Notice that the degeneration is away from noble simplicity toward more decoration.

    Does anybody have access to a copy of the referenced America by Rembert Weakland?

    1. I found the Weakland quote almost a bit ironic – when I visited the Milwaukee Cathedral that was renovated while he was Archbishop, I and others found it a most awkward and uncomfortable space – not really designed for the people and not really designed for the building itself either.

  2. While I respect Fr. McNally’s choice of Notre Dame de Paris as an example of poor liturgy, this cathedral is truly an exceptional example given its historical significance and high level of traffic. I doubt that there is any way to keep tourists out of Notre Dame during Mass. The current solution — a roped off area for worshipers — at least provides for some solace from the maddening loud crowds.

    N-D de Paris is not a local parish church, and should not be compared to one. McNally’s assertion that Mass at the cathedral is a “liturgical nadir” might not reflect the intent of the celebrant and ministers but rather the constraints of celebrating a Mass amidst a somewhat confused swarm of tourists.

    1. “No one paid attention to welcoming the worshipers”.

      lol lol From my experience, French churches have many wonderful attributes , but, irrespective of your experience in Notre Dame, be it pleasant or unpleasant, this is not a feature one should come to expect from Notre Dame or any major French church.

  3. Some of you may be missing the point of his comments about welcome.
    He is not contrasting the welcome at N-D de Paris with that in samller, parish churches. He is comparing the welcome at the same church at different times.
    That comparison is illuminating and very hepful, not only for thinking about space, but liturgy as a whole.
    A very important article. I liked the part about the sequence of “altar” styles throughout the ages.
    Mark Miller

    1. I don’t quite understand what Fr. Dennis McNally means by “welcome” in this instance. Perhaps it is because I come from a different liturgical sensibility.

      I agree with McNally that inattentive and perfunctory liturgy is not welcoming. However, my concerns rest not necessarily on liturgical furnishings, but the preparedness of the priest and ministers, if any. He touches upon the indifferent nature of the 1991 Notre Dame Mass, but focuses more on aesthetic issues. I do not wish to question his observations, but merely point out that the liturgical space created by careless celebration or bad preaching can be just as off-putting as haphazardly-organized cathedral naves.

      I am a bit perplexed by the relationship between ex opere operato and welcoming. Perhaps some priests view Mass through a “sacramental factory” mindset. I have suspected this many times myself. In my view, ex opere operato is the foundation of “liturgical space” and not a secondary consideration. The doctrine that Mass occurs regardless of a celebrant’s attentiveness, attitude, or state of grace ensures that we are provided with the grace of the Eucharist despite human failings. This knowledge tempers careless and unwelcoming celebration to some degree.

      1. “The doctrine that Mass occurs regardless of a celebrant’s attentiveness, attitude, or state of grace ensures that we are provided with the grace of the Eucharist despite human failings.” JZ

        This a truism which misses the point. What is the point of studying liturgy and trying to learn what it means to do liturgy well if it does not make any difference whether it is done well or poorly?

        Liturgical ministries are all about how well we can serve our fellow Christians on the human level, as incomparable as that my be to the divine level.

        One of the thoughts which may be behind SC is that ex opere operato may not be what God is calling the church to do in celebrating the liturgy. As human ministers, we can participate in nourishing faith on the human level by proclaiming and interpreting the Scriptures well and by celebrating clearly the communio extended through participation in the Eucharistic meal.

        The minister has failed who depends on the minimal acts done minimally to provide grace. We are called together for nourishing experiences of community and Scripture as well as to receive some dispensation of grace.

        Christianity is about a lot more than acquiring a sufficient quantity of some element in order to be permitted to enter heaven. Christianity is meant to change the world from dog eat dog to loving and caring for every one else. That kind of change on the human level requires something different from what indeed transpires on the spiritual level. The nourishment and community building for carrying out that human level task is partially the job of the liturgical ministers.

  4. I am able to get to St Benoit sur Loire. The Benedictine abbey there and the nearby abbey of nuns combine warmth, aesthetics, (including a great organ), Gregorian at the monastic liturgy, a local parish liturgy earlier in the day. The preaching is very solid. The hospitality of the town and abbeys is fantastic. It all comes together. I do not think it can or should be duplicated, but it demonstrates what one place can do.

  5. Any Church in WHich I have been that has beautiful art and statues always has put me in the correct frame of mind to be in Church. It invokes imagery in the mind conducive to prayer. Barren spaces or those with whitewashed walls and felt banners have not done so. Stepping inside a Church should make us feel like we have left what is outside its’ walls behind and stepped into out history with images of Our Lord, Mary, and the Saints. The ordinary, mundane will always be there, but leave it outside our worship spaces.

    1. The first Cistercians banned images and art as part of their intensely ascetic monastic focus. Not Catholic enough for you, eh?
      awr

      1. I assumed he was talking about parish churches rather than those of religious (and that the bland he spoke of was of the impersonal office-space variety rather than that of an ancient monastery). I think having images and warmth is more important in a parish setting. I remember as a kid attending a bland 1970’s church with nothing to look at other than the hymnal covers and the back of the person in front of me – it made me daydream more than it made me participate and pay attention.

      2. While I agree, Jack, that many of the churches built in the 60’s and 70’s are not aesthetically inspiring, it’s important to note that many of these churches were built for rapidly expanding populations. Some of these churches date from before the Council also. Not every parish had the money to build a Gothic masterpiece. Worshiping in a gymnasium is also not optimal 🙁

        More recently, some of these parishes have undergone quality interior restorations. While “quality” may not be to my or your taste or liturgical preference, the renovations often suit the building well and are appreciated by the parish.

    2. MP, This seems to me to be a very narrow concept of what is conducive to prayer and it seems to be a very personalized concept of prayer to begin with.

      Liturgy is communal prayer. The decorations can actually be distractions, invitations to mind wandering, from the prayer in which we are called to participate.

      This seems to continue the problem of conflating all sorts of prayer spaces. The hermits went to the desert to be free of, among many other things, the sorts of distractions you favor. Many go to places of natural beauty for prayer inspiration. Others favor chapels of perpetual exposition, and why would you want any decorations there when coming to focus on the Eucharist? The time and place for communal worship are not of the same nature as those places for other-worldly prayer.

      This is one of the fundamental points of SC which so many fail to apply. Liturgy, as communal prayer, is different from personal prayer. They require different times and places and different forms, different means to different ends. SC teaches that we had lost track of these differences and needed to correct the mistake that liturgy was time for meditation and personal prayer. It is a hard change to make after centuries of drift in the other direction, but overall this change offers additional riches for prayer.

      It seems that what you like most is space oriented to heavenly images for private prayer. This is very appropriate for Eucharistic adoration chapels. They have very different needs from the public liturgical spaces.

  6. Jack Wayne :

    I assumed he was talking about parish churches rather than those of religious (and that the bland he spoke of was of the impersonal office-space variety rather than that of an ancient monastery). I think having images and warmth is more important in a parish setting. I remember as a kid attending a bland 1970’s church with nothing to look at other than the hymnal covers and the back of the person in front of me – it made me daydream more than it made me participate and pay attention.

    Is it possible that this is not a failing of the building or of the liturgy but of the person?

    1. Maybe, maybe not. I’m simply giving my own experience of liturgical space as a “person in the pew.”

      What do you feel would be the failing of a person who isn’t really keen on plain liturgical spaces? I do not find your argument above about private devotion vs. communal prayer convincing. Spaces with images make me feel more like a member of community – I’m connected with those around me as well as the Saints. It’s like the family connection you get when your living room has photographs and other personal objects – they are not a distraction from the family gathered now, but a reminder of the greater family in which we belong.

  7. Jack Wayne :
    I assumed he was talking about parish churches rather than those of religious (and that the bland he spoke of was of the impersonal office-space variety rather than that of an ancient monastery). I think having images and warmth is more important in a parish setting. I remember as a kid attending a bland 1970’s church with nothing to look at other than the hymnal covers and the back of the person in front of me – it made me daydream more than it made me participate and pay attention.

    Only comments with a full name will be approved.

    Thanks Mr. Wayne, yes I was only referring to parish Churchs and experiences. Monastic settings invoke a different setting in my mind…I would not expect to see the same setting in both places. I started my comment with the pronoun “I” meaning it was conducive to me, my taste, my preayerfulness. Someone asked if a monastic setting was not Catholic enough for me? On the contrary it is very Catholic for me, when I walk into a Monastary the imagery invokes monastic life and the sacrifices they make. If you like the whole “theme” is different, but both, Catholic. One registers personal sacrifice while the other register offering our best to God in the forms of beautiful arts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *