Trending to Traditional

The National Catholic Register reports on the growing use of traditional architectural styles, “Trending to Traditional.”


  1. I too celebrate a greater awareness of traditional Catholic art and architecture, but let’s not stampede to faux Gothic, pretend Baroque, and the marble and bronze monuments to monumentality which have characterized so many Catholic ecclesiastical buildings from the early 20th century to the Vatican II. Sometimes a stone barn, a silo, a tent-shaped stucco building, or a converted factory space filled with a few well chosen icons and sculptures will be just as effective in inspiring the faithful, and it can be done with considerable savings to boot.

    Boy, I can just see the over-priced religious goods dealers hauling out the make believe medieval trappings in time for the stampede of tradition-minded pastors and parish liturgical committees. Let’s hope creativity isn’t discouraged or squelched by bishops in a mad rush to reject that “protestant look”. Most of the protestant churches I’ve seen, from Dutch Reformed to Anglican, often put our own churches to shame.

    We should be so fortunate to have their beautiful interiors. Often more conducive to the celebration of inspiring liturgies than anything you’ll see built in the last forty years or so by Catholics. They also have choirs, paid organists, and ministers of music of exceptional ability. We have a lot to learn from them.

  2. These overpriced, underwhelming, backward-looking monstrosities do absolutely nothing to gather and welcome the People of God. They will be dynamited soon enough.

  3. The article leaves several questions:

    1. Who decides the design of a new church or a renovation; the people who paid for the construction and who will be living with the result or a pastor who will be moving on in a few years?

    2. How well do the traditional designs presented work with the current liturgy?

    3. Are the interiors decorated with actual art, or statues selected from a catalog?

  4. Of the four churches named by Stroik as “rather poor places of worship”, I’ve only been to the cathedral in San Francisco. What makes it a poor place to worship? Too many noisy tourists would have been my guess, but I suspect that wasn’t what Stroik meant.

  5. I heard Stroik speak once and was appalled by his (lack of) liturgical theology. He was advocating a retrun to altar rails and an allegorical approach to the mass. I’ve been to the Abbey Church at St. John’s many times and find it a wonderful space, marked by very high quality lituriges.

    1. I heard Stroik speak once and was appalled by his (lack of) disagree with his liturgical theology.

      I think that’s probably a more accurate description of the situation, since allegorical interpretation is certainly a part of liturgical theology and has a long history as such.

      For the record, I don’t have a final opinion, because I haven’t been in any of Stroik’s churches, but they seem to have sanctuaries that are much to cramped for the proper execution of the liturgy.

    2. I’ve never quite gotten the big deal about opposing altar rails – you can’t even see them from most of the pews in churches that have them, so the “barrier between priest and people” argument always falls flat to me. I like them because they create more flexibility in regards to how people may receive communion. Also, I feel like it diminishes the auditorium stage-like appearance older churches tend to have when they are removed.

      As for architectural style – most people I know have a clear preference for traditional looking churches regardless of liturgical preference or theology. Some don’t like “overdone” churches (there’s a couple old Italian parishes in town with *lots* of statuary and devotional candles), but most seem to praise the older churches with their marble sanctuaries and Gothic windows – “reverent” is the term commonly used.

      One thing I hope happens with the turn towards traditional architecture is that quality art and stained glass from closed churches is utilized in new church construction (as well as high quality new art). I once ran into a lady who loved how the windows from her childhood parish made it into a new suburban church. It makes people happy to know that the artwork their parents and grandparents toiled for is still being used and loved.

    3. My favorite Catholic churches built in the last half century or so are St. Louis Abbey, St. Louis MO and Portsmouth Abbey in RI. All Benedictine foundations by the way.

      I,m sure Duncan Stroik wouldn’t rank these in his list of favorites by a long shot. He builds fine buildings with the best materials, but they strike me as suffering from a certain massive institutional appearance and taken from a template. The kind of design that always goes over well in Washington DC where people seem to like lots of marble, gold, and bronze .

      I think he’s been swept up into the “carry me back to ye olde 16th century” wave. Just keep designing traditional churches which appeal to this growing appetite for junking Vatican II era churches and their interiors. All in response to B16’s call for a “return to beauty”.

      1. What I’ve seen of Stroick’s work is that it, too, suffers from ism-ism; the ideological bent of modernity is still very much part of the music of it, even if it selectively borrows text from history, as it were. When you’re trying to prove something, you have a higher risk of mediocrity. Still, it’s possible he could someday produce something as fine in his chosen idiom as Portsmouth Abbey is in its….

        One very important note about “traditional” style of architecture for churches. Gigantism is not compatible with the modern Roman liturgy, acoustically speaking; in particular, huge, deep domes on drums that suck sound out of long naves (Greek churches, btw, are not designed like that….). In former eras when a vague aural nimbus was OK acoustically, that could work, but not for newly designed buildings. Domes and vaults should be designed to support the acoustical needs of FCAP, without assuming PA systems will fix what’s flawed.

  6. I’ve only worshipped at the Abbey Church from the choir stalls. I also find it wonderful.

    Brigid’s questions are well-taken. Is a new church building an opportunity to form a community more deeply about liturgy and architecture, or is it just a spending spree on surface beauty? (Or lack thereof.)

    Do communities engage real artists doing real work?

    1. I worshiped at the Abbey Church for the three years I spent there as an undergraduate. It profoundly shaped my experience spirituality. Each year I wrote a poem about it during Advent.

      I experienced the Abbey Church both from the pews during Mass as well as from the Brother’s choir stalls during Latin Vespers. They were downstairs for Vespers in English.

  7. Whatever the style, I’d like a church that is built to last hundreds of years. I love old churches particularly because of the generations that prayed there before this time. The building must be designed with, in mind, a timescale completely different from normal construction. Solid stones, not just a facade. Stone or marble floors rather than wood or carpet. Bronze or marble statues rather than resin. Oil paintings rather than watercolor. On the windows, thick, well-protected glass. Benches rather than chairs, hard wood rather than soft padding. Superior architectural acoustics rather than a good audio system. Double doors, shady trees and carefully positioned windows rather than air conditioning. In everything, priority to long-term durability. Of course, all that is incredibly expensive: in architecture, I would prefer a smaller, purer church with just a few high quality, sturdy artifacts. That I think is somewhat orthogonal to the article. It’s not incompatible, but my concern is different.

    To answer Brigid’s first question. The church where I worship in the US is from the late 19th century, and the one I go to in France is from the 13th century: in both cases the builders are long gone. In my mind, the primary users of a new church will be the future generations.

    Some of the worst things about medieval churches: thick pillars that hide the altar and ambo from view. Dark spaces with too few windows. Church buildings that are either much too big or much too small for the current population in the parish. Echoes and muffled, indistinct sounds in large spaces. Excessive cold in the winter, excessive heat in the summer. No space to park near the church. Some of those problems can be avoided now, thanks to the superiority of today’s engineers, but it’s hard to foresee issues two hundred years ahead!

    1. Building for the ages is a wonderful goal. However, my parish church, built c 1965, was shuttered about 2 years ago. The hundred some years old church building that was kept for the new combined parish suffered from just about every fault listed in your final paragraph. I should say, it would have been too small for the combined parish, except most of the people from my parish are now worshipping elsewhere or no where at all! It is a matter of scandal to Catholics and non-Catholics alike here!

  8. I want naturally good acoustical design to be considered equally with good visual design. Unfortunately, too many people labor under the misimpression that a PA system is sufficient to cover most ills, and visuals lend themselves to written analysis and debate in a way that acoustics do not. Hint: if you need a PA system for your music, you’ve got a fundamental problem in design.

  9. During my four years on pastoral council we not only heard many complaints about the acoustics but also about the lighting. One council member suggested we might provide people with miner’s lights. The pastor told us it would take more than $50,000 to correct the lighting problems.

    This is all in a modern church about 25 years old. The Church has a lot of open glass, but when it is dark or very cloudy outside there just is not a lot of light.

    Get the acoustics and the lighting right when they are designed.

  10. ‘I’ve never quite gotten the big deal about opposing altar rails’

    I don’t think there is any big deal about this. The RC church teaches that ‘altar rails have no liturgical function’ – so why waste money in installing them?

    1. You’ve misquoted the E&W bishops again, John. (This same line of discussion occurred last April.) And I find it ironic that “the RC church” is used to mean “the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales” when we’re being frequently reminded on this blog that the church is not the hierarchy, that WE are the church.

      As for what the E&W bishops actually wrote about altar rails in “Consecrated for Worship” from 2006:

      209. Although it is an integrated part of the whole sacred space, the sanctuary should be marked, normally by a raised floor, its lighting and/or decoration, but not by rails (see 218 below). […]

      218. Although the provision of altar rails was formerly customary it was not mandated by the Church. This remains the case: there is no liturgical requirement for altar rails in churches. However where the Church is of historical or architectural significance, and altar rails are already in place and are an aspect of that historical or architectural significance, preference should be given to retaining the altar rails in place. Where there are pressing reasons for removal, the advice of the Diocesan Art and Architecture Committee should be sought and in the case of a listed building, that of the Historic Churches Committee.

      That is the juridical ruling of the E&W bishops for E&W, not some grand decree of “the RC church.” The GIRM itself does not say anything about altar rails at all. The closest it comes is:

      295. The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation. […]

      An altar rail is “a particular structure and ornamentation”, and in those places where Communion is received kneeling (by some or by all), it seems a worthwhile piece of architecture.

      1. “The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church ”

        Why should the sanctuary be marked off from the body of the Church (in both senses of that word!)?

        Wasn’t the first sanctuary a stable with animals visited by shepherds coming off the night shift?

      2. . The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation. [..
        Yes, a veil, chancel screen, rood screen, iconostasis, columns. The beauty of the GIRM is that it permits a wide variety of possibilities. Most of which are never employed.

        If the Church is indeed returning to more traditional styles , perhaps we’ll start seeing a greater use of these alternatives to the altar rails.

      3. Wasn’t the first sanctuary a stable with animals visited by shepherds coming off the night shift?
        Stables, dairy and curing barns make wonderful sanctuaries. So do caves. Would the house liturgies which presumably were held in the atrium or triclinium have had sanctuary barriers of any kind?

        The earliest basilicas with chancel barriers seem to have been designed for keeping crowds and stray dogs away from the sanctuary as much as they served to highlight the altar area. In some North African churches it appears the altar was close to the congregation and may have been elevated, but no evidence of railings or walls.

        Most Eastern churches have part of their liturgies in the nave, especially the East Syrians. Some followed the synagogue designs of the day where the bema and reading desk were in the very center of the assembly and the people gathered around it, but the altar seems to have been enclosed by veils between columns.

        It all goes to show you how the concept of a “holy place” or sanctuary has not been a consistent idea down through the centuries. Conservatives who oppose masses where the people and the celebrant stand about the altar seem to forget in an age without pews, there’s a long history of the laity closing in on the sanctuary and altar space.

    2. I’ve found the Fr. Z types are the ones most inclined to want a return of altar rails. They seem to be veterans of the “wreckovation” wars. They also push the reception of communion kneeling and on the tongue, and have petitioned the Holy See to mandate an end to standing for holy communion.

      1. It’s a reflection of the tension between awe for God and Emmanuel, God with us. I would point out Mark15:38

        “The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.”

        not to mention Luke24:30

        it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.
        as support for the position that we are welcome in the Presence.

  11. It is said that people shape the architecture after which the architecture shapes the people. Our understanding of God and of worship has undergone developments over the centuries which is reflected in a variety of churches in different sizes and shapes. When God was perceived almost exclusively as high above the heavens, churches soared into the heavens to reflect this sensibility. Unfortunately the scale of these church buildings called for the multiplications of shrines and altars, and with the positioning of the “high altar” far away from the people. This, in turn, led to a liturgical theology which overlooked the role of the worshipers save for those in Holy Orders. Allegory helped many to make sense of what was going on. Churches of this scale also led to the introduction of bells to alert inattentive worshipers (many making their way from shrine to shrine) to the climactic moments of the liturgy taking place at the altar.

    Flash forward now to the era following Vatican II. With a recovered sense of the immanence of God dwelling among us, new churches were designed to accommodate a worshiping community of people becoming aware of their baptismal character and mission. Attentiveness is less difficult to give in a building in which people are seated closer to the center of the action. Certainly no need for bells to alert them. In large places with lots of Catholics we can have large church buildings whose designs and furnishings reflect both a transcendent and immanent God.

    The problem comes when those who argue for a God who is only transcendent wish to dictate the forms of architecture and the liturgical furnishings. And when people who believe that God is especially fond of Baroque and Gothic accoutrements (and lots of incense as well) wish to impose their preferences.

    1. Well, Jack, speaking as a progressive Catholic, I think we should acknowledge that it’s not only folks who are fond of historicist styles who have wished to impose their preferences. The wish to impose preference knows no ideological boundary. There’s been tons of imposition for the past few generations, and a good deal of it could be questioned in terms of good stewardship….

      1. I’ve seen churches built in a “modern” style that were ugly and impractical, and I’ve seen churches built in a “modern” style that expressed a God both immanent and transcendent. Good stewardship sometimes means acknowledging that an architectural degree is not replaced by Holy Orders! Nothing is more frustrating to a congregation of architects, engineers, carpenter, electricians, plumbers, masons, etc, than to have their skills dismissed instead of used.

      2. A month or so ago I had an interesting conversation with an older Catholic woman – somehow it turned towards church architecture and she recalled when her parish was reordered in the early 70s. The side altars were taken out during the week and completely destroyed. Nobody was told it would happen beforehand, no explanation was given the next Sunday, and the people were pretty much told not to question it. This lady wasn’t a traditionalist pining for the Latin Mass either.

        I’ve also been told by a number of people that the one parish in town that kept its marble altar rail had to fight the bishop constantly – he wanted it removed and they wanted to keep it. And in more recent years the parish known for having the most progressive liturgy had to fight its own pastor because he wanted to completely reorder their old church.

  12. Allegory and rich symbolism help many a worshipper to focus on God and the Catholic Faith both before and after Mass. As one who arrives early I discover something new every attend Mass in the Sacred Art on the walls and ceilings. I never cease to marvel at it. It also reminds me deeply of my Catholic Identity. Why is it that so many people and “liturgical committees” often sanction spending tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands to change Sanctuaries but are the same group who squeal at buying new vestments or perhaps Candlesticks for the Altar saying the money could be best by donating it to the poor ? Or that there is no need ? How is the often expensive reordering, which is often done in the face of Parishoners who fight against it, justified ? There is too often an agenda that forces the bland or banal onto an already content group of Parishoners.

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