New Vatican commission cracks down on church architecture

That’s the headline in La Stampa – read the report for yourself and see what you think.


  1. I’m usually not that impressed with Tornielli, but this I find perceptive:

    The dicastery must therefore devote itself to “giving fresh impulse” to the promotion of the liturgy, giving it the focus insisted upon by Benedict XVI, including and above all by showing an example. In this aspect, in contract to the initial plans, the idea of a liturgical “reform of the reform” (an expression used by Ratzinger himself when he was a cardinal), seems to be eclipsed by a large-scale project favouring the ars celebrandi and a loyalty to the dictates and instructions of the new missal. It does so without proposing any modifications to the mass.

    We used to hear a lot about proposed changes to the missal (e.g. moving the sign of peace to the offertory, abolish the responsorial psalm) as ways to “fix” the problems perceived by liturgical conservatives. Now there’s more of an attitude of “If you build it they will come” focused on good celebration of both the OF and the EF forms of the liturgy.

  2. I wonder what their opinion will be of the crystal cathedral as the new Cathedral of the Diocese of Orange?

    These buildings composed of cement cubes, glass boxes, crazy shapes and confused spaces -Tornielli

    That might be a problem for the next bishop once the current one who reached retirement age a few weeks ago has his retirement accepted.

    Maybe Schuller’s daughter’s prayers will still be answered, by this new Vatican commission.

    How to see how they could avoid not setting an example with this high profile case.

  3. Chase Becker :

    Seems to me like there is a lot of speculation going on in this article. I have hard time imagining how this commission would actually function…

    It would function like the Congressional Super Committee. Oh wait, they actually didn’t do much, but neither will the CDWDS. (Insert sarcasm) Perhaps, Vox Clara will translate the eventual document.

    1. No kidding. Sad when there is is more room and a friendlier welcome for Catholics in the CofE and UCC than in our own church, which is now dominated by this Roman clique. I guess what we’d *really* better brush up on is the true meaning of “Catholic” — UNIVERSAL! Whether it’s Romish, or British, or lay-led at a kitchen table (hey, didn’t I head about people in Palestine doing that, oh, 2000 years ago or so?)

    2. Or Lutheran…but, that’s what the Vatican wants – they want people who question their authority to leave. I’d
      rather stick around and make their life difficult.

  4. Determinations about church architecture are highly subjective. I have heard many architectural experts express horror at the alleged ugliness of the National Shrine in Washington D.C. while others hold that the cathedrals in Liverpool and San Francisco are contemporary but stunning beautiful. Who is going to decide what is beautiful and what is not? Is there going to be a church architecture Nazi who is going to enforce a subjective idiosyncratic judgment on architecture just as an idiosyncratic proclivity about liturgical texts resulted in the “sacral vernacular” theory which has been abusively foisted on the Catholic Faithful?

    1. I hope this CDW commission is a purely educational effort and nothing more. I don’t wish to see an effort to impose a fixed model or models of what the CDW thinks is the ideal Catholic Church architecture, sculpture, art, music etc. To which all future church designs will be expected to conform.

      This could turn out to be an opportunity to impose a “Catholic style”. I’m sure many in Rome who think the style is a structure filled with multiple side altars,loads of gilt, the “Benedictine altar” set up, a dome and apse filled with copies of old Roman masters etc. as their ideal. If so, do we need more renaissance or gothic kitsch? Just copying the past as the way to go?

    2. Fr Jim Blue –
      I had never thought of the national shrine as ugly, though it may be seen as somewhat ungainly. Usually, though, it reminds me, in its heaviness and form, of large Byzantine churches. My feelings are that it is, both outwardly and inwardly, an immensly potent and sacred place.

  5. If they start paying as much attention to the natural acoustical requirements of the OF as they do to the visual aspects, then this group might bring something positive to the table. I am not holding my breath.

  6. I am on sabbatical at the moment, so I’ve been worshipping in a variety of places in a variety of countries. I was just saying, this weekend, in a fit of despair, that Something Must Be Done.

    The ugliness, both of the architecture and what passes for liturgical decor in many places, combined with horrible music, badly sung…and I haven’t even gotten to the preaching….

    I feel as if I need to just find a place with the mass in whatever language, with no music and no homily, and maybe I could just get through it with my eyes shut.

    I am very blessed to work in a parish with a stunning church and fantastic music, so perhaps I’m spoiled. (Very spoiled.)

    However, what I have noticed in these other places is that besides bad music and marginal preaching, they often don’t have much of a congregation either. Could there be a connection?

    I know that we have truth – the truth of the Gospels, the truth of the faith. I know that we have the presence of Christ in the sacraments. But if someone is going to be drawn in the door, and stay, then we need to have beauty as well. We live in a culture with a thousand competing voices. Something has to keep people engaged, and it might be beauty. If that captures their hearts and imagination, then they can discover the truth and presence we recognize.

    We could at least try.

    So, when I heard of this commission, on the weekend that I was just cringing at the thought of having to sit through another badly done mass, I was heartened. If this is a ‘threat’ to life since the Council, I don’t see it. Am I missing something?

  7. I am no partisan of the types of would-be church architecture which this ‘congregation’ may have its sights on; nor am I in sympathy with a congregation which would legislate architecture or any other art. Even the Cambridge Camden Society and the Oxford movement gave us more than a few clumsy and artless pseudo-Gothic structures. Art (and that includes architecture) cannot be legislated… efforts in that direction will yield only souless results. One of the most profound spiritual spaces (and acoustical) in Houston is the Chapel of St Basil at UST – the architect of which was an atheist: Philip Johnson.

    1. Yes, not to throw stones, but I agree that chapel is somewhat more cohesive than the Houston cathedral which, while an attempt at “traditional” architecture, seems to have been executed by architects who know nothing of traditional architectural principles. Those huge square windows have nice stained glass, but are very brutal looking to me in the larger architecture of the room.

      1. BL –
        You are right about Houston’s Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It is an immense and immensly vapid architectural travesty. I cannot but feel upon entering it that I am in a giant mausoleum… it is large, massive, colourless, cold, and, as you say, absent the display of an understanding of the architectural principles it pretends seemingly to illustrate. I do not, though, agree with you about the glass: it isn’t ‘nice’, but, rather, seems more like comic book art. Then there is the organ: this is quite good but surprisingly lost, even with plenum, in the totality of its space.

  8. I was thinking that perhaps they mean to provide good exemplars and promote quality that can be imitated, rather than legislate a particular style.

    I also think that there is something to be said for timeless design. More than one person born after 1985 has said something scornful to me about churches designed between 1960 and 1980. They look dated and silly to a new generation.

    Perhaps they could also begin by working on the music at the basilicas in Rome. I was at a mass at St. Peter’s with 8000 people and Bertone as the presider. The music sounded like it was provided by the evening teen guitar group at a local suburban parish. I would hope that they could do better than that.

    The promotion of quality has to start at the top. I am not even thinking of a particular style (although the folk/contemporary style seems tired to me and totally unappealing to the young adults with whom I work) but a stress on fine execution and good musicianship. This could also be helped by suggesting that one pay trained musicians what they deserve, and perhaps even figuring out how to promote training them.

    Just brainstorming….

    1. “More than one person born after 1985 has said something scornful to me about churches designed between 1960 and 1980.”

      From a purely architectural standpoint, the historic preservation community is just starting to realize and acknowledge Mid-Century architecture as being significant. This is not saying that everyone has to like this style of architecture, but it does recognize that it has a place in history and says something important about the era in which it was built – just like every other structure that has ever been built.

      That being said, I agree that there are some generational issues when it comes to architecture – specifically church architecture. It seems to me that people have a tendency to abhor whatever was built 30 to 50 years prior to their birth.

      Churches that were built during the turn of the 20th Century were renovated in the 60s and 70s. Now I’m seeing churches built in the 50s and 60s that are being renovated in an equally disastrous way.

      Just some thoughts…

      1. CB –
        An interesting observation about 30-50 years prior to one’s birth. There is, indeed, a point at which we differentiate between what is classic or timeless, and that which is merely old, out-dated and time-bound. I’ve noticed a difference even within myself: when I was young I thought of XIX. century music, art and architecture that it was, in contrast to Gothic or Greek, just old; now, I think of it as historic and becoming timeless.

  9. Walking into a Church filled with Sacred images and art can be most edifying and conducive to prayer. I like the idea of spending ones’ entire life in the same parish and when walking in for Mass an entirely new image is discovered in a remote part of the Church or in a niche where you had no noticed before. Then one can ponder the image and its’ possible message. Meditating on the Holy Family set in Sacred Art brings me an inner peace and connects me to what I imagine were the same feeling of millions of people who lived in the ages long gone. Beautiful frescos, stained glass, and mureaus can provoke an atmosphere of silence and mystery. It is all too often that when the walls are barren or there is no artitectural details that people start talking with one another and before you know it the atmosphere gets very “busy” and all too distracting. Beautiful arts can capture the eye and the mind keeping it busy on what’s its viewing. I really hop the new office in the Vatican can make inroads into what often appears a penchant to build or buy edifices that look nothing like a Catholic Church. I think this is a good thing.

    1. Consider the possibility that the busy atmosphere you decry is exactly what the architect was aiming for! Too many people today are isolated. Alternatively, their communities are fragile and fleeting. Many people find when they lose their jobs, they lose all the people they socialized with. It seems appropriate to me that in the few minutes before Mass, people exchange greeting and news of this one looking for work, that one just out of the hospital, the daughter taking care of a new baby on a distant Army base while her husband is deployed, etc. How else will we know who to pray for if we are strangers to each other?

      All things in moderation, of course, and it’s easy enough to develop some cues to alert people when it’s time to direct their focus to the Mass. Perhaps it would be useful to have the lector offer the announcements before Mass as a transition, rather than have the priest tack them on to the Communion prayers!

      1. I am curious, why can’ t that be done after Mass? Are you saying that by people entering Church and setting their minds on the images and prayerful meditation allienates people from getting a job or news? Or that people will be strangers? I find this an amazing stretch. Most people who don’t mix together in other type social functions, church gatherings, etc. are not going to be willing to expose their vulnerabilities and very private, often painful times with people who they do not know in the few minutes before Mass because there is no art to be distracted by. I think that’s a stretch.

  10. I, too, lament the style of some churches, and would love sacral architecture to be taken more seriously. I, too, find that architects who are not religious sometimes do not capture the right spirit. For example the recent cathedral of Evry, France, resembles a concert hall, with a stage and several levels, making it difficult and unnatural for the congregation to come forward at communion.

    But I am exceedingly wary of a top-down approach. I have no confidence that a Vatican committee would have a light touch and the needed openness to local cultures. Given the recent history, I see this as another attempt to re-centralize decisions and make universal decisions according to the dubious taste of a few individuals.

  11. Maybe some Vatican bureaucrats have some good ideas. I like this one: “Stop homilies in church for one year.”

    “A semi-serious appeal to his Holiness: enough with the interminable preaching. Let’s send priests to study journalism and make someone force them not to go longer than five minutes in the sermon at the pulpit

    A Saint, or a Father of the Church once said: “In the first five minutes God speaks, in the next five minutes man speaks and in the remaining five minutes and more, the devil is talking.”

    1. My oldest brother, who is a priest, was a journalism major in college. It has served him very well in crafting his homilies. He also has a lively style of preaching. The combination is amazing; it is unfortunate that it is not more common!

    2. Training does shape us.

      As a college professor I learned to treat every topic no matter how simple or profound in 50 minutes.
      When my parish in the 80’s wanted me to become a deacon and preach, I reminded them of my recent college professor habits.

      As a senior mental health manger I learned to treat every topic in less than a two page memo.
      If I had become an executive director, I would have had to do it in one page.

      Now I treat everything in 2000 characters.
      I was amazed how quickly my mind adjusted to the character limit.
      However I still think like a college professor become bureaucrat but in 2000 characters.

    3. This is incredibly shortsighted. The people are gathered as the church but once each week. If the homilist has the gift of preaching the length should not be a major factor. If he doesn’t it can’t be too short.

  12. Mitch Powers :

    I am curious, why can’ t that be done after Mass? Are you saying that by people entering Church and setting their minds on the images and prayerful meditation allienates people from getting a job or news? Or that people will be strangers? I find this an amazing stretch. Most people who don’t mix together in other type social functions, church gatherings, etc. are not going to be willing to expose their vulnerabilities and very private, often painful times with people who they do not know in the few minutes before Mass because there is no art to be distracted by. I think that’s a stretch.

    Only comments with a full name will be approve

    Architecture can shape how people interact. Are the pews narrow and high, forcing each person to face forward? What about pews arranged to ensure everyone can see both altar and congregation? As suggested above, do the acoustics make each person feel like part of a large group, or do people fail to sing because it sounds to each person as if he is the only one singing? A church building doesn’t need to be bare to encourage community. Art can be welcoming and hospitable or intimidating. But to suggest that a congregation of people who greet each other before Mass represents a failure of architecture may be missing the point.

    1. I did not suggest that, I simply stated that a Church with alot of different arts and imagery can instill a atmosphere that is prayerful and can inspire thoughts about the Faith before Mass begins. I said nothing about people greeting each other before Mass. What I said was those greetings often go much further and can be distracting to others who prefer to pray or mediate before Mass begins. Where it can get to the point of being loud, more like a community center or the parish hall (which is what we build them for). Your comments to my observation seemed to imply that “greetings” were inappropriate. I did not say that. And I believe you were speaking about more than greetings, more like conversation about job opportunities, and personal details about the lives of others that are more appropriate for the parish hall. I did not miss the point at all.

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