Taking the Bait (or: My Foray into the Liturgy Wars?)

Chapel of St. Ignatius (photo by Bruce Morrill)

Scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday evening I came across an essay a professional colleague-friend shared from The University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal. Artur Rosman (the journal’s managing editor) introduces his “MacIntyre on What is Sinking Catholic Education” by taking what I could only read as a cheap shot against a chapel that I and thousands of others have experienced as a profound space for liturgy, prayer, and devotion:

There is a university chapel in Washington State that always makes me think it could be easily converted into a low-key Starbucks café. It would not be the most architecturally interesting Starbucks, but it would do. It would make money.

The university that houses the chapel is well-known for stressing its identity as formed by a brand name religious order, rather than being “Catholic.”

The author explains his introduction (I should note that he does not actually name the university) as a case-in-point for his skepticism about a proposal in a colleague’s prior article “that the rejuvenation of the Catholic liturgical imagination will take place through Catholic institutions of higher education.” Upon reading Rosman’s brief article through to his conclusion about the idolatry (his terminology) Catholic universities practice, I decided I could not resist posting the following comment:

There is a university chapel in Washington state that for the six months while I was a visiting professor there proved an inspired and continuously inspiring space for my daily prayer life, as well as weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day. It has no mass-produced plaster statues of European Jesus and Mary, all polychromatic and suitable for instructing grade schoolers, no cartoonish stations of the cross, no faux-neo-gothic (structurally unnecessary) arches running alongside deep rows of pews. No, it has seven remarkable skylights inspired by the seven signs (miracles) in the first half of the Fourth Gospel—each traversed by a beam glazed in a different color so that the mystery that gospel proclaims as Light might come at many angles and cast a litany of creation and redemption across the interior through the seasons of each year (the sun’s angle gradually rising and falling over 365 days). I could go on at length describing the artistic and theologically informed genius of the building’s architecture, art, and furnishings. I would note that the singular problem this religious-order-sponsored University had with its chapel, then many years into its use, was that they’d underestimated the necessary seating capacity. Repeatedly I witnessed Sunday Masses that were standing room only. I’ll leave aside listing the accolades and awards the chapel has garnered, even as it has become a sought out landmark by international visitors to that city in Washington state. After all, the author began his essay by dismissing the chapel as a sad excuse for a Starbucks outlet.

In my zeal to counter Rosman’s description of the Chapel of St. Ignatius I admittedly fell into at least one line of similarly dismissive characterization of the type of liturgical decoration and design that I suspected might be more suitable to his and like-minded colleagues’ agendas for the reform (of the reform?) and renewal of US Catholics’ ever-decreasing rate of regular Mass attendance–not least the distressingly low rates of participation in Sunday worship among the younger generations. I cannot be sure of the author’s intent on that point, but my hermeneutical hunch (“the worlds” both “behind” and “in front” of the text) arises from more than two decades of witnessing Catholic universities respond to criticism of the lack of crucifixes in classrooms, with the response often being to install small, mass-manufactured crucifixes on the walls. I leave it to interested readers to do the easy web search of blogs and posts and articles on that topic.

If nothing else, the undeniable power of symbol for individuals in social bodies (in this case, US Catholicism) comes through clearly in this instance of two university employees (Mr. Rosman and myself) demonstrating seemingly polar-opposite views of whether, how, and what kinds of liturgical art and architecture show promise for faith-formation on the 21st-century campus.


  1. When I travel to the city, I often make it a point to visit there to pray, as I do the cathedral, which is about a fifteen minute walk away. One reason why both work for me is that these spaces are each *intentional* meaning that discernment and prayer have gone into them, their renovation and/or construction.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t architecture, music, or other art that fails to engage me. When that happens, maybe I can admit to myself, “I don’t get it.” And own it.

  2. I attended SU long ago, before the chapel was built. It is an improvement over the almost-bare large room upstairs in the old Liberal Arts building, or the cafeterias, that in my time served as spaces for Mass when the tiny chapels in dorms and the LA building were too small.

    I was shown the chapel by one of my old professors (since retired), one of those elder Jesuits of whom there are so few left. He was pleased with it, though he told me with some satisfaction that kneelers had been added only in response to vigorous student protest at their absence.

    While I’ve never been to a liturgy, or spent time in prayer there, my impression is that it could be a fine prayer space, but it seems to me very abstract and austere — one almost needs to have it explained to fully appreciate it. Perhaps it’s meant to be very Jesuit — reflecting a spiritual style that is inner-directed and non-dependent on any sort of external/ visual/ emotional supports the less disciplined among us might need. And no doubt vestments, candlelight and other elements of liturgy soften the effect a bit …

    Must say, though, on a university campus, even a desperately ugly space can be standing-room-only for Sunday Mass.

    1. From another Seattleite:
      “one almost needs to have it explained to fully appreciate it” Really? Besides one statue of Mary, I think it’s all very simple and obvious. Lots of the items in the narthex probably require knowledge of Jesuit history (which I didn’t), so that would also require explanation. But generally speaking, the chapel speaks for itself.

      I’ll say this for it: it’s at it’s best when it’s full. But isn’t that true with almost every (active) church?

      Last thought: While it’s true that it’s full on Sundays, if one is being honest, it’s not filled with many students. Rather, it’s filled with people who have fled their own parishes, usually for preaching from their favorite Jesuit friends and professors (in that regard, the initial online article is correct). The 10 am Mass has no students present (exaggeration), and the 8 pm Mass is mixed, but is often the “Mass of last resort” for entire city of Seattle.

      Vital ministry? Yes! I have many friends who work there and worship there.
      Do they know the chapel’s demographic challenges? Yes. I think they’re honest about them, and constantly working to attract students (which university does not!).

  3. Ah, what you could have done with your vision and insights to reinvent The Bapst Library into a worthy worship space at BC. In my own experience of renovating college campus chapels with the culprit of ideological polemics getting involved, faith formation here and now might actually be conceived around early Christian liturgical symbols integrating nature’s resources in their own particular environments and cultures. This topic is stuffed with posibility.

  4. Thanks. Bruce. I found this chapel exquisite, including the wonderful shrine of St Ignatius in the entrance. I was at this year’s Bridgefolk conference there and the use of this space for the Mennonite-Catholic Hymn sing was great. I remember Kevin Seasoltz saying that we sometimes need to be initiated into symbols, but the symbols in this place speak clearly.

  5. It has always puzzled me why certain self-described “conservative” Catholics are so hostile to the aesthetic appeal of simplicity in modern structures. There really is such an appeal. Rather than seeing this style as some sort of “secular” incursion into a sacred space, I see a chapel such as this one as practicing a form of visual asceticism intended to concentrate the mind and the spirit by stripping away what is inessential, in order to make room for God. Much in the way that Cistercian architecture did away with lavish decoration that Benedictine monasteries favored, it practices a kind of severe insistence upon the essential rather than upon details and decorations. That this move — which is authentically religious — should be dismissed out of hand as profane suggests that a baroque aesthetic, with its emphasis upon high drama and vivid color exists in some people’s minds as the norm for all things Catholic — perhaps because the baroque flourished with the counter reformation and is associated with the Tridentine Mass. Yet the baroque (and Tridentinism) is a particular chapter in the history of Catholicism, not the whole story. Incidentally, I had to laugh when I read Katherine’s comment above (“perhaps it is very Jesuit”) — oh my goodness, have you ever been to the Gesu in Rome? Baroque everywhere!

    But my point here is also a bit psychological. When placed within an austere and simple environment, our usual lush, comfort-seeking, entertainment-driven impulses are frustrated — I ask myself: is this what is really the source of discomfort in a chapel of simple lines and clean surfaces? Similarly, when contemporary people are asked to be quiet, especially on retreats, it can produce anxiety in them. We reach for distractions, cell phones, tv, anything to keep from being aware of the emptiness within. Maybe the spiritual desert is inside the person, and we just find it hard to confront it.

    1. Rita – I confess to being sympathetic to the conservatives on this particular topic. The lush , crowded interiors of traditional churches, jam-packed with paintings, statues, iconography, stained glass images and the like, may not be distractions to be stripped away, but rather signs and symbols that feed the Catholic imagination.

      The last three parishes I’ve belonged to – this would stretch from the present back to the mid-1970s – have church interiors that consisted mostly of brickwork, largely unrelieved by windows or art. Bricklaying is an honorable craft, but as a church interior it leaves, quite literally, a lot to be desired. The unbroken columns and rows of bricks are nearly the very definition of visual monotony. (And besides, although all three structures were built before the popularity of the personal computer, columns and rows remind me of Microsoft Excel, a useful but exceedingly dreary tool.) I’ll take images of apostles, saints and angels, every day of the week.

      1. Thanks, Jim. I don’t see any hostility in your remarks, just a preference, and I think that’s fine. As a matter of “many different spiritualities” there needs to be a broad tolerance in the church for a variety of styles. If cherubs float your boat, who am I to judge? What bothers me is the assumption that there is no spirituality behind a love for spare and even severe architectural style of the modern kind. Such spaces are dismissed as iconoclast or Protestant or diminished by being likened to secular buildings. I see an inconsistency in the tendency to laud fasting for the stomach, but never fasting for the eyes. I don’t mean ugliness, and here is where your brick wall may fall – but a beautiful simplicity.

        What I am arguing for is a modicum of respect for the religious relevance of modern buildings that do attain a simple beauty. The Cistercian abbey churches were simple for spiritual reasons, not because of any antipathy to Catholicism.

    2. I was hoping no one would invoke a Cistercian comparison. I loves, loves me my Cistercian churches, but rarely do modern Catholic churches/chapels in the USA achieve a true modern echo of it.

      First, because of the compromises of expense on materials and strong preferential option for utility/HVAC conduits that distort so many things about an interior*, it’s difficult to pull off the kind of austere integrity and mystical focus of the Cistercian example. The Cistercian comparison is an extraordinarily high bar to meet (and, of course, it’s not just architectural – it came with an entire communal mystical ethos and mission to improve marginal lands); I don’t recommend invoking it because it sets up most comparisons for failure. (Oh, and what about the chanted office and Mass? )

      Second, I and most congregants have not volunteered for a Cistercian monastic life.

      Third, to be fair to any modern piece of architecture: we should not assume it will remain with its original decor. Catholics have a way of adding and replacing over generations. Any architect or liturgical designer who assumes his/her original vision will remain intact is clueless about Catholics. Wise ones may provide for an austere original design with commissions of art in future generations in mind; of course, it helps to be open and transparent about that, rather than insisting that people eat their spinach and like it (I like spinach, however; not everyone does).

      I’ve not been to the chapel in question, and cannot comment on its particular example from first-hand experience (the natural acoustical test of its aural dimension being as important as the visuals). A dear friend of mine noted it for a now-defunct architectural mag back in the day, so I am familiar with it from that generational remove.

      I don’t think we need the Cistercian example to justify modern architecture. But if we do, we should understand it offers a much tougher challenge.

      * PS: Historicist designers (including very well marketed ones) seem just as vulnerable to this problem, btw. I’ve seen far too many poorly proportioned “classical” / “traditional” designs these days that stem in part from the same problem. They or their patrons seem to expect no one to notice. Yes, I am a tough customer on this score, because there are architects and designers who do see the problem and address it better.

  6. Bruce, I welcome quiet, unadorned chapels like the one in this article. The less adorned, the more room for God to be the living, breathing God He is today. That type of peace allows me to focus, to just “be” with God and to hear Him more easily. (With ADHD, that’s not easy to do!) It takes courage to go into what I call the God-given hole inside and let Him fill it. That type of surrounding lets me do that.
    Thanks for reminding me of that.

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