Liturgical Music and Design: Jesuit Ministry in Slovenia

I’m recently returned from a full month in Europe, two weeks in Slovenia (about which, the present post) and two in France (about which, my next post in the coming days).

After a first week making my annual silent Ignatian retreat in the Slovenian Alps, I spent the second as the guest of the Jesuit Community in the heart of the capital city, Ljubljana. The local superior, Fr. Damjan Ristic, SJ, kindly invited me to preach the homily at the Sunday Mass of the local English-speaking community he founded several years ago. Two things from that morning and, indeed, my entire stay, struck me as worth sharing with Pray Tell readers: liturgical music and liturgical space (architecture, art, design).

The music, which was led by a small volunteer ensemble of voices, electric piano, and guitar, was almost entirely in the genre of “praise music,” taken from the repertoire of Hillsong and similar groups. As people gradually entered the moderate-sized St. Mary Chapel (situated off the immense main sanctuary of the Jesuits’ Saint Joseph Church), the ensemble rehearsed music for the liturgy. Fr. Damjan, showing pastoral wisdom, explained that he works with the character of the assembly and their musical preferences, such as these emerge each year in this small community, whose membership (students, foreign ambassadors, entrepreneurs, and others) shifts and reconstitutes itself annually.

I was not entirely surprised to witness the young-to-early-middle-aged community’s enthusiasm for non-denominational praise music, as I had witnessed the same six years earlier during a Mass at the Jesuit church in Bratislava, Slovakia. In the latter case, however, the music ministers were native Slovakians, not expats. I am incapable of offering any solid commentary about this Eastern European ecclesial-cultural fact, that is, the affinity of both foreign and local Roman Catholics for the praise music genre. I certainly would be interested in similar reports or any observations from the Pray Tell readership.

Returning to that Slovenian Sunday morning: The liturgy seemed rather reminiscent of the twentieth-century “four-hymn Mass,” insofar as the music figured most prominently at those four stages of the liturgy. Only some of the integral elements of the rite, such as the gospel acclamation or Lamb of God, were sung, while others, such as the responsorial psalm and Sanctus, were not. But after the Concluding Rites the people remained in the chapel for a full half-hour to continue singing a series of praise songs. i noticed a few people also practicing the bodily gestures, actions, and acclamations typical of the Charismatic Renewal. Time seemed not to matter; indeed, the ensemble eventually repeated some songs that clearly were favorites. The words to the songs were projected high on the front wall to the right of the small sanctuary, whose light-wooden altar and ambo’s curved shapes, situated before an apse-like arch cut into the wall, softened the otherwise strongly rectangular room. This leads to the second feature of my Slovenian account: the design and artistry of the chapel spaces.

The design, art, and furnishings of the St. Mary Chapel were the work of Slovenian Jesuit Robert Dolinar, an award-winning architect for whom light is his fundamental working principle. Fr. Dolinar expounds on that point In the course of an interview about another chapel he created for Ignatius House, the Jesuit spirituality center situated alongside St. Joseph Church. During my first morning in Ljubljana, Jesuit Deacon Marko Pavlic gave me a guided visit to the chapel, explaining the distinctive features of Dolinar’s design.

Since it is primarily a meditation chapel for people on retreat, Dolinar oriented the third-floor room toward the Blessed Sacrament, reserved in the artistically crafted right-side wall. To give the impression of movement from darkness to light, Dolinar exposed some of the raw stonework of the wall’s interior, an effect also meant to allow the “flesh” of the building to emerge. That latter principle is further evident when one opens the tabernacle, revealing more of the wall’s lighted, interior stonework.


Natural light bathes the room through windows facing onto the street, while a recessed lighting fixture is situated in the ceiling between the altar and tabernacle.


The top surface of the ambo (flat, so as to require the reader to pick up the lectionary) is coated with a paint mixture of materials (natural and manmade) from the local environs and inscribed with the word “logos,” while the thickly coated altar has sheaves of wheat etched into its bottom corner. Timber is a fundamental resource, both economic and cultural, in Slovenia, and Dolinar has featured it throughout the chapel–its furniture, doors, and other accessories.


Dolinar sculpts wood using a chain saw. In addition to the furnishings, the Ignatius House chapel includes not only the framing of the Blessed Sacrament ensemble but also, across the room on the opposite wall, the sculpture of a rustic loaf of bread. His writing into the wall surface above the sculpture (“Take, Lord, receive,” from Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises) is another characteristic design feature–one that Dolinar likewise utilized next to the chapel’s entry door in the hallway.


The sisters who own and operate the Alpine retreat house where I spent my first week likewise engaged Fr. Dolinar to rework their small, intimate community chapel on the second floor. The left photo below gives evidence of design principles resonant with those of the Ignatius House chapel: exposure of one wall’s interior stonework, reservation of the Blessed Sacrament deep within the “flesh” of the wall, furnishings made of local timber (plus sparingly selected words inscribed in the wall near the door). The right photo is of the sisters’ large, red-roofed house, Logarska Dolina.


I cannot resist closing with a shot of the view from the balcony in front of my bedroom, looking up the Logar Valley toward the Alps, the late-afternoon sunshine breaking through rain clouds. Given a few weeks’ time and distance now, I can muse that such native landscapes may well have helped shape Fr. Dolinar’s architectural design principles.

And that closing reflection leads to yet one further memory, my being taken for a tour of a Baroque masterpiece of a church in the eastern Slovenian countryside, the Pilgrim Church of Our Lady in Sladka Gora. These two photos that I took of the pulpit provide further examples of light as an integral principle for church design in the cultural-historical environment of the Slovenian Jesuit architect whose own work seeks to foster prayer and worship for our present time.



  1. In college I took art history and aesthetics classes. I generally can look at designs in styles I don’t personally like and find appeal in them regardless. However, that third floor chapel gives me the creeps. Perhaps it is the writing on the walls, or the odd angles of the liturgical furnishings, but it comes off to me as purposely unsettling – like something out of a horror movie. The second floor chapel, while still not to my taste, is much better.

    1. I hope my reply to Fritz’s comment, below, might help explain a bit more why the room is furnished and oriented the way it is. In any event, thank you for reading my essay and offering a comment.

  2. Eastern Europeans have had, even since Communist times, a penchant for extreme modernism, brutalism, and surrealism in their new church art and architecture, even as they maintain a very traditional faith. They being said, they also for the most part don’t destroy old or existing churches and church art.

      1. In an essay that already was getting quite long for a blog post, I went for economy of description, so please allow me to explain further: I do think form follows function in this case. In my nearly 40 years of experience making silent retreats in Jesuit retreat houses (plus living often in “small communities” with small house chapels in which quite informal daily Masses are celebrated), I have found that participants at Mass are all seated for the Liturgy of the Word (exception may, or may not, be the proclamation of the Gospel). A “genuine” (for lack of better word) ambo would not be useful, as all, most often including the reader, would be seated. Thus, the form of this “ambo” (which, it seems now to me, I should not be calling ambo, per se, but perhaps a “book stand” or something, if that is the object of the criticism) does follow function: a standing-height-for-reader, “regular’ ambo would not function well in this chapel space, and indeed would form a barrier between the members of assembly, seated along the walls of the room. I hope my description here makes sense. The Jesuit guiding me in the room emphasized that the room’s primary function is for retreatants praying (individually), with all the art and furnishings , but most importantly the reserved Blessed Sacrament, providing potential foci or elements for contemplation or support of prayerful mediation. The Spirit, of course, blows as it will in each person in a prayer period. But also when Mass is being celebrated, the “ambo” and altar table in this room need not to be barriers dividing a group of people seating around the room along the walls. Thus, the altar table is toward one corner (where nobody would be sitting “behind” it). I trust the people gather toward or around it for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Thanks much for our comment.

    1. The Jesuit guiding me around the room commented that the principle is to have the retreatant, whether in silent prayer or a meditation period on one’s own or as a lector at the daily Mass, draw the chapel-sized lectionary to self but also note (or even contemplate, if in a prayer or mediation period) the word “logos.” Or not. As I understood it, this was a matter of the chapel functioning as much as a space for individual prayer/contemplation/mediation as for liturgy. I did not think to ask whether, when retreats are taking place, whether a copy of the lectionary or the Bible is left resting on the ambo (or perhaps I should better simply call it a book stand). Please see my further comment (to Fritz) about function above. Thanks.

    2. The Western liturgical tradition seems to see the “ambo” as a piece of furniture (an elaborate reading desk), whereas the Eastern liturgical tradition seems to see the “ambo(n)” as a location (see Wikipedia article on “ambo(n)”) without any reading stand. In the pre-Vatican II solemn Mass, the subdeacon often held the Missal/Gospel book for the deacon during the proclamation of the Gospel, so a “pulpit/lectern” was not needed. In Byzantine liturgies I’ve celebrated, often one of the faithful comes to hold the Gospel book in front of the Royal Doors, rather than me going to a “pulpit” from which I proclaim the Good News. I rather like the design of this chapel in which the pillar locates where the word is proclaimed, but the reader must actually hold God’s words in his/her hands in order to proclaim it!

      1. Thank you, Dennis, for educating me further on this topic. I’ve never taken the time or initiative to study more closely the meaning and practical form of “ambon” in Eastern Christian liturgy. Your input is a great help.

  3. You kept the best pictures till last!

    I find the chapels redolent of a gallery of ‘modern art.’


  4. After looking at your pic of the Logar Valley toward the Alps I can see why the chapels are so austere. How can one possibly compete with such a natural attraction?

    Thank you for this posting!

  5. Observing Polish people in Ireland, I see the same enthusiasm for Hillsong / P&W. With a few liking folk-song type music.

    Comments I hear from them remind me of the sense of liberation from “oppressive” rules about what happens in church which people in Western countries experienced immediately after VII.

    I was a child post Vat-II, so my knowledge of that is 2nd hand, too. I may be off-track. But my sense is that Eastern and Western world Roman Catholics are at very different points in developing liturgical understanding among the majority of church-attenders.

    1. Thank you, Mary, for this observation from Ireland (where, I recall, when I was a visiting fellow at the Milltown Institute in 2006, the Archdiocese of Dublin announced the immanent designation of one of the largest churches as a Polish national [so-to-speak] parish). The sentiments you report hearing from these people’s enthusiasm for Hillsong/P&W makes immanent sense to me. I began grade school as Vatican II concluded, and I recall how within a couple years a monthly “folk mass” began in my Maine (paper-mill-town) parish. I can immediately grasp the dynamic you have so succinctly described in your prose here. Very helpful, thanks.

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