The emphasis on participation in the papal writings of the 20th century (from Pius X on) is not an accidental or trivial thing. This is a central concept of the Mass itself–”We”, the Communion of Saints (as summed up in the Canon [Eucharistic Prayer]), the reciprocal action and dialogue of priest and people, the whole Mass of the Catechumens [Introductory Rites and Liturgy of the Word], are all eloquent witnesses to this. Therefore, a church must be planned with great consideration of participation; seeing and hearing are important – not so much in themselves, as in that the Church uses these normal human means as channels to stir up the faith that is in us. Therefore this seeing and hearing is different from that of the auditorium or the theater – and we should never forget this.
The “here,” “now,” “today,” “is,” so often used in the Mass, especially in the Canon, signify a concept of reality and presence which ought to make a vast difference in the design of a church. This concept will not exclude, but rather temper representation and, at the same time, give it deeper meaning. The goal of representation in a church must be to help in making present here and now spiritual realities; it must always be subservient to the sacraments, which make Christ actually present here and now. If representation uses history, it will never do so in a secular way (for secular representatives of history can do no more than recall to mind what once was). The events of sacred history not only were, but are. The most important element of them is outside of time. (This is not to deny that they had another element in time and that this element is a matter of history, of the past, as in any history.)
The two concepts (participation and sacramental realism) seem to be the most significant, fruitful, and basic concepts of church planning (art and architecture) in the 20th century. Neither one is really new – but what is new, or, better, renewed today, is the emphasis on these things.
Consequently the baptistry and the altar are the most important things. These are the foci of participation; it is in these that sacramental realism is concentrated. Even the other Sacraments revolve around them. Penance is a renewal of Baptismal grace; Matrimony and Holy Orders are at the altar and during Mass; the Holy Oils for Confirmation and Extreme Unction are kept in the sanctuary of the altar.
Spiritual life is a continual procession from baptistry to altar. Spiritually everything comes to a head (consummation, union, communion) at the altar. All should lead to it. The union achieved NOW at the altar is achieved in faith and grace. It is the earnest and seed of glory to come, of the parousia.
From Cloud Meinberg, An Outline History of Sacred Art, published in 1959.
Featured image: From the Mass booklet for the Dedication of Saint John’s Abbey Church in 1961. Cover illustration from the Worship journal dedication issue designed by Frank Kacmarcik, OblSB.