May 15, 1996

Cry Sanctuary! Will Renovated Churches Have Room for Jesus?

Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 3: May-June 1996

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

(Note: An edited version of this essay was published in Crisis magazine, USCC Watch column, September 1994. Reprinted by Adoremus with permission of author.)

The mission church of Saint Ann is a tiny white frame church — not unlike hundreds of others built over the past century in American for the purpose of bringing Christ, literally, to the farthest corners of the world. Unlike its many counterparts which dot the Great Plains and the Mountain States, Saint Ann’s simple and quaint clapboard structure is surrounded by the exotic flora of the Hawaiian island of Maui, and commands a breathtaking view from the hill on which it is set. A painted sign outside gives the times of Masses. The door is enticingly open. But the visitor who is attrracted by the chapel’s aura of repose and quiet simplicity within the lush Hawaiian landscape may be shocked at what he finds within. The renovators have been to Saint Ann’s.

The sanctuary, which originally contained that altar and the tabernacle containing the Body of Christ, remains the acrhitectural focus of the church; but this “sacred space” is now bare except for a decorative quilt of an abstract design peculiar to Hawaii flanked by tall brushlike symbols of native pre-Christian military authority.

The altar has been removed to the north wall of the nave and reversed, to that its detailed painted carving of the last Supper now faces the wall, invisible to the “audience”. In place of an altar cloth is another quilt.

The tiny nave is crowded. Some pews have been removed, and the remainder rearranged around three sides of the altar with their backs to the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle, evidently the original, is covered with cheap nylon lace and now occupies a rather crude plywood shelf nailed to one corner, making it effectively inaccessible for either public or private devotion. The two kneelers in the church face the quilt and native symbols in the former sanctuary.

On the wall behind the altar, near the new (and very small) Stations of the Cross, is a large glossy plaque that coyly instructs worshippers how to be “caring” (e.g., “Avoid negative people”, “Have a dog”, “Keep it simple”, “Leave the toilet seat in the down position”, “Commit yourself to constant improvement”).

At the rear of the nave, just inside the entry door, are two statues which originally flanked the sanctuary. All others are gone. The stained-glass windows have also been removed and replaced with frosted glass jalousie louvres. (The sacristan explained that renovators who removed the stained glass told parishioners that the windows were needed by some other parish.) Outside, a couple of the old carved wooden pews sit forlornly against one wall of the little church, their coat of white paint beginning to peel.

Saint Ann has been expensively gutted, stripped, and transformed from a place of distinctively Catholic worship to a “communal gathering space” ­ a multifunctional meeting room.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Catholic churches have suffered ­ or are scheduled for similar renovation — or, more accurately, iconoclasm.

The principle guidebook for the “renewal” of Catholic churches in the United States in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship [EACW], a 29-page statement issued in 1978 by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy [BCL] in collaboration with the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions [FDLC]. Its stated objective was “to provide principles for … preparing liturgical space” in light of the “pastoral experience of implementing post-Vatican II reforms [which] place us in a position to reexamine existing places of worship and to make informed decisions about their appopriateness“. [emphasis added].
It is important to note that EACW was not issued by the NCCB, nor was it ever submitted to the bishops’ conference for vote or approval. Its actual “level of authority,” therefore, is just above that of private opinion. However, this statement of the BCL has been as solemnly invoked as if it were a papal document of the highest authority and certainly more carefully “implemented” than Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy, the “spirit” of which has also been continually vandalized. EACW has provided the justification for nearly every kind of renovation in nearly every Catholic church for eighteen years. Some common examples are:

The Removal of Crucifixes and Crosses

“…the multiplication of crosses in a liturgical space or as an ornamentation on objects may lessen rather than increase attention to that symbol.” (paragraph 86)

“The advantage of a processional cross and a floor standard, in contrast to one that is permanently hung or affixed to a wall, is that it can be placed differently according to the celebration and the other environmental factors.” (paragraph 88, emphasis added.)

Removal of Tabernacles from the Center of Sanctuaries

“…the purpose of reservation is to bring communion to the sick and to be the object of private devotion…A room or chapel specifically designed and separate from the major space is important so that no confusion can take place between the celebration of the eucharist and reservation.” (78, emphasis added)

“The tabernacle…should not be placed on an altar, for the altar is a place for action, not for reservation.” (80)

Replacement of confessionals with “Reconciliation Rooms”

“A room or rooms for the reconciliation of individual penitents…[offer/s] the penitent a choice between face-to-face encounter or the anonymity provided by a screen. The purpose of this room is primarily for the celebration of the reconciliation liturgy… (81; confessionals are never mentioned by EACW).

Changing Location and Size of Baptismal Fonts

“…immersion is the fuller and more appropriate symbolic action in baptism. New baptismal fonts…should be constructed to allow for the immersion of infants, at least…” (76)

“If the baptismal space is in a gathering place or entry way, it can have living, moving water, and include provision for warming the water for immersion.”

Replacement of Pews and Kneelers with Moveable Chairs

“Benches or chairs for seating the assembly should be so constructed and arranged that they maximize feelings of community and involvement.” Furniture arrangement should “not constrict people, but encourage them to move about when it is appropriate.” (68)

“Interpretations through bodily movement (dance) can become meaningful parts of the liturgical celebration…Seating arrangements which prohibit freedom of action to take place are inappropriate.” (59)

Moveable seating surrounding the altar is necessary because “attentiveness, expressed in posture and eye contact, is a requirement for full participation and involvement in the liturgy…eye contact is importatn in any act of ministry…” (58). The altar, which is “for the action of a community and the functioning of a single priest­not for concelebration” (72) must be “approachable from every side, capable of being encircled” (71); although its location should be “central”, “This does not mean it must be spatially in the center…an off-center location may be a good solution…” (73)

Removal of Stained Glass

“There seems to be a parallel between the new visual media and the traditional function of stained glass.” (105)

“…visual media may be used to create an environment for the liturgical action, surrounding the rite with appropriate color and form” (106)

Destruction of Images

“Images in painting or sculpture [etc.] should be introduced into the liturgical space upon consultation with an art consultant.” If these images “threaten or compete with [the action of the assembly] then they are unsuitable.” (93)

“In a period of Church and liturgical renewal, the attempt to recover a solid grasp of Church and faith and rites involves the rejection of certain embellishments which have in the course of history become hindrances. In many areas of religious practice, this means a simplifying and refocusing on primary symbols. In building, this effort has resulted in more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners.” (99)

The justification for the literal iconclasm in Catholic churches could hardly have been more clearly expressed by Cromwell’s roundheads after they had systematically beheaded every image in the lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral or smashed all the stained glass windows at Canterbury, although Cromwell’s soldiers were undoubtedly responsible for destroying fewer sacred images than the liturgical “experts” who imposed their views of renewal on the Catholic churches across America.

It is deeply ironic, also, that the liturgical establishment has confused many bishops and priests of good will by invoking an authority for EACW which it never had. In 1978, when the statement was issued, Father Thomas Krosnicki became director of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, succeeding Father John Rotelle who had resigned to become executive secretary of ICEL. Father Krosmicki has worked closely with the FDLC as BCL associate director for five years, and he had also been consultor in the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship since 1975. Bishop Rene Gracida was then filling out the term of Archbishop John Quinn as chairman of the BCL. Archbiship Quinn had been elected president of the NCCB in November 1977. On November 1993, he was elected chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, already a member of the BCL, became its chairman in 1978. Monsignor Frederick McManus, of Catholic University, a founding member and treasurer of ICEL as well an influential canonist, was then and still remains a Consultor to the BCL.

In EACW Section four, “The Arts and the Body Language of the Liturgy,” we are told that “When gestures are done in common, they contribute to the unity of the worshipping assembly” (56). Well enough. But it also says, “In an atmosphere of hospitality, posture will never be a marshalled, forced uniformity” (57)

However, EACW omits expressions of pastoral concern toward worshippers who feel marshalled and forced not to reverence the Blessed Sacrament when the kneelers have been removed from the “liturgical space” ­ and the Blessed Sacrament itself no longer enjoys the “hospitality” of the sanctuary. Even Jesus, apparently, could not cry “Sanctuary” and find protection in the most sacred space in His own house.

At the March 1996 meeting of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, a Task Group was appointed to revise EACW “in the light of liturgical documents anbd rites published since 1979”. Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson, New Jersey is the chariman of the Task Group. Bishop Carlos Sevilla, SJ, Sister Janet Baxendale, Father John Sauer, and Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB, are also members. The revision will reaffirm the theology and ecclesiology of the 1979 version, and provide concrete examples and illustrations of its principles, according to report.

The BCL Task Group will work closely with the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions on the revisions, and plans to present the final text of EACW to the bishops’ conference for vote in November 1998. The approval of the full conference would strengthen the document’s influence, of course.

The BCL Newsletter (March 1996) notes that EACW is “designed not only for bishops and diocesan liturgical commissions, but for architects and liturgical consultants and for all involved in worship” (emphasis added). Thus the proposed revision is properly the concern of all Catholics, None will be unaffected.

Helen Hull Hitchcock is editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and founder of Women for Faith and Family.


Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.