Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy
Congregation for the Clergy – April 11, 1971
Circular Letter on the Care of the Church’s Historical and Artistic Heritage
Works of art, the most exalted expressions of the human spirit, bring us closer and closer to the divine Artisan (1) and with good reason are regarded as the heritage of the entire human family.(2)
The Church has always held the ministry of the arts in the highest esteem and has striven to see that "all things set apart for use in divine worship are truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world."(3) The Church through the centuries has also safeguarded the artistic treasures belonging to it.(4)
Accordingly, in our own times as well, bishops, no matter how hard pressed by their responsibilities, must take seriously the care of places of worship and sacred objects. They bear singular witness to the reverence of the people toward God and deserve such care also because of their historic and artistic value.
It grieves the faithful to see that more than ever before there is so much unlawful transferal of ownership of the historical and artistic heritage of the Church, as well as theft, confiscation, and destruction.
Disregarding the warnings and legislation of the Holy See, (5) many people have made unwarranted changes in places of worship under the pretext of carrying out the reform of the liturgy and have thus caused the disfigurement or loss of priceless works of art.
In some places church buildings no longer serving their original purpose are in such a state of neglect that grave harm is being done to the local ecclesiastical heritage and works of art.
In its responsibility for the administration of the artistic patrimony of the Church,(6) this Congregation has taken cognizance of these facts and circumstances. It therefore urges the conferences of bishops to lay down regulations applying to this extremely important matter.
Meanwhile the Congregation rightfully issues the following reminders and decrees.
1. "In commissioning artists and choosing works of art that are to become part of a church, the highest artistic standard is to be set in order that art may aid faith and devotion and be true to the reality it is to symbolize and the purpose it is to serve." (7)
2. Works of art from the past are always and everywhere to be preserved so that they may lend their noble service to divine worship and their help to the people’s active participation in the liturgy. (8)
3. Each diocesan curia is responsible for measures to ensure that, in conformity with the norms set by the local Ordinary, rectors of churches, after consultation with experts, prepare an inventory of places of worship and of the contents that are of artistic and historical importance. This is to be an itemized inventory that lists the value of each entry. Two copies are to be drawn up, one to be kept by the church and the other by the diocesan curia. It would be well for another copy to be sent by the curia to the Vatican Library. The inventory should include notations on changes that have taken place in the course of time.
4. Mindful of the legislation of Vatican Council II (9) and of the directives in the documents of the Holy See,(10) bishops are to exercise unfailing vigilance to ensure that the remodeling of places of worship by reason of the reform of the liturgy is carried out with the utmost caution. Any alterations must always be in keeping with the norms of the liturgical reform and may never proceed without the approval of the commissions on sacred art, on liturgy, and, when applicable, on music, or without prior consultation with experts. The civil laws of the various countries protecting valuable works of art are also to be taken into account.
5. Attending to the norms of the Directory
Peregrinans in terra
on the pastoral ministry in tourism,(11) local Ordinaries are to make sure that holy places and objects of celebrated artistic merit are made more accessible to all; they bear witness to the Church’s life and history. Nevertheless even sacred edifices of artistic value remain places of worship and tourists must not in any way disturb the liturgical celebrations.
6. Should it become necessary to adapt works of art and the treasures of the past to the new liturgical laws,(12) bishops are to take care that the need is genuine and that no harm comes to the work of art. The norms and criteria in no. 4 of this document are also to be followed. When it is judged that any such works are no longer suited to divine worship, they are never to be given over to profane use. Rather they are to be set up in a fitting place, namely, in a diocesan or interdiocesan museum, so that they are accessible to all who wish to look at them. Similarly, ecclesiastical buildings graced by are are not to be treated with neglect even when they no longer are used for their original purpose. If they must be sold, buyers who can take proper care of them are to be given preference (see CIC can. 1187).
7. Precious objects, especially votive offerings, are not to be disposed of without permission of the Holy See, in keeping with CIC can. 1532. The penalties in can. 2347-2349 continue to apply to those transferring ownership of such objects unlawfully; such persons cannot be absolved until they have made restitution for the losses incurred. Petitions submitted to obtain the permission in question are to state clearly the decision of the commissions on sacred art, on liturgy, and, when applicable, on music, as well as the opinion of experts. In each instance, the applicable civil laws are to be respected.
This Congregation has full confidence that sacred works of art will everywhere be treated reverently and safeguarded and that in their efforts to promote new works in keeping with the mentality of every age the bishops will use those works to aid the faithful’s active and effective participation in the liturgy.
2 See Pius XII,
Discorsi e Radio messagi
, Ed. pol. Vat., v. 15, 448. SC Clergy, General Directory on the Pastoral Ministry in Tourism:
Acta Apostolicae Sedis
61 (1969) 366.
La Legislazione ecclesiastica sull’Arte
, Card. C. Costantini, ed.,
"Fede e Arte"
5 (1957) 359ff. SC Council, letters on this subject, especially 30 Dec. 1952:
Acta Apostolicae Sedis
45 (1953) 101-102;
Regolamento relativo al prestito di opera d’arte di propriet· della Santa Sede: Acta Apostolicae Sedis
57 (1965) 677ff. GIRM ch. 5, "Arrangement and Furnishing of Churches for the Eucharistic Celebration" nos. 253-280.
5 See Consilium, Letter of the president, 30 June 1965, no. 8; Sacred Congregation of Rites,
ch. 5, nos. 90-99; GIRM nos. 257ff.
6 See Paul VI, Ap. Const.
Regimini Ecclesiae Universae
Acta Apostolicae Sedis
59 (1967) 911-912.
7 See General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 254.
art. 44, 45, 46, 126.
10 See Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instr.
Acta Apostolicae Sedis
61 (1969) 373-376.
12 See GIRM no. 254.