I’m reposting this, because it is so good. But also because we live in a society that has become a slave to sentimentality. This is also true of Christianity — sentimentality affects so much and we are so blind. O’Connor hated sentimentality. Ralph Wood speaks to this in the midst of so much else he says. A rich talk indeed.
Category Archives: Education
St. Mary Catholic Church Sanctuary Project: Thoughts Towards an Understanding of the Proper Placement of the High Altar and Tabernacle in the Church Sanctuary
Context: This is a paper I wrote to explore the re-establishment of the tabernacle and high altar in its rightful place in the sanctuary for a particular Catholic church in Eugene, Oregon. I wrote it for myself, but then gave it to a friend who has passed it along to our parish priest. I don’t know if he has read it. In one way it is an argument, but it’s really a means for me to teach myself about this subject and related church architecture concerns. I welcome feedback as to its content. I could be very off-base, or factually wrong at points. It’s very long for a blog post, but it is originally a paper after all. All inaccuracies are my own.
[Note: Most of the images in this document are taken from the Internet without attribution. My apologies to their creators.]
This paper is a personal exploration of how the location of the high altar and tabernacle at St. Mary Catholic Church in Eugene, Oregon fits into the mission and core values of the parish, and how moving the high altar and tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary might contribute to the fulfillment of the Church’s mission and better align with its core values.
We must also recognize the topic itself is not without controversy. Any discussion of proper liturgy and church design is loaded with recent historical baggage and fraught with competing perspectives. This is neither an unemotional nor a non “political” topic. Nor is it without legitimate debate (far beyond the boundaries of this paper). This paper seeks to avoid the debate and merely argue one perspective.
We might also consider these words from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy:”
Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward god. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.
Thus our first focus is on Christ and living righteously, and secondarily on Church architecture and specifics of liturgy. Our unity as the Church must first be based in love: our mutual love for Christ and our love for each other. Nonetheless, God has built within us both the calling for and the necessity of “cult,” and He has created us with a nature that we all universally share. Questions of proper worship are both a natural outpouring of our nature and ourselves before God, and have been with us since the beginning of creation. Let us seek right worship, and may that seeking not become a source of disunity.
St. Mary’s (full name: St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation, Catholic Church) is an important Church in the Eugene/Springfield metro area. This is true not only because it represents the oldest and most centrally located Catholic parish in the city of Eugene, but also because the church building itself is the most visibly recognizable Catholic structure in the area. Thus it plays a unique role in calling Catholics to worship and proclaiming the Gospel to the community. The building stands as a Catholic witness to the community. This witness is perhaps even more important to the members of the parish who are buffeted on all sides by challenges to their faith.
Some historical background
Catholic missionaries first arrived in what is now the Eugene/Springfield area as early as the 1850’s. They came at the request of Catholics working in the region with the Hudson Bay Company. The first Catholic Mass ever held in the Willamette Valley was celebrated in 1839 by Fr. François Norbert Blanchet (later the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City, now known as the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon) at the church in St. Paul. The Eugene parish was officially established in 1887. It is interesting to consider how pioneering these individuals were.
During this period the region was still very much the wild frontier. Eugene was first named Eugene City in 1850, after Eugene Skinner, who arrived in the area in 1846. Population growth continued quickly apace, and the Catholic community also grew side-by-side with the larger Protestant community.
The first notable Catholic Church building in Eugene was at the corner of 11th and Willamette streets. The building was originally a Methodist church, then purchased and converted to a Catholic church under the direction of Fr. Francis S. Beck (pastor from 1887-1894).
As the Catholic community began to increase in size, there was the need for a larger church building, and greater facilities for a parish school and other parish activities. Property was purchased two blocks away from the original location at what is now the current location at 11th and Charnelton streets.
The current church building was completed and dedicated in October of 1927 (90 years ago as of this writing). The construction was overseen by Fr. Edwin V. O’Hara (pastor from 1920-1929, later appointed Bishop of Great Falls, MT, then Kansas City, KS).
The current building was designed according to a modified Gothic style prevalent of American Catholic churches built during that era. The Church was designed by Joseph Jacobberger (1869–1930), a Portland Architect who designed numerous buildings for the Archdiocese of Portland.
One natural benefit of such a stylistic choice is that the language of the Gothic style speaks clearly that this is a church and not something else. Gothic is certainly not the only architectural language proper to church design, but has consistently proven to be an excellent choice. [Note: every work of architecture conveys a message, sometime multiple, competing messages if the architecture is confused.]
Another benefit is that, if church architecture is a language of theological and liturgical form, then the design of a place of worship cannot help but have a significant effect on the formation of those who worship within her walls, including St. Mary’s. Poor church architecture will inherently lead to poorly formed worshipers or, at least, create an unnecessary hurdle in their formation. A church “in the round” conveys a different theology and a different conception of “the Church” than does a basilica form.
According to Michael S. Rose (author of “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces ─ and How We can Change Them Back Again”), a Catholic church must follow three natural laws of architecture in order to be considered truly Catholic in terms of its architectural message:
- A Catholic Church Must Have Permanence
- A Catholic Church Must Have Verticality
- A Catholic Church Must Have Iconography
Fortunately, St. Mary Catholic Church has all three. Though not endowed with an abundance in any of these categories, it is a church that certainly embodies the principles of traditional church architecture, which is to say it speaks the language of Catholic worship through architectural form.
It is, in fact, the only church in this region that is somewhat close in structure to a traditional basilica in form. That alone makes it a unique and special place of worship and a witness to the community.
The aerial views shows the traditional Latin Cross plan, with a long nave crossed by a transept. This is the only church in the Eugene Springfield metro area that follows such a traditional and historically important Catholic plan, thus linking it more closely to the to the Church throughout the centuries than any other local church in terms of its architecture in the area.
Again, no other church in this region follows this identifiably Catholic, historical, traditional, and sacred plan. This is one reason St. Mary’s can be seen as a kind of “jewel” of Catholic worship (and even evangelization) set within the surrounding area ─ a building most decidedly not secular, and therefore a “sanctuary” from the secular. Just how much our society, both Christian and non-Christian, longs for such sanctuaries from the ravages of our modern world cannot be understated.
We know that many traditional Catholic churches went through design alterations beginning in the 1960’s, including removing the high altar, shifting the tabernacle to a side location, removal of altar rails and statues, painting over murals, carpeting wood and marble floors, and more. Although St. Mary’s experienced some of these changes, the overall architecture and traditional design elements of the building itself prevented many changes that might have otherwise altered the structure from its fundamental purpose as a place properly suited to the worship of Christ, who is our king and lord.
We also know that the often repeated perception is that these kinds of recent changes reflect the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.” However, careful attention reveals that such changes have either taken the stated dictates of the council too far, or have directly contradicted them. Regardless, it is arguable that the issue today is not about rehashing well worn debates, but about growth in holiness through authentic worship, and asking what kind of church design best supports that goal?
Traditional Catholic Church Design
As already mentioned, St. Mary’s follows fairly closely the traditional cruciform church design. This is a design developed over centuries, with deep roots in Jewish temple tradition, and designed to conform to Catholic theology, including a biblically rooted anthropology.
Notice several obvious elements (so obvious they don’t really need to be pointed out):
- The floor plan is in the shape of a cross
- The sanctuary is clearly separate from the nave
- The altar is in line with the natural orientation of focus down the nave to the sanctuary
- The lectern and pulpit do not compete with the altar
Each of these elements arise from and contribute to the Church’s understanding of Christ, the Gospel, the nature of the Church, and the key characteristics of proper worship, and much more. The arguments in favor of traditional church design from a biblical and historical, not to mention phenomenological, perspective are numerous and easy to find. This is not the place to restate what has already been stated much better by many others.
What is important to say here, however, is that the call for a more traditional approach to church architecture is not a call for a slavish return to the past, nor is it merely a question of style or one personal preference over another, rather it is a call arising naturally from a proper understanding of worship rooted in Holy Scripture and Tradition. Though the past provides untold riches from which we can learn, the call is fundamentally to holiness. However, it is fascinating that again and again the pursuit of holiness (personally and corporately) leads us to rediscover what has been understood for centuries ─ that what we call traditional is also timeless.
Thus, we hear a call that looks to the past, yet is present with us today, and also looks toward the future. Though the Church allows for innumerable small variations in church architecture, significant deviations continue to fall by the wayside with each passing year as examples of poor theology, a faulty anthropology, and passing fashions ─ written, as it were, in stone, masonry, and wood.
Here is a newspaper clipping showing 1927 interior of St. Mary’s:
The main altar was built by hand in Italy using Botticino marble, with a reredos of red Verona marble, and then carefully shipped to Eugene. Originally, a large crucifix was mounted above the altar and backed by a dark blue and gold brocade drape. The overall design had a simple elegance.
Notice the design was naturally suited to the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass (now Extraordinary Form) universally celebrated in that era (in fact for the preceding four centuries prior to the Mass of Paul VI promulgated in 1969) with the altar and reredos in the center and against the back wall of the sanctuary/apse, with the tabernacle also centered under the crucifix, and the altar rail for receiving communion and creating a clear separation between nave and sanctuary. The eye is naturally drawn to the altar, tabernacle, and crucifix at the same time.
Let us now consider one significant change to the interior design of St. Mary’s that was executed since Vatican II ─ the moving of the high altar and tabernacle to the side of the sanctuary. [Note: This author does not have any information as to the decision process and reasoning behind this particular move. It is assumed the decision merely followed the trends of those years following the council.]
St. Mary’s church interior today:
At some point in the history of St Mary Catholic Church (late 1960’s?) the high altar and tabernacle were moved to the alcove in the right transept (or is it still part of the sanctuary? It is confusing). Also, the current altar was brought forward towards the nave in order to facilitate the versus populum orientation of the priest of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The large crucifix was lowered, and the wall behind the altar was painted gold. The original altar rail and baptismal gates, which had been crafted by hand, were removed altogether. The center aisle was also carpeted.
What appears to be marble flooring of the sanctuary in the 1927 photo, has now been replaced (perhaps only covered over?) with carpet and inexpensive tiles ─ neither of which are beautiful. This move most likely coincided with the liturgical beliefs of the post-council period that saw a need to emphasize there are no barriers between God and man, thus moving towards a sort of de-sacralizing of the sanctuary. Naturally this begins with moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary.
Remember, all these moves have their origin in theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical debates that have occurred (even raged) from decades before Vatican II and continue today. It is not the focus of this paper to deal with those debates, but it is important to recognize that what might seem obvious to one Catholic can be a very different matter in the eyes of another.
Something to consider: It was not uncommon for Catholic churches to go through design changes over time. A church would be built with available funds and resources according to certain traditions and accepted norms. Later, perhaps decades or centuries later, more funds would be raised to finish work, or improve the design with mosaics and murals, statues, stained glass, pipe organs, a domed roof, and other expensive projects. Many of the world’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals look the way they do today because of centuries of incremental improvements as both resources and the desires of the faithful changed and grew. In this light, it is particularly ironic to think that just about the time when St. Mary’s might have gone through upgrades to enhance its traditional beauty, for example with beautiful murals on the sanctuary walls to enhance the call to worship the believer’s mind before Christ, or additional iconography throughout the building to reflect the deep theological riches of the Church, it is arguable that the church was instead “abused” according to the typical post-conciliar fashions of the time. Fortunately, for St. Mary’s the changes are relatively minor and easy to fix ─ and may even present opportunities for surpassing the original design with upgrades.
The high altar and tabernacle as it stands today in the right transept:
As one can see, the high altar and tabernacle is not overly fancy and ornate (as compared to many others in older churches and cathedrals), but it is sufficiently beautiful to declare the glory and presence of Christ. In many ways it speaks well of the probably unsophisticated yet obviously deep faith of Catholics in Eugene circa 1927. It is also a link to our local forebearers who worked to build a proper Catholic place of worship and a presence within this community. These were, for the most part, humble people with limited funds. Most churches of the past, those we love for their timeless beauty, were built by poor immigrants for their communities because they knew the value of what they were doing.
It interesting to consider this particular altar being the focal point of Catholic worship for Eugene during the years of the Great Depression, the troubling years of World War II, Korean War, economic boom, and the vast changes wrought by those and other events. And then (arguably) only to be set to the side when the spirit of the 1960’s seem to demand a focus more on the people in the Church than on Christ ─ perhaps more “spirit of the world” than of the council? Is this argument fair? Many would say yes.
What might it look like to move the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location?
This is an architect’s rendering of how the sanctuary would look like. Notice a few things:
- The change is both significant, yet simple.
- The high altar and tabernacle seem to fit well in the space. This is because they are now where there were originally designed to be. (Of course they fit.)
- The crucifix has to be raised to accommodate the altar’s height, but the change is minor, and may be a better placement as well.
- The focal point for those entering the Church is now where the eye naturally goes, and draws one into the worship space more naturally. (Of course that is where our Lord is.)
- There is a kind of “completeness” now in the church design, with the tabernacle being at the head of the cross (in this cruciform church plan) rather than in one of the arms (transept).
- When the church doors are open, one can now see the tabernacle from the street ─ a powerful visual drawing the gaze into a holy space.
- The sanctuary now looks more like a sanctuary ─ the holy of holies on earth in Catholic theology. (Though there is still more to do in this regard, re-centering the tabernacle is the most significant requirement.)
- It restores a more proper sense of glory for what should be a glorious place ─ a Catholic place of worship.
- The priest now has the option to celebrate Mass ad orientem if he so chooses.
- The priest now has the option to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form if he so chooses.
- …yet the priest can continue to celebrate in the Novus Ordo form without problem ─ assuming the current altar remains where it is, out front of the high altar. (I do not know what is proper with having two altars in the sanctuary.)
- There is now less confusion for non-Catholics in wondering why Catholics believe in the Real Presence yet put Him to one side. This is an evangelistic move. The same is true for Catholics. This is a New Evangelization move (perhaps its most significant contribution in today’s climate).
St. Mary Catholic Church in our community
One could argue there are several reasons that the St. Mary Catholic Church building plays an important role in the life of local and regional Catholics, as well as the community as a whole:
- It is located in Eugene, the second most populated city in Oregon, and near the University of Oregon, the largest university in Oregon.
- It is the oldest Catholic Church building in the area, and thus exudes a sense of substantiality and permanence.
- It is directly linked to the earliest Catholics in the region, and thus has a profound provenance and important place in local history.
- It was built in a modified Gothic style with connections to the Romanesque style, thus it proclaims its connections to Church history of centuries past.
- It is the one Catholic Church building in the region that looks most like a Catholic Church, thus functioning unambiguously, merely by its architecture, as a witness to the faith.
- It is the only Catholic Church in the area that has a traditional pipe organ (and perhaps a choir loft?). The organ dates to the 1927 erecting of the church ─ this alone is a special fact.
Let’s pause a moment and remember three key points:
- The true Church is not the building. Rather, we are the Church, the Body of our Lord. If we do not “embody” the Church in our lives and community, then no mere building will do that for us.
- The building itself is to first serve in the worship of believers. To put it crudely, the church building is a “tool” for worship, used by the faithful in their pursuit of holiness. We must remember that we are not considering architecture or church design except as it is related to our consideration of the Real Presence of Christ and our proper orientation towards Him.
- The church building only secondarily serves as a call to non-believers ─ regardless of how powerful that may be. The best evangelical witness is to be fully and unabashedly Catholic.
If we remember these points then we should be able to keep in balance our desires and decisions. And, of course, our motivations must first be for the Kingdom of God (and all these things will be added).
Looking a little closer at St. Mary’s and its parish life and commitments, we find the following:
Mission (from the website)
“St. Mary Catholic Church is a Sacramental community united in Christ, proclaiming God’s love through liturgy, prayer, education, and service to others.”
Comments: This mission will be seen and understood in how the Church body loves each other and those outside the Church. However, it will also be powerfully expressed and seen by how the Church body worships. These two things, worship of Christ and love of each other cannot be separated. Proper worship should lead to a better understanding of love, and our love should add to the depth of our worship. Even if many Catholics struggle with believing in the truth and power of the Sacraments (perhaps viewing them as mere symbols of their Catholic identity), the Church must believe and act in accordance with the truth. This is particularly crucial in regards to the Blessed Sacrament.
Core Values (the first two listed on website)
Tradition – We are a Eucharistic community committed to the sacred traditional liturgy, music, and sacraments of the Roman Catholic faith.
Education – We are a community dedicated to making available high quality religious education for all parishioners, returning Catholics, and those interested in the faith.
Comments: These values can be lived out best by actions that are expressions, and flow from, of a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Any Church that claims such belief but acts contrary creates a tension in the hearts of both its members and those outside looking in. Though unfortunately minor in many eyes, placing the tabernacle in the center-back wall of the sanctuary (apse if it is a curved back wall) is a significant move towards expressing belief in the Real Presence. Placing it to the side is arguably an expression of diminished belief (at least outwardly) in this truly unfathomably powerful reality. Whether actual belief is diminished or not for a given individual member or priest of St. Mary’s, it is arguable the physical expression itself has no place in a Catholic Church. Start with the Real Presence and all else follows. (Consider this the passionate perspective of a Protestant, and formerly deeply anti-Catholic, now a convert to the Catholic Church who cannot live without the Real Presence.)
More thoughts on the mission
St. Mary’s is a Sacramental community, thus it places a strong emphasis on the fact that the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1113)
We know it is all too easy for any of us to take the sacraments for granted, and to treat them lightly and with less respect than is their due. We are sinners, after all. But doing so we deny ourselves the fruit of those sacraments because of receiving them with poor dispositions. We must be reminded, and remind each other, of what sacraments are, of how we should think of them, and of what our dispositions should be.
Lest we forget, or have not paid attention, and lest we fall into chronological snobbery, we should consider the centuries of liturgical practice and formulation that have come before us. Could it be that older forms do a better job of preparing us to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist? Although this is not the place for an historical unpacking, it can easily be noted that Church architecture and design, including such things as the historically traditional location of the altar and tabernacle, did not come about because of passing fashions, but because of thoughtful understanding in light of Christ’s commands, the traditions of the early Christians, deep examination of Holy Scripture, and a clearer (pre-modern) understanding of Human Nature. In the eyes of this author, it is obvious that more traditional forms of liturgical celebration represent a more substantial understanding of human nature and human needs than do more contemporary forms.
This is not to argue that only in the past will we find the proper way to worship. Nor is it to say older forms are necessarily more holy. However, just as blessed John Henry Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” one might then argue that to be deep in Catholic traditions is to better see the poverty of much of contemporary worship and liturgical practice (to cease to be slavishly contemporary). The implication is that to lack an understanding of what has come before will more likely lead to conclusions that what should be obviously poor expressions of worship are, in fact, good. The past fifty years seems to prove this point.
Simply, a proper understanding of (and actual belief in) the Real Presence and true, properly formed worship would likely have prevented the moving of the high altar and tabernacle from its original location at St. Mary’s. This is a rather sharp claim, but it is, at least, a valid question.
However, perhaps the right question is not about tradition, or tabernacles, or high altars, or even Latin and altar rails, but to ask: What is the best way we know to show our reverence and devotion before the Real Presence of our Savior and King, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, making truly present the proper graces pertaining to that Sacrament? Notice, the question asked is what is the “best way,” not what is the minimum that must be done, or what is merely licit, or what best suits the current tastes of the broadest number of folks (many of whom may be poorly formed, ignorant, or merely pursuing fashions). Of course one may find an image of a priest celebrating mass in wartime, using the hood of a jeep as an altar, both heartwarming and heroic. But no one would argue that jeep hoods should become the standard for altars in Churches. It is the ideal that should be normative if at all possible. And only because of that ideal can jeep hoods become powerful, temporary substitutes.
Consider how the role that St. Mary’s, and in this case specifically the church building itself, functions as an icon of the Church in time and space within our community. In our post-Christian age, where so many have no knowledge of even the basics of their Christian heritage, including many (most?) Catholics, St. Mary’s can function as something wholly other from the prevailing message of the world. Even in her form and structure it can teach and encourage. It does so now, and it may be able to do so even better in the future.
Finally, consider how strange it is that moving the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location could be considered controversial by some (I don’t, in fact, know if that it is the case at St. Mary’s, but it has been elsewhere). Perhaps with another church, built according to a non-traditional form, this might not be an issue, for then it might feel forced as it might be counter to the architectural design. However, with a combination of clear theological, pastoral, and architectural reasoning, there is no actual controversy with such a move at St. Mary Catholic Church.
I love this video. It speaks to many things I love (family, doing art with one’s kids, teaching about prayer and holiness, beauty, etc.), and things that I want more in my life.
You can find out more about the folks behind this video here: http://www.2spetrvs.com/
This is a fantastic discussion with Dennis McNamara about what truly sacred architecture is, what it does, and what it is for. Naturally there is a lot in this about what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to worship as a Christian, because it’s all tied up together.
Here’s his bio: Prof. Dennis McNamara
Thoughts: I have been interested in architecture since I was a kid. At one time I thought I was going to college to study architecture. I actually don’t know why I didn’t, however, I did study art history which included the history of architecture. Interestingly, though I studied the history of Christian architecture, including the great cathedrals of Europe, my profoundly thin religious education in matters of Church history, liturgy, etc, etc, did not prepare me to understand anything I was looking at. I fear most Protestants, at least evangelicals and fundamentalists, are also equally ignorant. I wish I had know these things when I was in college. Anyway, a discussion like this one above is so packed with wonderful information that I find it exhilarating. I also think it might go over the head of many Christians, if only because the basic concepts (including the Real Presence, the meaning of liturgy, etc.) are just a bit too foreign to modern American Christian ears. Please, tell me I’m wrong.
“How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through Whom they had received their being?” – St Athanasius
“There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education….” – G. K. Chesteron
This is a longish post, but I want to address a largish topic. If you teach or lead RCIA, or are going to, or are in a position to help organize the RCIA offerings in your parish, this post might be for you.
First, for those who don’t know about RCIA: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is an important part of the process whereby an adult convert enters into the Catholic Church. The minimal goal of RCIA is to prepare an individual to enter the Church in such a way that the basic dogma and doctrines, expectations and requirements of the Catholic Church are understood by the catechumens (those going through the process). The bigger goal is to foster a growing love for Christ and His Church. Typically RCIA takes anywhere from 8 to 12 months, sometimes though it takes up to two or more years. RCIA is not absolutely required, but it’s an expectation unless a good case can be made otherwise. A well taught RCIA course can be a real blessing.
I went through RCIA prior to entering the Church. What I got for RCIA was not really what I wanted or needed. I felt it could have been far better. I had already done a fair amount of studying and research long before I decided to become Catholic. So my RCIA became a rather bland formality. However, I am no expert on RCIA, I have never taught or lead an RCIA class or program, and I only have my experience and a few observations I’ve made of other RCIA programs from afar. Based on that experience and those observations, and on being someone who is deeply interested in this topic, and on having taught other kinds of courses elsewhere, here are my thoughts on what might make a good RCIA program.
Be passionate. RCIA leaders should probably be somewhat obsessed with the territory covered by RCIA. The ideal RCIA leader is someone for whom Church dogma, doctrine, practice, and the such are infinitely interesting. They should be eager and willing to take on any question, discuss any topic, and have lots of deep and broad knowledge. I do not believe they have to be trained (I’m not sure that’s a requirement) but they should know and love official Church teaching. This is not about being an “expert” proclaiming wisdom from on high. It’s really about being a passionate student of the subject, and eagerly wanting to continue that education by including others.
Know that your catechumens will likely have done some homework. In other words, someone who is converting from another faith or “version” of Christianity, will likely come already curious enough about the topic at hand that they will have already done a fair amount of reading on the topic. Some of that studying may be of good stuff, some might be not so helpful. It can be a really huge thing for a Protestant to become a Catholic. It can be huge for anyone. Not unlike, but perhaps even bigger than, getting married or choosing citizenship or starting a new company. Protestants inherit a laundry list of anti-Catholic positions and prejudices. Converts will need to deal with these, and that will require study. If you are a cradle Catholic and can’t see what the big deal is, then maybe teaching RCIA is not for you. I mean no offense.
Know something about who’s coming. Are they former Protestant’s? Or from another religion altogether? Are they former agnostics or atheists? Every person is unique, and will know a certain amount of truth and falsehood about the Church. Some will have done extensive research and could nearly teach a course on Catholic apologetics, and others will be wide-eyed newbies. Some will be relatively uneducated, and some may have advanced degrees. Some may be more or less blue collar, and some white collar (whatever that means these days). And some will be eager to be there and others may be there only to please someone else. All will have unique questions and desires for what RCIA will mean for them. Never, never, never invalidate their previous experiences, religion, life choices, etc. All truth is God’s truth. Find what is true in their experience and build from there.
Consider carefully your curriculum. I assume many RCIA leaders use some kind of RCIA guide or manual to teach from. Probably most of these resources are good and well thought out. However, none will match exactly your needs or the needs of your catechumens. Do not be afraid to change the curriculum to suit the need. What if you have catechumens with a science background, what if you have artists, or teachers, or business people? They may all respond to different approaches and/or materials. Make the right changes, but make sure the core is still presented and no dogmas are altered. Be orthodox, but be a human being teaching other human beings. Find what will work best.
Be organized. I will hazard a guess that a lot of RCIA programs are poorly organized. This is not to say there is no plan, or calendar of events, or basic curriculum. But I can imagine that many churches, running on underpaid and volunteer labor, without the pressure of having to please paying customers, or meeting government standards for testing, etc., become a seat-of-the-pants operations running largely on the good will of limited church staff. Catechumens, however, should be able to know what is going on, what is coming up, what the expectations are, who they can contact with questions, and where this will all lead. There should be a syllabus, including a calendar of topics, a reading list, a sheet of times and places, resources, contact info, and anything else a normal person with common sense would want to have in hand when they enter into the process. Plan your work, work your plan. This is not only basic, it is more loving to all those participating, including guest speakers.
Don’t water it down. Teach the Church’s teaching straight up. If someone does not want to hear it or believe it, they might not be ready for it. That’s okay. They also might be in the midst of their journey to the truth, examining and wrestling, with their previous knowledge or their hearts putting up defenses. Let that happen. Encourage it. Support the process. But stick with the truth, don’t water it down. But keep this in mind: Your job is neither to push nor pull someone into the Church. It is walk beside them as a friend, mentor, confidant, and guide. Accept catechumens where they are and encourage them to keep going towards the truth. Allow them to flail and fail with the hard stuff. Let them be human. Don’t give up on them. But teach the Church’s dogma unapologetically.
Don’t be scared of the hard stuff. There might be a temptation to think that if the hard stuff (whatever one might think that is) is out there in the open, then several possible bad things will happen: a) inquirers will walk away, b) discussions will become heated, or c) you will quickly be over your head. All this may happen. Let it happen. Try to guide the group wisely, with love, but these are adults. If they do not know there is a reason people generally don’t talk about religion and politics in polite company, now they can learn. If they don’t know that the Catholic Church has dogmas that don’t change, practices with long traditions, and many strongly opinionated members, now they can learn. And being a Christian is not a little thing.
A word on the sex abuse scandal. For some this terrible wickedness within the Church is the only, or the biggest, stumbling block to entering the Church wholeheartedly. You must have a good response. This is not about defending the Church, or having a pat answer, or even trying to change anyone’s feelings. Any one of those responses could easily become offensive. Rather, it is about being honest, listening, and being able to see the scandal for what it truly is. And it’s also about offering the Church (and Christ, its head) as the answer. I wrote my personal thoughts on it here, and why, with all that wickedness, I still chose the Catholic Church.
You don’t need all the answers. Faith is not a test of knowledge. No one will enter the Kingdom of God because they got a perfect score on some doctrinal SAT. The same is true for entering the Church. No one knows it all. More than this, the process of education is where the teacher (better: tutor) and the student learn together. Be willing to say, “I don’t know” a lot. However, if you find yourself saying , “I don’t know” a lot, perhaps you need to do better prep work.
Do your prep work. Don’t come unprepared. If possible, teach from a place of abundance. RCIA should not be a time when you show up, open your book (if you are using an RCIA book/guide), and say, “Well, let’s see what we have for today.” Even cracking the book the night before is too little too late. Know the topic at hand as best you can. Plan how you are going to teach it. Consider the kinds of questions someone will have. Be able to give clear answers. If you need to, and you probably should, you can read out loud directly from key Church texts, such as the Catechism, or encyclicals, and let them stand on their own. Always, always, always have Bible passages ready to provide a foundation for the teaching as well. If you don’t know that Protestants (even those converting to Catholicism) will tend to judge everything you teach from the perspective of what the Bible says, then know this is true. Be able to answer why the Catholic Church sees scripture as part of tradition and not against it.
Communicate clearly and often. Everyone should know of any changes to the schedule, who to contact with questions or concerns, and where to get info. Have a web page or Facebook page dedicated to the course, with the syllabus, calendar, contact info, etc, easily accessible – and actively monitor those sites. No one should ever show up and find out the course is not happening that week (several times I showed up to my RCIA only to find it had been cancelled and no one was told – I found that disrespectful). And no catechumen should send an email or leave a voicemail and not get a reasonably quick response. Many in RCIA are also professionals in their “regular” lives. This means they act, and expect others to act, with professional courtesy. They are used to how things work in the “real” world and within organizations that get things done and serve others. Too many churches seem to throw professionalism out the window merely because they are churches. I don’t know why, but don’t let the inherently laid back, amateur nature of church life lead to lack of basic courtesy to others. Also, RCIA members should be able to easily explain (and provide resources) to the curious on how to get involved. Provide them the info they need to do that. The converting are sometimes good evangelists.
[See the end of this post for a brief digression on church web sites.]
Give homework. Do not fear telling catechumens they have reading to do. Give them lots of reading. Have them read sections of the Bible, of the Catechism, of encyclicals, of a great book on being Catholic and its claims, or something pertaining to a particular dogma. Make the syllabus available early so they can read ahead. Give them work to do. Also give them projects to do – such as go ask people they know about the Catholic Church, or about Christ, or about sin, etc. Have them come back with their reports on what they heard, and use that for discussion and a lead-in to the Church’s teaching. Tell them to watch a film, or a television show that deals with an upcoming topic. Don’t let them off easy because you fear that any amount of hard work will drive them away. I would have welcomed a lot of homework (maybe I’m strange). I got nothing. That was a big let down. Give them work, but make it relevant. Key: chose homework that is worthy. Forget lightweight, easy to digest, pre-chewed reading. Give them red meat. If they struggle, then coming to clarity will be part of the discussion. Don’t forget literature, poetry, song lyrics. Don’t forget research. Ask them to come prepared to share. Put a little pressure on them. RCIA should not be merely an exercise of sitting through “x” number of classes so one can get one’s Catholic merit badge. And don’t forget to actually discuss the reading or project that was assigned for that class.
I have compiled a few online resources and lists of good reads here. Share them with your class.
Don’t forget Goodness and Beauty. There are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Often RCIA is essentially about Truth – what does the Church believe, what are its dogmas and doctrines, etc. But people are drawn to the Catholic Church for various reasons. Coming from the Protestant world I was drawn to the call to holiness and the history of art in the Catholic Church, to its prayers and liturgy, as well as its doctrines. Keep in mind, Truth is not greater that the other two. All three transcsendentals intertwine and any one leads to the other two. All express the character of God, and of what we are called to. Various practices in Catholic piety should be presented and discussed. Art should be presented and discussed. Have the catechumens read fine literature, listen to fine music, look at fine art. Bring in some beautiful work of music, for example something by Palestrina, hand out the lyrics with both the original (usually Latin) and the English translation. Listen to the piece and then discuss it. Discuss the design of traditional church buildings and what they mean. Read a poem in class, for example something by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then dig into it. Pay attention to beauty. Discuss the lives of saints. Ponder their actions and commitment to holiness and how that played itself out in their lives. Teach how to pray. Give them novenas to pray. Show them how to make a prayer alter at home. Schedule a hike with the class and get outside into nature. Use that time to discuss the beauty of nature and how it expresses the Divine Law. These are normal aspects of God’s goodness and grace poured out to us. All RCIA leaders should be lovers of holiness and beauty, and not truth alone, as though being Catholic is merely accenting to a list of propositions.
Consider how you teach. Not everyone has a philosophy of teaching, but it is good to at least think about what teaching is, and how one is to approach it. Consider the approach to teaching that was common prior to the industrial revolution. With that revolution, and all that modernity has wrought, the goals of education changed from developing virtuous and complete human beings to workers who can produce in order to help the economy. That pre-modern approach is often called classical, though I would merely call it human – as in it conforms to human nature (something denied by modern man). Okay, I realize this is a big topic, and potentially overwhelming. So first, read these two blog posts of mine to get a better idea of what I am saying, and how truly simple and human the classical approach is. Note: these were written with homeschooling in mind, but the principles are universal.
I hope these posts helped make clear what I am getting at. Also, keep in mind the basic classical assumption that education tends to follow a kind of interweaving course that begins with the grammar stage (basic building blocks of knowledge), followed by the dialectical stage (discussing, even arguing, about the assumptions and interconnectedness of the building blocks of knowledge), then concludes withe the rhetoric stage (being able to express ideas and defend them). Naturally these stages do not flow strictly in sequence like dominoes falling. Rather, there is always a constant back-and-forth interplay between them, but the basic idea is solid. It is also how we most naturally learn every day. For example, when we take on something new at work, we first must learn the basics, then we wrestle with them in the context of work, then we become experts and can teach others. This process can happen for weeks or years, it can happen over hours as well. It depends on the subject and the learner. Organize each class, though, with this process in mind.
Something else: Consider the seven laws of teaching: In 1886 Gregory authored the book The Seven Laws of Teaching, in which he asserted that a teacher should:
- Know thoroughly and familiarly the lesson you wish to teach; or, in other words, teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.
- Gain and keep the attention and interest of the pupils upon the lesson. Refuse to teach without attention.
- Use words understood by both teacher and pupil in the same sense – language clear and vivid alike to both.
- Begin with what is already well known to the pupil in the lesson or upon the subject, and proceed to the unknown by single, easy, and natural steps, letting the known explain the unknown.
- Use the pupil’s own mind, exciting his self-activities. keep his thoughts as much as possible ahead of your expression, making him a discoverer of truth.
- Require the pupil to reproduce in thought the lesson he is learning – thinking it out in its parts, proofs, connections, and applications til he can express it in his own language.
- Review, review, REVIEW, reproducing correctly the old, deepening its impression with new thought, correcting false views, and completing the true.
Follow these seven laws as best as you can and your RCIA class will almost assuredly be a success.
Evangelize. Remember that RCIA is a form of evangelization. It is, fundamentally, the “process” whereby a Catholic teaches and mentors non-Catholics in the ways and means of the Catholic faith, with the goal that the non-Catholics will eagerly enter into the fullness of the Christian faith with sufficient knowledge to comprehend what they are getting into and why. Fr. Robert Barron has his Seven Keys to the New Evangelization. They are:
- Lead with the beautiful – it’s an excellent gateway to goodness and truth.
- Don’t dumb down the message – dumb is dumb.
- Preach with ardor – a little passion goes a long way.
- Tell the great story – connect the Gospel to all of salvation history.
- God does not need us…and he loves us anyway – God’s grace and mercy are utterly and perfectly selfless.
- We are made for God – forget wealth, pleasure, honor, and power. Only God satisfies.
- Use the new media – Proclaim the Tradition of the Church with the communication tools of the day.
Don’t get caught up in right/left politics. The Church all too often has been burdened by giving in too much to whatever political landscape has the day. This is true in the U.S. and elsewhere. Politics are not unimportant, but they both pale in comparison to the weightier issues of faith, and they tend to steer one away from the far more radical Catholic position – which begins and ends with Christ, not with conservative or liberal positions. Still, some catechumens might bring politics and other divisive social issues into RCIA. Gently steer away from those things. Don’t let them dominate the class, even if you find them interesting yourself. Leave it for after class discussions. Also, be prepared to give a clear answer why RCIA is not the place for political debates. And yet, if someone asks a direct question on the Church’s position for a given issue (e.g. abortion, marriage, contraception, are just three biggies), give a straight answer. But don’t belabor it. Don’t give your opinion. Don’t suggest the Church is wrong even if you have doubts about official Church teaching on a particular topic (though if you do have doubts, then ask yourself if you should be leading RCIA). Also, be clear about what is Church teaching and what is not. Avoid making up an “official” position if the Church doesn’t have one. I can’t stress how important it is to not let RCIA become a political discussion group. Remember: Unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things.
Finally, thoughts on the way it was. Warning: Opinion ahead! This is where I disagree with what I have heard about some of the typical uses of the Baltimore Catechism in the past (often brought up as though to say, “back in the day we really knew our catechism” as though that meant really being Catholic.). From what I understand that catechism is a basic question and answer approach that lays out the grammar of the Catholic faith in a very step-by-step, concise manner so that catechists can memorize it easily. Rote memorization used to be a common part of education, and one’s grandparents or great-grandparents probably had this kind of education. So far, so good. Rote memorization is something good we lost with the coming of modernity. But grammar is only the beginning. There needs to be the dialectic stage, for that is where a person wrestles with the grammar, digging deeper, being challenged, taking ownership. Then the rhetoric stage is where one can speak about it from a position of knowledge, even teaching others what they know. That is when one can truly say they understand. And it is a life-long process. Learning and growing never stop, unless one becomes comfortable in a kind of bland arrogance, no longer really considering what one believes. Too many older Catholics got their grammar, but did not advance beyond it (though many also did). A grammar-only education means one’s convictions may not be based on truly knowing the subject, but rather on a parroting faith supported primarily by either familial pressures or strident cultural identity rather than true belief – both of which can be bowled over by shifting cultural trends (such as the 1960’s and the sexual revolution). It also means one is less able to pass on that faith in a meaningful way, thus jeopardizing the next generation. On the other hand, a grammar-less education sorely lacks the basic grounding in Church doctrine and the fundamental language of the faith. The baby boomers might fall into this category, having shrugged off the “trappings” of their parents for the freedom of “if it feels good do it.” I do not know where generation X (my generation), or the millennials fall. Regardless, the goal is not merely to catechize, but to evangelize. RCIA should not be only about getting folks into the Church, but to draw them closer to Christ.
So that’s my take on teaching RCIA. Let me know your own thoughts and experiences. Thanks.
A brief digression on church web sites: Most churches (Catholic and Protestant) have rather poor web sites, and no Facebook pages. If they do have sites at all they are poorly maintained, badly designed, and look like Web 1.0 technology. This screams “old.” Sad, but true. Of course, much of the time a church web site exists only because someone has volunteered to create it and maintain it. And that takes a lot of work. Regardless, what I have observed mostly with Catholic Church web sites is that they are designed primarily by people who may be somewhat technical, but have bad design skills and little knowledge of the current web design offerings. Perhaps no one else volunteers to take over because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And not meaning to slight anyone, but the sites also seem to be built for people who learned a few Internet skills eight or ten years ago and are still a bit confused. I do not mean this as an offense, but it is the younger (and middle aged now) generation that lives online, and church web sites often do not cater to them. Remember, the elderly still prefer to pick up the phone and call the front office anyway. If you want to attract a broader crowd then one’s web site should look good, be well organized, have relevant information, and kept up to date. The church should also have at least a Facebook page (even FB is now older technology, but still functional) and a Twitter feed. These sites should all be coordinated to carry and send the same information. Ask yourself, why is it only the elderly who seem to keep the church running and do all the volunteering? There are many reasons, including their wisdom and love for others, but perhaps it’s also because many youth get no information on what’s going on from their church because the church doesn’t use the media of the age well or at all. How many of your youth are getting regular church updates on their smart phones? How many searching college students would find your church appealing (speaking their language) by merely looking at your web site or FB page? Consequently, one’s RCIA program may not attract anyone because the first, and last, thing people see about your church is its web site. People are searching online these days, not knocking on doors.
I just created a resources page for anyone who might be interested in exploring Catholicism. You can find the page here.
I came into the Catholic Church September 29th, 2013. It took me about seven or eight years of studying, researching, praying, talking with lots of people, and tons of mulling. I found a number of great resources on the Interwebs, various podcasts, and many excellent books. Anyone who wants to can easily find these themselves, but I figured I would make starting the journey a little easier for anyone who might be curious or serious.
There are many, many more resources out there. If you have some you think are excellent or even essential that I have missed, feel free to add your comments. I may try to periodically update this page.