Church of St Louis Abbey Elevation

Here is a video on the design process and construction of the famous (or infamous) St. Louis Abbey Church.

Is this a good church? Does it properly serve the purpose of a church? Many would say no. In fact this church is frequently presented by traditionalists as a prime example of terrible church design. Why?

Michael Rose had some thoughts on this topic. The basics are presented here. In short, the idea is that there is no journey towards God, from the profane to the sacred, in a round church design. It is, rather, made for a celebration of community and not the Eucharist. Though perhaps providing excellent acoustics for singing prayers, it is arguably not designed for proper worship in terms of offering sacrifice by a priest to God on behalf of the Church. Of course, in our Novus Ordo world which is focused more on the “people of God” in communion with each other more so than on the Bride of Christ worshiping God, many would argue with this argument. A round church, one supposes, serves better the idea that the faithful are gathered around a table for a meal.

Also, the church was completed in 1962, before the council had done anything, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated. These architectural ideas had been around for some time before the council.

Perhaps what I found most telling in the video linked above is the moment when Fr. Timothy says, “neither the architect nor we knew what we were doing.” I find this particularly emblematic of that era. It was a time when so many felt the strong need to throw off the past and create the future, but then discovered they didn’t know what to do. It made me think of this famous passage from G. K. Chesterton:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

There’s nothing wrong with asking if the way we have always built churches is the best. There is nothing wrong with exploring other possibilities. But, at the end of the day, we always discover our experimentations come from someplace, and the more we are unclear in our own minds the more likely other forces, spiritual or otherwise, will rule the day, and us. My take, and this applies to the “spirit” of the council and all that means, is that a great deal was done, including a great deal of destruction and deformation, because people had grown tired of the old ways and of old things. And I believe they grew tired because they ceased to truly know what they meant and what they were for.

Nonetheless, I pose the question: Is this a good Catholic church? Is it a proper design for what a Catholic church is meant to be?

Church of St Louis Abbey interior

priory-chapeldetail-image-timeline_image_1215x855-1215-855
source

Below is a time capsule Mass celebration in the church made for television:

 

 

Are modernist buildings good places to pray?

abbey church interior
source and overview

I may be somewhat of an anomaly. On the one hand I am an advocate of Traditional Catholicism, including Traditional Catholic architecture designed to serve Traditional Catholic worship. (If you search through this blog you will know this.) On the other hand I love much of modern architecture. I love many buildings that many others do not like. I grew up in a modernist house, I studied modern art and architecture in college, and I have been a fan of early twentieth century and mid-century modern art and design. With this in mind, I found this lecture about one of the more famous (infamous?) modernist churches to be quite fascinating, not only for its informative content, but also because the lecturer gives a highly (almost ecstatically) positive perspective on exactly the kind of church design many would deride without hesitation.

Abbey Church SJU_Inaguration__020
source and more images

This lecture below is by monk, educator, and artist David Paul Lange, OSB. Whether you agree with his assessments or not, this is an excellent overview of modernist principles in architecture, especially at the mid-twentieth century point, and why it made sense to people at that time to build a church according to those principles. It is also an excellent “unpacking” of the design, and the ideas behind the design, of a particular church, the Saint John’s Abbey Church:

I find Brother David Paul Lange’s speaking style to be a bit too breathless for my tastes, but he is a great evangelist for the modernist perspective in architecture, and for this church. But I have some questions:

  1. Is his understanding correct about both modernist architecture and his interpretation of this church? I think absolutely.
  2. Is this church a good representation of modernist architecture? Yes.
  3. Is this church worthy of praise? As an example of modernist thinking, yes. As an example of excellent construction, yes. As a place for worship, you tell me, but I think no, at least not within a proper understanding of ideal Catholic worship.
  4. Therefore, does this church represent a different ideal of worship than traditional Catholic worship, I think so. But you tell me.

Notice a few things:

  1. He speaks of praying more than worshiping. This makes sense given this church is for a monastic community which is focused a great deal on prayer, but it is also significant. The focus is more about the nature and needs of praying than offering a sacrifice to God. Praying in a church is a good and normal thing. However, prayer is a part of worship, but not the only part. Many spaces can be prayerful. Only specific kinds of spaces serve the needs of worship.
  2. He speaks a lot of his own feelings. In a sense this entire talk is an explanation of his personal experiences of this church, and his feelings during and about those experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that up to a point, but as a Catholic would it not be better to also foreground the Body of Christ as a corporate entity a bit more? In that sense he would then speak more of the nature of man in general and his relationship with God. And then tie it back to this church and how it functions.
  3. This is more about a “modernist space” than a church (hence the title of the lecture), even though it is a church where the Eucharist is celebrated. He points out the way the outside comes into the church interior, reminding those inside of the connection with nature, what time of day it is, what weather is outside, etc. In this sense I gather the space functions a bit like stepping into a forest and praying. I like this in a sense, but when I think of celebrating Mass I wonder about the idea of Heaven on earth and the traditional way churches close off the outside world and creating a space that is more heavenly than earthly.
  4. He speaks of the honest use of materials, and how older churches seem dishonest somehow, using paint to create false impressions and faux marble, etc. This is a particularly important part of the lecture. I too love the modernist focus on materials. I also don’t believe such focus is necessarily bad for church design, but a church interior should be (traditionally speaking) a kind of three-dimensional icon of Heaven. Rough, earthy materials that evoke nature have their place, but they should serve a heavenly image, no? Here’s something I might explore in another post, but consider this: Is not a statue of St. Michael (for example) fake because it is not actually St. Michael? Same for the Holy Mother, etc? Would not any church that aspires to create a sense of the heavenly liturgy within its walls be a dishonest use of materials? Maybe. But perhaps that’s a “dishonest” use of the word dishonest.
  5. The bell tower, he argues, with its horizontal lines, points to (or mirrors) the horizontal earth rather than to God. He claims it reminds him that God is everywhere and in all things, and perhaps that’s a good reminder, but this is a curious claim and raises the question, in my mind at least, what is the purpose of a church? To call us to the earth or to call us to Heaven? Do we not minister to each other (horizontally) because we have first sought out and worshiped God–a vertical action? If we do not begin with the vertical does not our horizontal orientation eventually become skewed?
  6. He also mentions that the population of monks used to be 350, but now are only 150. They don’t need such a big church anymore. Only by way of correlation, but still interesting (and troubling): They commit themselves to modernist ideas, they build a modernist church to symbolically represent that modernist spirit, and not long after they lose 60% of their members. Apparently modernism doesn’t need monks. Perhaps modernism doesn’t really need man either.
  7. At the end of the lecture, just before questions, he jokingly apologizes for going a bit long and keeping the Downton Abbey fans from their show — a show whose popularity arose from a longing for an earlier time, represented, in part, not by modernist architecture, but very traditional architecture, and clothing, and customs, etc. Will future generations swoon over the modernist mid-twentieth century in the same way? Perhaps Mad Men did some of that, but that is an awfully dark show.
  8. The first question at the end, by another monk (I believe), is exactly my question, and worth the time for watching this lecture. I have never been in this church, so I have no way of saying what my thoughts would be, but I also wonder if such a place is naturally conducive to prayer, or liturgy at all for that matter. And I truly get the experience from having studied art and swooning over art that others think is stupid or meaningless. And I also find the questioner’s reference to the new cathedral in Los Angeles being obvious a place of prayer puzzling, since it also has been roundly derided for its modernist and non-Catholic design. The answer to his question included: “Do people get modernism? I think the answer is no, by and large,” and “Until I explain this…” In other words, modernist art and architecture requires explanation in order to appreciate it. This is one of the attractions and weaknesses of modern art. I have experienced exactly that feeling of “getting it” after studying it. And yet, I think this may be why modernist architecture is not a good choice for Catholic churches. He also says we are not actually living in a “modernist” society. In terms of art and architecture this may be true specifically in light of design principles–modernism, from an art historical perspective occured at a time in history which is now past. However, the spirit of modernism as a philosophical and theological undergirding of society and the Church is still very pervasive. How modernism in ideas and modernism in design interrelate is a fascinating topic too big for this post.

In the end I find the Abbey Church a beautiful and amazing space. However, I do believe it is probably best suited as a performance space than as a church. I would not advocate a church being built along these lines. Rather, I think we should be informed more by the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass with its focus on God rather than man, uniformity with the Church through history, and creative use of new and old materials that look to the past for inspiration and the future for permanence and authentic timelessness — which can only be done by beginning with a true understand of both God and man.

Finally, I wonder if much of the problems with using modernist design principles and materials for Catholic churches could be solved if the liturgy was the Traditional Latin Mass. In other words, imagine if Vatican II never happened, and the Novus Ordo Mass never promulgated, could churches have been designed in somewhat contemporary and modernist fashion and still fulfill the needs of the TLM? Can architects build “honest” churches and still be Catholic? I think so. But also keep in mind that the St. John’s Abbey church construction began on May 19, 1958, and lasted until August 24, 1961 — well before the council even began, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated.

If you want to know a bit more about the architect Marcel Breuer:

If you want to know a bit more about the building of the church:

 

Christ Chapel drawing Duncan Stroik
Architectural illustration of Christ Chapel in Hillsdale, Michigan by architect Duncan G. Stroik (source)

In a similar way that the Counter-Reformation, as its name describes, countered the Reformation, the Church must again counter a new “reformation.” But this new reformation has really been more of an internal revolution of modernism that has cause enormous damage within the Church as well as outside. Many have felt strongly that some kind of rediscovery and return to the rich architectural traditions of the Church, much like the return to the Traditional Latin Mass, should play a major role in this new counter-reformation. I agree.

Duncan Stroik is a practicing architect and devout Catholic who specializes in church design. He has been on a crusade of sorts to bring back to the foreground the traditions of church design that were once taken for granted and then largely lost (but, of course, not really lost, for we still have many examples). He is a leading voice in the return to beautiful and properly designed churches “movement,” if that’s the right word for it. He is also an author and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

Here is a recent lecture he gave, along with numerous examples, on twelve points of this new counter-reformation. This was part of the Catholic Artists Society’s 2018 Art of the Beautiful lecture series at New York University’s Catholic Center:

Should we be building (or restoring) beautiful churches when there is so much poverty in the world? Shouldn’t the Church sell all that it owns and give the money to the poor?

I am a simple man and I do not have a complete answer to that question. But I ask you to consider the story of the feast of Simon the leper, or more appropriately the story of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. Does this story have a lesson for us that applies to the questions above? I think so.

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee
Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1620, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In the Gospel of Matthew, verses 26:6-13, we read:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”

In the Gospel of Matthew this woman pours ointment on Christ’s head, in Luke it says she pours it on His feet and wipes them with her hair. I think it is fair to say she did both, and to do so fits with Christ saying she did it for His burial. But here’s the question I think we should ask for ourselves in light of this story: Do we not, very specifically and uniquely, have Christ with us at Mass, truly present? Are not our churches, in fact, both temples and palaces: places for worship and sacrifice on the one hand, and places for monarchal reverence and pomp on the other? Yes, we must help the poor, but our love for our neighbor goes forth from our worship of our creator and our savior. We proceed from Mass into the world, conforming our lives to Christ in our actions. And churches are for all who come, rich and poor alike.

The poor, above all else, need salvation of their souls as does everyone else. Certainly we must not forsake the poor with cheap excuses that our monies are tied up elsewhere. Christ chastised the Pharisees for that as well. But we must not turn away from proper worship in order to, instead, focus on the poor. When we do, we put our souls at risk, and theirs.

[I realize I risk saying all this because I am not poor. My apologies for any thickheadedness and offense.]

I believe the state of the “new Church” today, with its numbers plummeting, its thin gruel of RCIA programs, its horrible music, its new Mass with namby pamby vestments and shallow prayers, and all its staggering and ravaging scandals, is all of a piece with its degraded and ugly churches. To forsake right worship, which includes, if at all possible, beautiful places of worship of sufficient design and beauty to glorify the King, is to lose the forest for the trees. It is, in a sense, to lose Christ.

This is one reason why churches that focus only on helping the poor all too often become churches where soup and blankets becomes their gospel and not the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, saving us from Hell, and leading us to eternal life. Raising Lazarus was an image of the gospel, but Lazarus was raised to die again. His true salvation came because Christ died on the cross, and then rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then Lazarus believing in that truth.

Therefore, I believe that a gospel which says we should do away with fancy churches and instead give that money to the poor is, in fact, a substitute gospel. It has some appeal because it has some important truth (we truly do need to help the needy and lay down our lives for others), but it elevates one truth inappropriately above another. The poor (and the downtrodden, and those in prison, and widows & orphans, and the hungry, and the naked, etc), whom you must love, will always be with you. But if you are to see Christ in the poor you must first see Him in the Eucharist, and bend the knee, and bow your head, and worship Him. Should you sell all you have and give it to the poor? Maybe. Should the princes of the Church live simple lives of poverty? I think they probably should (certainly many today should be brought low). Ought the Church as the body of Christ celebrate Mass in plain sheet-rocked or concrete-tilt-up boxes instead of beautiful, ornate, and more expensive churches? I think not (if at all possible). Give glory as and to whom glory is due.

Does this mean that if we focus once again on building more beautiful churches all our problems with go away? No. But we must not be afraid to build beautiful churches. To do so will feed and inform our souls in surprising ways, and help us become more holy, more fully human, more like Christ. This goes hand in hand with helping the poor. The stunning churches of old, those that are still with us, are memorials to those who built them in a similar way that the story of the woman with the alabaster box is her memorial.

You will meet her if you get to Heaven. And, perhaps, you will bow to her and thank her for showing the way.

Finally: Arvo Pärt, the brilliant minimalist composer from Estonia, set the words from Matthew above to music. Listen to this and read the words as you do. This is, I believe, a stunning example of what setting the words of scripture to music can be.

Introíbo ad altáre dei.

Peter Kwasniewski

Here is a great lecture by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. I suppose a brief (and poor) summary might be: While the core essence of the Mass is Christ offering Himself on our behalf to the Father, all the other elements of the Mass are also important because it is through the “accidents” of the Mass that we have access to the “substance” of the Mass. This is true not only for the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation, but everything else, the smells and bells, kneeling and genuflecting, chant and prayers, etc.

Having recently finished his excellent book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness
Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages, I look forward to finding anything else he has done. Dr. Kwasniewski is a particularly eloquent spokesperson for the usus antiquior.

His lecture is perhaps a bit technical, but still easy to follow, and worth the listen. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I myself have been interested in this topic, especially the physicality of worship, for some time. Three years ago, after I had begun to make a more concerted effort to pray in the morning, I wrote on the physicality of faith. And more than four years ago I wrote a piece on reducing faith and worship down to some absolute minimum, which I called an inhuman experiment.

Archbishop Alexander K. Sample said: “May the traditional Mass flourish in the Church!”

I agree, and I pray every day both for the TLM to flourish and for the archbishop to continue his good work.

In this light, below is another good video from 2SPetrvs:

While watching this video I was thinking about the nature and function of parades. A lot of people like parades. In this video one see a pilgrimage can be a kind of parade. I have come to believe they have an important role to play in human society. There is something old-fashioned about parades. There is also something very human about them. To parade is to make a declaration. Perhaps more parishes should start parading in their cities.

This short talk by Roger Scruton is worth listening to in its entirety. His thoughts on silence are especially profound. I wonder, too, about how his thoughts apply to our constant debates about music at Mass. Think about what he says and then consider the different uses of music one finds between a Novus Ordo Mass and a Traditional Latin Mass. Think about the different uses of silence too. What have we lost bringing popular, and often poor imitations of popular, music into Mass?

I have come to realize that rock-n-roll’s purpose, among other things, is to un-civilize the individual. We love rock-n-roll precisely because we want to be un-civilized. I do believe there is some value in occasionally “letting down one’s hair.” I really can’t say it’s all bad. But I also believe it has to be appropriately counterbalanced with beautiful music that leads us to perfection of the soul. I also worry that our desire for chaos is not of divine origin. Honestly, I don’t entirely know what to do with this knowledge.

This idea of perfection of the soul is laughed at by moderns. No one believes in perfection anymore, in part because they don’t think it’s possible, but more profoundly because they don’t believe there is an objective standard by which to measure perfection. But they also do not believe in the soul. Why seek to perfect something that does not exist? And why go to the effort if there is no life beyond this one? I would posit, however, that the existence of music, and the phenomena of human experiences of music, are an excellent argument for the existence of the soul, its eternal nature, and its desire for perfection.

Then, when I think of the Mass, I consider its music and what that does to us. I wonder about appropriateness, and form, and the teleological purpose of liturgy. I also think about Scruton’s comment about the soul being prepared to receive good music. Can poor music at Mass harm us in some way? Can the repeated use of poor music at Mass cause the souls present to be temporarily incapable of receiving proper music when presented? What about the music in Heaven? How might we fix this?

Why in the world did God make music, and what is the relation between music and the human soul? I believe Scruton gets at this question in a way. I also believe he could go further. Perhaps that is what we should do.

An EWTN show called Extraordinary Faith did a couple of episodes on new church designs and old church restorations that reflect the traditional patrimony of the Catholic Church.

The information here is great, and shows something of the rebirth and growth in recognizing the timeless and appropriate architectural and artistic designs of those buildings we instantly recognize as churches. Consequently many parishes and religious groups are wanting such buildings again.

I love the level of exposure to these beautiful churches and those who build & restore them this shows brings. There is a great deal of skill and work involved in any traditional Catholic church building. I also love the passion exhibited here for the traditions of the Church.

[An aside: Of course, and as expected, in the “spirit of EWTN” the production quality is serious, thoughtful, and sometimes (unintentionally) humorously amateurish. I would love to see EWTN level up two or three notches with its productions. Perhaps something like Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series, which would be at least a place to start. I’m not just complaining. I used to be a professional television producer and director, so I know a few things about what it takes to make good television, and it’s mostly not a question of money. EWTN too often is caught somewhere between 1980’s professional television and community access television.]

Here is a great video how one Catholic parish in America has renovated its church building, invigorated its parish life, helped its community, and is contributing to the restoration of the Church at large. The video is from 2010, but its message resonates still. Basic things: repair the building, offer vespers, bring back pomp and reverence, Latin, chant, Corpus Christi procession, altar boys, communion on the tongue while kneeling, incense, mystery, etc., etc. They also employed an architectural and liturgical expert, Denis McNamara, to help lead the restoration.

The church interior was completed in 2014. Here are some stunning images, including before and after photos of the project. What beauty. My parish should do this! I’m sure the first response will be about money, but I really think it comes down to the will to do it — as do most goals of highest value.

If there is any one formula or silver bullet for creating vibrant parishes it seems to be: get back to the roots, restore the old ways, focus on truth, goodness, and beauty in the Mass, and do those things that support these things, like renovating your church building inside and out.

A view shows a damaged gargoyle at the Notre Dame Cathedral in ParisThe cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris is slowly crumbling. It’s expensive to repair. Since the French Revolution churches in France are owned by the state. So the state has the responsibility to keep the churches standing, or decide some other fate, which could mean demolition. The cathedral of Notre-Dame needs $70 million dollars. Here’s a story about that:

Perhaps the French state should give the catherdral back to the Church. No?

Story found here.

For some time now I’ve been fascinated by Church architecture and how it works. In my parish there is a small movement to re-establish the original high altar and tabernacle at the center of the sanctuary. It was moved to the right of the sanctuary sometime in the 1970’s I would guess. I wrote about it here.

My argument for moving the altar back to the center is based a lot on what a church is, and the overall design of churches, essentially starting with the structure and moving in towards the altar. What I like about the following lecture by architect Duncan Stroik is that he starts with the altar and “builds” out from there.

Of course, to understand the altar we should understand what takes place there. Do we truly have the body and blood of Christ? If yes, then that is huge. If no, then none of this really matters. Right? Sometimes I think that most Catholics today see the Eucharist as a symbol, not believing in the Real Presence, not believing in transubstantiation. I think churches in the round reflect that.

How we design and build our churches expresses what we believe to be true — and how we rank truths. A church in the round reflects some truth — that we are all fellowshiping around a shared table. But does it reflect the proper hierarchy of truths? Have more important truths been reduced in rank (as expressed by the design) and lesser, though important, truths been elevated? Has Jesus my friend been elevated over Christ our King?

Lucas picture 02
The vaults before restoration. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert (source)

This video below speaks to my soul. Having been an art history major as an undergrad, and loving medieval architecture, and loving documentary film that just shows you the “thing itself” without commentary, videos like this one are wonderful. Full screen, turn up the volume.

Notes on the production:
“Ce documentaire vous plonge au cœur du chantier de restauration du déambulatoire de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) et permet de découvrir les gestes des restaurateurs de l’entreprise Lithos, filmés par Anne Savalli. Il décline les principales étapes de la restauration et le savoir-faire unique des artisans opérant sur les échafaudages inaccessibles au regard du public.”

More on this project here.

July 7, 2017 was the ten-year anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio (Apostolic Letter) Summorum Pontificum. Those of you who love the traditional Latin Mass know the importance of this letter.

On that anniversary a traditional Latin Mass was celebrated as a commemoration and celebration at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. Here it is. It’s worth watching full screen with the audio up.

Things I observe:

  • The Mass is not stuffy or old feeling. It is certainly traditional, but does not seem at all out of date. The word is “timeless.”
  • A traditional Latin Mass seems more appropriate in Notre-Dame de Paris than does a Novus Ordo Mass (which one can find on the Notre-Dame website linked above). I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. That is, the “fittingness” of the form of the Mass (NO or TLM) and the church setting.
  • The Mass is beautiful. I am not against the Novus Ordo Mass. I have experienced some beautiful ones. I also participated in the choir at a Latin Novus Ordo Mass recently celebrated in my parish. However, this Mass above is truly beautiful and feels appropriate when one thinks that the King is present in their midst.
  • They have someone to direct the singing of the congregation. We could use that in the TLM I go to once a month in a nearby parish. It can get confusing without someone directing for those of us who are still learning the TLM (which is most of us).
  • The church is full. Maybe this is always true for this famous and grand cathedral, but on a hot and humid July day in Paris (many of the congregation fan themselves) this church is packed. Apparently not a few folks in France like the old ways.
  • At times I wonder if they are used to celebrating the TLM at Notre-Dame. I see little moments that seem to indicate not everything is going 100% smooth, that they are trying hard to make it work — and they do. I could be reading into it as well.
  • There is a mix of old chant and more “recent” polyphony (18th century, etc.). At least one of the polyphonic songs (really a prayer) I sang in the choir at our Latin Novus Ordo Mass.
  • I have never been to France, but I love this church. I studied it in art history class. What beauty and grandeur. A church truly appropriate to celebrate Mass in. Someday I may get there.
  • I love the moments of silence. This is one more reason the TLM is an antidote to our modern world. Silence is necessary for our humanity and our worship of God.
  • Latin! I love that I can follow the Mass even though they are French and I am not. We have a shared faith, and shared language, and a shared worship. This is true in many ways with the Novus Ordo Mass, but Latin brings us all together.
  • There is no altar rail. I don’t know if there never was, or if it was removed at some point (French Revolution? Post Vatican II?). I see some people having trouble kneeling to receive communion — bad knees, age, etc. I can relate. But kneeling is appropriate.
  • I love the humanity. Parisians dress better than where I’m from, but I see all kinds — well dressed, casual, sloppy, women with veils, most without, some folks with praying hands, some with arms crossed, some confused, some seeming to know exactly what is going on, etc., etc. All very human.
  • Excellent video coverage. Beautiful.
  • I must be strange to enjoy watching a complete Mass, but I did.

Several evenings ago I walked into my parish church to do something I’ve never done before. Probably out of ignorance and hubris, and not a little blind hopefulness, I decided to lend my voice to our parish choir. But not for the normal Sunday choir, which supports our regular Novus Ordo Mass. This time I joined in because I had heard at Sunday Mass the announcement that coming up in about four weeks was going to be a special Novus Ordo Mass (feast day at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation) that would be entirely in Latin along with Latin (and Greek) chant, and that if anyone wanted to join in the choir they would be welcome, and that our choir director would be offering a chant schola in preparation for the Mass.

So I reached out via email and was invited to join.

As I walked in to the church I heard beautiful music resounding throughout the nave and sanctuary from the regular choir rehearsal as they were finishing up. After blessing myself and genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, I turned, looked up, and saw this.

IMG_4909

With not a little panic mixed with excitement I realized I would be going up to the choir loft. What had I decided to do? Reality was setting in. I had never been up there, but have wanted to. I had not sung in a choir since, probably, about 4th grade for some silly event. As I worked my way towards my destination I was asked a couple of times if I was a tenor or bass. I could only shrug. I had no idea. Oh no, I thought to myself. I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. At my answer a look of slight worry crossed the faces of my questioners. Had I made a huge mistake?

On the back bench lay items of sheet music and a binder. I picked up my copies and went to my place. Everything was new to me. I did not know these people. I had never been in the choir loft, I was an imposter. Perhaps I didn’t even know how to sing. However I was welcomed warmly. Okay, at least they’re nice.

Then I looked down at the sheet music. Oh no. This was not the medieval square note sheet music. Not that I know that ancient form well, but because of my curiosity about historical Christianity I know a little. And it’s rather simple to follow if you know the basic format. Rather, this was the Missa Secunda by Hans Leo Hassler, and it looked like this:
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If you want to know how it’s supposed to sound, here’s a recording from another choir:

 

Okay. For those of you who can read music easily, have sung in adult choirs, know that you are a tenor or bass or whatever, then you might be curious at the sudden and profound panic I felt.  (Perhaps you are merely laughing at my foolishness.) I realized I would have to reach deep into my past, to those few piano lessons of many decades ago and remember foggy snipits about breathing at the right time, etc. 4/4 time. 3/4 time. Half notes. Whole notes. God help me, and God save this choir from me.

The choir director, a very kind and super encouraging man (fortunately for me), brought me to a side room and had me sing Mary had a little lamb, just to determine there my voice might fit. He said I could be a tenor or bass, so he put me with the tenors. And there I was.

We began with the traditional chant Salve Regina to warm up. That helped. I know that one, and it’s not too difficult. Then we dove into the Missa Secunda. Another great blessing for me, I was next to a woman who knows the music very well, has a great ear to be able to listen to me while she sings herself, and a kind and generous spirit to guide me through my stumblings. If she had not been there I might have completely failed and not come back. Later others told me, yeah she’s great.

So, rehearsal one is over. Three more to go. Will I be able to do this. I asked several, including the choir director, after that first rehearsal if they think I can contribute. They were all very encouraging. I also found online resources to help me do “homework” between rehearsals.

God help me, but I loved it.

The true Benedict option:

From the YouTube description: “In the Jubilee year 2000 the monks of Norcia breathed new life into the birthplace of St Benedict. Armed with only their faith and zeal they founded a monastic community which has been attracting men from all over the world to follow St. Benedict’s ancient Rule. Many of their friends have long wanted an insight into the inner workings of their life and so they have produced this high quality up to date film which shows the monks as they go through the daily ora et labora. The title of the film, ‘Quaerere Deum,’ means to Seek God. This is the true calling of all monks, the first and most essential quality of an authentic monastic vocation, as laid out in the Rule of our Holy Father St. Benedict.”

The Monks of Norcia website.

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 know 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 contents. 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.

I also welcome your prayers, because there are several of us in the parish, including our priest, who are interested in get the altar and tabernacle moved back to where it should be. But there are some hurdles including cost, the fragility of the altar, and potential backlash by some parishioners. I am now working on spearheading this project in a fairly low-key manner for now. Again, prayers are welcome.

Note: One of my main goals is to help bring back the Traditional Latin Mass to this parish. Moving the church’s original altar and tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary seems like one of the first steps to take.

 

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[Note: Most of the images in this document are taken from the Internet without attribution. My apologies to their creators.]

Introduction

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.

St. Mary's

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).

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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:

  1. A Catholic Church Must Have Permanence
  2. A Catholic Church Must Have Verticality
  3. 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.

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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.

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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.

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Notice several obvious elements (so obvious they don’t really need to be pointed out):

  1. The floor plan is in the shape of a cross
  2. The sanctuary is clearly separate from the nave
  3. The altar is in line with the natural orientation of focus down the nave to the sanctuary
  4. 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:

1927 Photo (1)

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:

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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:

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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?

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This is an architect’s rendering of how the sanctuary would look like. Notice a few things:

  1. The change is both significant, yet simple.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
  8. It restores a more proper sense of glory for what should be a glorious place ─ a Catholic place of worship.
  9. The priest now has the option to celebrate Mass ad orientem if he so chooses.
  10. The priest now has the option to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form if he so chooses.
  11. …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.)
  12. 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:

  1. It is located in Eugene, the second most populated city in Oregon, and near the University of Oregon, the largest university in Oregon.
  2. It is the oldest Catholic Church building in the area, and thus exudes a sense of substantiality and permanence.
  3. It is directly linked to the earliest Catholics in the region, and thus has a profound provenance and important place in local history.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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corot cathedrale chartres
Cathédrale de Chartres, painting by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1830)

Medieval thought in stone and masonry. This is a wonderful documentary, not only because of its subject, but because it is also a kind of time capsule itself. The Second Vatican Council was in progress, but not completed, the Novus Ordo Mass had not yet been promulgated, and the ravages of modernity had not completed their destruction of society.

HERE it is on archive.org, if you want to see it larger.

“An in-depth study of this famous cathedral. ‘What is the special character of Chartres Cathedral that we should call it the greatest of the medieval churches?’ Narrated by New York Times art critic John Canaday, Chartres becomes a visible fusion of faith, engineering and architecture. The camera pictures the cathedral in its awesome entirety, with detailed closeups, and as an enduring triumph of man’s skills.”