Not all of us can regularly go to Mass in a cathedral of great beauty. Most Catholics have available to them rather humdrum works of architecture for their local parish. But it’s still possible to find beautiful small churches where careful attention to detail and the meaning of form went into their design. And yet, that still relatively rare.
The following video is an excellent look at one of the crown jewels of Catholic cathedrals, Chartres Cathedral in France. This comes from the “Smarthistory. art, history, conversation” YouTube channel. As you watch it, consider how much thought went into this building, and then consider the church where you regularly go to Mass. My point here is not to highlight the great beauty of Chartres compared to the humble local parish, but how carefully the design and the details were thought through and realized in Chartres. Can we achieve such excellence again? And can we achieve something of this in our local parishes? I believe we can and should.
Of course, very few parishes have the resources to build large and lavish churches, but often a church that achieves the right virtue of proper “churchness” is not a matter of resources, or size, or expensive materials, as it is of basic understanding and will. What I mean is that having the right understanding of what a church is and ought to be, and applying one’s minds carefully to its design, even a small church in a small parish can be a work of architecture worthy of worshiping Christ and elevating the faithful to Heaven.
I am surprised at how apparently ignorant so many Catholics are, including many in the hierarchy, about basic church architecture–or seem to be so. Churches are where we celebrate Mass. This is no small matter. Although, perhaps most Catholics are not as ignorance and not caring about such things, believing they are unimportant. However, the church building itself, though not absolutely necessary for celebrating Mass is, nonetheless, the normative place of worship. In it we meet the Real Presence of our Lord and savior, the King of Kings. If we take worship seriously then we should take church design seriously, including for the humble local parish Church. Catholics used to. But we haven’t for some time now. We must again.
I have frequently posted on this and related topics, for example here.
I also love how the speakers in the above video, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, don’t shy away from orthodox Catholic dogma. This is not a video where the information presented has a condescending tone toward faith and believers. I have no idea if they are Catholics or not, but they just say things as though they are relating how Catholics ought to think of these things. I think this is the best way to present something like Chartres Cathedral. The viewer can make up their own mind, but at least one should know what the builders of Chartres believed and what led to make the kinds of decisions they did.
I have also been reading an excellent book, Visions of Mary : art, devotion, and beauty at Chartres Cathedral by Rev. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion. She is a scholar, photographer, and Episcopalian priest who has come to love Chartres and Catholic history. (I pray she takes the leap and become Catholic–perhaps not easy for a woman who is an Episcopalian priest. She would have to give up some things precious to her.) This book takes a look at aspects that speak directly to the Holy Mother, her role in the life of the Church, and how Catholics (especially in times past) think of Mary. It does so by focusing and meditating on specific details of the cathedral. This book makes me want to go to Chartres and spend some significant time with the Cathedral, taking pictures and making sketches and just attending to it.
As I see it, architects should look at Chartres, and similarly excellent Catholic churches, as inspiration to how they should think about church design in general, and then apply that understanding to every Catholic church building, even the most humble and simple of churches. I also believe the faithful should know these things too, being encouraged in the faith, but also demanding churches actually be Catholic in their designs.
Of course, church design tends to flow from intended use, thus a church designed to serve the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass will necessarily look different than one designed to serve the needs of a Novus Ordo Mass. This is why, when the Novus Ordo was promulgated, so many older churches had their altar rails removed, altars brought closer to the nave, and other changes because the Novus Ordo felt wrong in a traditional space. And this is also why the Novus Ordo still feels out of place in a traditional church even after those kinds of changes have been made, because arches, stained glass, cruciform floor plans, and other harder-to-change elements don’t fit the New Mass. The contemporary modernist church needs a more Protestant style, entertainment hall. Thus, it’s more than merely the architecture that often needs to change.
“Do not invent anything in the liturgy. Let us receive everything from God and from the Church. Do not look for show or success. The liturgy teaches us: To be a priest is not above all to do many things. It is to be with the Lord, on the Cross! The liturgy is the place where man meets God face to face.” – Cardinal Robert Sarah
There was a pilgrimage from Notre Dame to Notre Dame, that is, from Paris to Chartres, through the French countryside.
I’ve written about this pilgrimage and Chartres Cathedral before here. In that post I write about how the youth are seeking a Church that demands more of them than the Novus Ordo Church of their grandparents. I’ve also posted about a recent restoration project at Chartres here, and a wonderful vintage video on the history and glory of the cathedral here.
If you are curious about the pilgrimage, here are pictures of the full three days. They are listed in reverse order–scroll all the way down to see the beginning.
His Eminence Cardinal Robert Sarah showed up on the last day, May 21st, when all the pilgrims had arrived at Chartres:
And he celebrated Mass in the usus antiquior. Here is the full three hours of that Mass, including the entrance of the laity and all their flags, and all the clergy. It looks like it was quite an event, if that’s the right word:
I admit I’m a sucker for these long vérité videos. I love watching the people, getting a sense the event, its noises, etc. What an amazing Mass. I wish I could have been there, done the whole pilgrimage, etc.
Certainly it makes more sense to celebrate Mass in the Traditional Latin form in Chartres Cathedral, rather than celebrating with the Novus Ordo. A building such as this serves the old Mass better, and the old Mass serves the building better; the beauty, history, and magnificence of each in full cooperation.
From the Cardinal’s homily:
Dear Pilgrims of France, look upon this cathedral! Your ancestors built it to proclaim their faith! Everything, in its architecture, its sculpture, its windows, proclaims the joy of being saved and loved by God. Your ancestors were not perfect, they were not without sins. But they wanted to let the light of faith illuminate their darkness!
He goes on to say:
Today, you too, People of France, wake up! Choose the light! Renounce the darkness!
How can this be done? The Gospel tells us: “He who acts according to the truth comes to the light.” Let the light of the Holy Spirit illuminate our lives concretely, simply, and even in the most intimate parts of our deepest being. To act according to the truth is first to put God at the center of our lives, as the Cross is the center of this cathedral.
My brothers, choose to turn to Him every day! At this moment, make the commitment to keep a few minutes of silence every day in order to turn to God, to tell him “Lord reign in me! I give you all my life!”
So much wisdom in those words! And here is a link to the full text his homily.
The following images (as well as the image at the top of this post) also include quotes, in their original French, from Cardinal Sarah’s homily. I grabbed these from his twitter feed:
Sufficit tibi gratia mea
“My grace is sufficient for thee”
Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae.
[May the Lord accept the Sacrifice from thy hands,
to the praise and glory of His Name,
for our benefit and for that of all His holy Church.]
It is a fact that what’s driving the return of (and to) the Traditional Latin Mass is, in part, Catholic youth. Search online for that topic and one finds innumerable articles about the growing love of, and demand for, the old Mass on the part of young Catholics. (I encourage you to go search. I don’t have space to list them all here.)
In short, it comes down to three things:
Genuine faith seeking a proper form.
Finding a lack of proper form in much of the modern Church, and especially in the Novus Ordo Mass and its ancillaries.
Finding the proper form in the pre-conciliar traditions of the Church, and in particular the Traditional Latin Mass and its ancillaries.
These three reasons are supported by the realization that the Novus Ordo Mass is linked, directly and indirectly, to so many problems in the Church today, such as loss of vocations, closing of parishes and Catholic schools due to lack of interest, loss of a corporate Catholic identity, and increasingly lax morals, especially in the area of sexuality (the very area the world sees traditional Catholics as being laughably foolish). The causal versus the correlative links between the new Mass and modern perils will be debated for ages, but the reality of the links seem real enough to warrant action.
I have seen some older Catholics show complete confusion about this. Why in the world, they wonder, would anyone want that old, rigid, dusty religion? But they do. It has been reported that even Pope Francis himself said about those who show a love for the Traditional Latin Mass: “And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.” I sense that the Holy Father, whom I love, has a fear that the old Mass will come back. My sense is that, while he has much wisdom, he is also of a generation that was formed by the spirit of the 1960’s. Alas. It has also been argued that what youth want is more of a desire for true reverence than the Latin rite, but there is certainly a connection. And there is more than enough evidence to say it’s also the usus antiquior, the ancient usage, that calls to them.
Ironically, the 1960’s was all about youth too, and listening to the youth, and letting the youth show us the way, etc, etc. And then, at the behest of the spirit of the 1960’s, it was all about casting off anything and everything that was traditional, including morals, conventions, and just about anything that smacked of liturgy. Now Pope Francis is saying something very similar about looking to the youth for answers. I say it’s ironic because those who were the youth of yesteryear, and who led the way from the 1960’s into the 1970’s Novus Ordo Church with it’s guitars and bongo drums, its liturgical dancers and the attempted eradication of Latin, are now saying that again the youth must show the way, and the youth are saying it’s time to move beyond the modernist hippy church — and many of the older Catholics are getting mad. Funny how that happens. For some reason many are still drinking the kool aid about how only in utter freedom (it’s a “freedom from” way of thinking, a kind of bra burning Catholicism) can one have a true relationship with Jesus, or have authentic faith, etc. Cast everything off. Even cast off the Church it seems sometimes.
But some older Catholics get it. And they can bring their wisdom to help guide the passion of the youth.
And some younger Catholics who have fallen in love with the old Mass are taking it to the streets. The caption for the following video reads as follows:
So over brunch after the Traditional Latin Mass one Sunday, we, a group of young Miami Catholics, thought it would be fun to visit the Florida Renaissance Festival… and even more fun to form a little procession, chant the Litany of the Saints, and hand out flyers inviting everyone to come worship like it’s 1399!
So we did exactly that.
I find this wonderful. It’s kinda hilarious and precious just how real it is. You want to know how to do real street evangelism? Well, there you go. (Take it from someone who has done some old-fashioned Protestant street evangelism. This is way way better.) I think the same is true with a good old-style Corpus Christi procession. We need more of those.
But it’s not easy. One has to put oneself “out there” as a witness and be willing to accept what may come.
There is also a “meme” of sorts going around where someone posts two pictures with the following text:
Left: What young Catholics want
Right: What old Catholics want young Catholics to want.
The pictures go like this: One the left will be a picture of something very traditional, like nuns in full habits, beautiful churches with stunning altars and tabernacles, priests in cassocks, etc. On the right will be pictures of “nuns on the bus,” bare and ugly modernist churches, liturgical dancers and priests playing folk guitars, etc.
I doubt this needs any explanation, but on the left is traditional, beautiful, historical, deep, Christ-centered Catholicism, and on the right is an aging, 1960’s, baby-boomer, me-generation, shallower version of an essentially smallish “c” catholicism (if it’s really Catholicism at all). Whether these images are entirely fair I can’t say, but the phenomenon of the meme’s popularity speaks to growing feelings and desires of younger Catholics for the substance of an older, historical Catholicism.
In other words, they want a liturgy given by God and not created by man. They want a faith of the ages not of the latest fashions (of course, and sometimes humorously so, for the Church “fashionable” means 20 years out of date, but oh well.) They want beauty not sentimentality.
Sentimentality is one of the worst features modern Catholicism.
Another example: Imagine well over 15,000 people marching for three days from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to the Cathedral in Chartres. They come as individuals and as groups. They carry banners and come from all over the world. They sing and chant along the way. Then consider that 80% of these pilgrims are under the age of 30 and you now have a picture of one of the Church’s most remarkable annual events. Here is a “video album” of the 2015 pilgrimage:
I love video documents like that. Simple, unadorned, merely presenting what happened. It’s long, but worth the time to watch.
Some older Catholics often seem to always seek ways to make it “easier” for young Catholics to be Catholic, and non-Catholics to be interested in the Church. This is true for Protestants too, who have been much better at applying modern marketing techniques to “evangelism” than Catholics. Make it effortless and you will win against the competition. But, in fact, young Catholics seem to thrive on what is hard to do. It is the challenge of holiness, not the low-commitment of a happy-clappy church, that intrigues them. Interestingly, in this sense many youth have the more Catholic view of the faith than far too many of their elders. And many young Catholics appear to have a clearer understanding and a greater love of what it takes to become a saint than even some Bishops. Talk about “active participation” in liturgy and in life, there you have it. Thank God for those older Catholics who get it, live it, and are examples to the youth.
In another story of how some Catholics just do not “get” the Catholic youth of today, there’s the example of some Catholic administrator or other sort of staff (I’m assuming a sweet, old-fashioned, 1960’s, well-meaning modernist — or someone directed by such a person) altering an image for a poster created to appeal to youth as part of a campaign to raise donations (and apparently to appeal to Catholic youth) in three dioceses France. A video was made and an image was taken from the video to make a poster.
Here’s the video:
Not great. They don’t look like they know each other, and the whole setup looks awkward and weird. Oh well.
But alas, and here’s the issue, Catholic youth would never think a priest in a cassock would be cool enough, right?? Obviously someone thought so, …so some graphic designer was asked to modify the image and make it look as if the priest was wearing blue jeans, because priests in blue jeans are what youth want right? Or is it what old Catholics want young Catholics to want? You decide.
And now here’s the blue jean wearing priest:
A total different priest — hip, with it, connected, relatable, relevant. Rather, he was all those things before, and now post edit, much less. Perhaps what Catholic youth want is not a priest who is really just one of the gang, just another youth like them, just another soccer playing priest or unicycle riding nun. Maybe they want to be called to something more than the quotidian. And maybe they don’t like to be manipulated and lied to. More profoundly, perhaps they don’t want to stay who they are and end up in Hell, but strive for holiness and Heaven. I bet they know holiness is hard and not easy.
The fuller story is here, and the comments are devastating. ouf! If a picture is worth a thousand words, this rather insignificant image probably says as many words as those published by the Second Vatican Council. Oh well. Catholics are human too, and often foolish. The Church goes on. No one was hurt. Right? Right???
Regardless, maybe we ought to listen to the Catholic youth of today. Or at least some of them. And then join them. Generally I am not for letting the youth lead, in fact I’m mostly against it, but this time that’s probably not a bad idea.
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.”
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.”