Building and Renovating Places of Worship
The redevelopment of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan involves more than the replacement of buildings or the making of a memorial to honor victims. Diverse agendas are at the heart of the challenges to the rebuilding proposals. Survivors, families of victims, tourist agencies, neighborhood residents, traffic planners, developers, designers, city and state officials all engage in meetings marked by passion and power-mongering. Every group wants to protect its interests.
Media commentators closely examined the proposals of six world-class firms invited to participate in the design competition. They argued about architectural styles, scale, the use of sophisticated technology, the accommodation of safety and environmental issues, the traffic patterns of different transit systems, the visual impact on Lower Manhattan and, most importantly, the incorporation of a memorial. One architectural critic, Herbert Muschamp, poignantly noted in The New York Times (12/23/02), “These six designs are not merely star performances by famous architects. They are revelations of ourselves: who we are, what we care about, where we stand in relation to our moment in history.”
Muschamp’s words can be applied also to the process for building or renovating Catholic places of worship. The process is affected by various agendas, conflicting expectations and power plays. Churches and cathedrals are not merely temples built according to some preconceived pattern to honor the deity, an enterprising designer or a loyal benefactor. Instead, to paraphrase Muschamp, they are powerful epiphanies or metaphors of what the church is, how it behaves and what it stands for in the modern world. The task of creating worship spaces is not only about art and architecture any more than the rebuilding of the World Trade Center is solely about choosing the best design. Rather it is about us, the humans who inhabit the space. Muschamp commented: “The phenomenon we are now experiencing far transcends issues like which design is most popular or which is best. It has nothing to do with whether the projects are technically feasible or whether tenants can be found to fill them. In the consequence of this phenomenon, such questions are details.”
Although the success of a project is often measured in terms of details, preoccupation with details can obscure the underlying and fundamental rationale that gives birth to a project. Arguing over details can even be detrimental to keeping the spirit of an idea alive. Like the World Trade Center, the fundamental blueprint for creating environments for sacred rituals must begin not with the details but with the religious phenomenon the building is being constructed to represent and sustain.
One of the identifying characteristics of the emerging church is found in the response to what the Second Vatican Council called the “universal call to holiness” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 39). Without dismantling the hierarchical stature of the church, this inspiring invitation quietly changed the way the church understands itself. No longer defined only as bishops, priests and deacons, and a laity who follow the instructions of the clergy, the church once again publicly and unabashedly describes itself, using an early Christian image, as the “body of Christ.” Based in Scripture and tradition, this universal call to holiness is nonetheless a radical contemporary Catholic teaching.
Since the council, everything the church does (education, administration, worship, social work) is now tempered by the understanding that God the Spirit energizes the work of the church in the modern world and that all members of the church contribute to that work as partners. All baptized persons are called to holiness and are held accountable to one another for the transformation of the church and the world. Although the conciliar documents clearly outline the principles for such a reformation, the road of renewal is not completely paved. It is pocked with anxiety and even paranoia. Episcopal conferences tread lightly when dealing with Roman dicasteries; presbyteral councils are not always honest with their diocesan bishops; and the laity still has very little to do with the actual governance of its own religion. Maintaining a hierarchical identity while allowing for more equity in all aspects of church life is one of the major ecclesiological dilemmas and challenges.
This time of transition has had an impact on the environment for worship and prompts an important question: How do plans for a chapel, church or cathedral reflect, celebrate and affirm the diverse membership of a church in the process of redefining itself, searching for intramural equity, wrestling with its own imperfections, while toning its global image? This overriding phenomenon of the church transcends any design details for its places of worship. Will such plans revere the styles of preconciliar churches and worship practices—a return to the status quo? Or, will they embrace the stimulating, challenging and evolving self-image of the church today?
The liturgical actions of the church are at the center of these tensions. Worship is the most naked and expressive act of the church’s identifiable faith in God and cannot pretend to be something else. So when there are tensions in the church, they will be reflected in worship. The second foundation essential in planning a worship space is liturgy.
The council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” now 40 years old, refers to the church as the sacrament of unity, which is best exemplified by the gathering of laity, deacons, priests and bishops during the eucharistic rite. Although the radical adaptation of the liturgy (No. 40) is not yet fully realized throughout the Catholic world, the enactment of the liturgy reveals quite clearly how the members of the church understand themselves in relation to the creator and one another. As the definition of the church evolves, the ways it worships will also develop. But this reformation process has been slow and difficult.
In recent years a very cautious approach has developed in terms of the manner in which the sacraments are celebrated. The major liturgical tensions today revolve around the translations of ritual and biblical texts, the composition of appropriate hymnody, the role of women, the presiding styles of priests, and church art and architecture. A popular message exchange center on the World Wide Web for liturgists is filled with paranoid inquiries about doing the right (rite) thing—a far cry from the daring and creative spirit that surrounded liturgical work in the early 1970’s. Periods of refinement are helpful in times of change, but not when a preoccupation with details begins to obscure the phenomenon. In this case, the future of liturgical reform and renewal is at stake. The discussion masks deeper issues that have to do with how the church defines and understands authority, ministry, justice, inculturation and the language of metaphor. One of the most contentious discussions, for example, focuses on where and how the Eucharist should be reserved. The conversation usually centers on such details as visibility, location and the material of the tabernacle. But, the more compelling issue has to do with the phenomenon of the real presence of Christ on a fragile planet and how that presence, which cannot be contained, is understood by the faithful.
The understanding of the sacrament of unity (the church) at worship is challenged also by the diversity in the church. Every weekend in churches all around the world, pro-lifers worship with pro-choice advocates, hawks and doves walk together in the Communion procession, and long-term married couples sit next to divorced and remarried newlyweds whose first marriages have not been annulled. Likewise, Catholics worship with non-Catholics, straight persons greet gays and lesbians with hugs and kisses of peace, and former priests and their wives assume liturgical ministries. Further, nonordained women and men minister to priests at the altar, children of gay and straight couples pray with youths being reared by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and well-dressed, well-housed people pray with street people in worn out clothes. Blacks, Latinos, Anglos, Asians, Pacific islanders—all are breathing in the word of God together. All are sharing in the holy Eucharist together. And with their priests, all are celebrants in the liturgy together. The sacrament of unity is defined less by details and more by the mystery of the religious phenomenon—the assembly of a diverse people sustaining one another because of their undying belief in a loyal, ever-present God.
It is frequently said that the word liturgy means “work of the people.” This definition has led to a “hands-on” approach to liturgy planning, which some believe causes the eucharistic rite to lack the decorum it once had. But in a mysterious way, Jesus Christ is the presider at every Eucharist. The membership of the church, both clerical and lay, is invited to participate in the sacrament and sacrifice of Christ offered to God. Like guests at a dinner table, participants in the liturgy are to be grateful and graceful. In this regard, there is indeed an urgent need to address some of the trends that have crept into the enactment of sacramental rituals, robbing them of silence, reverence, gracefulness and gratitude. The enhancement of liturgical practice could return some of the missing elements, like rhythm, poise, accessibility and the sense of mystery. This call for refinement does not mean that worship takes care of itself or that the efforts of inculturation and adaptation should cease. Above all, the containment of unbridled liturgical abuse should not mean returning the work of the liturgy to the hands of the clergy alone.
The design of a place of worship is a metaphorical indicator of the ecclesiology reflected in the body of Christ. The plan reflects what kind of liturgical practice occurs there. It expresses how the gathered assembly understands itself and its responsibility for the enactment of the rituals. Does the plan suggest that worship is directed to a remote intangible God living in some glorious heavenly city? Or does it say that worship is about discovering God in the midst of our own dwelling places, however ugly they might be?
Where we pray shapes our prayer, and how we pray will shape the way we live. If the entire church membership is called to take up the responsibility of the Gospel mission, the environment of worship should say so. A place of worship that gathers the whole body of Christ around its ritual focal points and draws the entire membership into the ritual action says there is a partnership in everything the church does. On the other hand, a building plan that creates distances between clergy and laity could suggest that the church is comprised of some members who are more important than others and that the liturgy (and everything the church does) is something to stand by and watch while someone else does all the work for you. This kind of arrangement in a place of worship works against the universal call to holiness.
I began with a reference to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in New York City, which can teach us something about the construction of Catholic places of worship. The acts of terrorism that brought so much death, suffering and insecurity to a proud nation also transformed the country, giving it a new spirit of citizenship and alertness. It was a wake-up call. The commentaries on that project have taught us that no matter what the design details are for lower Manhattan, they should not obfuscate a strong and clear statement about human beings and their ability to sustain and renew one another in times of struggle.
Similarly, our environments for worship should express with clarity the essence of Catholicism—a unique and diverse body of clergy and laity that continues to evolve, balancing the strengths of its traditions with the promises of its vision. It is not only about art and architecture.