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We asked two experts, one an architect and the other a sacred space planner, to suggest three things that American Catholics should know about church design today. We also asked them to select a project on which they had worked that illustrates one or more of their points. The result is this article, which briefly introduces the topic of modern church design from two perspectives. The photographs show two award-winning buildings, starkly different in feel and style; yet each is appropriate for its use and place.

The Editors

Beautiful and Sustainable

The first and most important thing about church design is that it must help worshipers to become re-enchanted with the glory of God’s creation. Our primary life values have been human-centered, yet survival in the 21st century depends on an ability to place the needs of the planet before our own. Pope Benedict XVI has identified as a moral imperative the need to address climate change and global warming. To meet this challenge, we will have to proceed from a place of love. We all care for what we love, and our love is attracted to beauty. Church design must not only be beautiful but also must draw attention to the beauty and diversity of creation.

Second, church buildings, whether already standing or still in the planning stages, must become more sustainable. We live the Christian faith by example to each other and to the broader community. What better way to demonstrate our commitment to the pope’s statement than to make our churches “green.” Saving energy and the responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources also lead to good stewardship of parish financial resources.

Third, church design today should reflect a deep sense of place and a reverence for local context. The design of a church in a southern desert environment should be quite different than that of a church in the northwest mountains or an eastern coastal environment. I am not speaking of regional vernacular styles but rather of a design born of the particularities of place. Using local natural materials harvested or extracted in a sustainable way and orienting a building to capture a natural vista are just two of many ways in which church design can resonate with a local faith community.

The new 750-seat church for St. Gabriel’s Passionist parish in Toronto, Ont., illustrates all three of these points. As a LEED Gold certified building, its many sustainable design features have been fully integrated to give meaningful expression to the eco-theology of Thomas Berry, a Passsionist priest, and his belief that the greatest challenge of our times is to establish a mutually enhancing relationship with the earth. As such, the projecting canopy and fully glazed south facade overlooking the garden replace the traditional steeple tower and peaked roof as iconic features of a new church typology that seeks to enhance the relevance of Catholic teaching in the world today.

-- Roberto Chiotti

Ritual-Centered Areas

St. John Chrysostom expressed the first principle of church design well when he said that it is the people who make the building holy, not the other way around. Second, no one architectural style is more appropriate than another. Third, the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” calls for the active participation of the whole assembly in its ritual acts. The layout of a church can foster this engagement with well-planned illumination and acoustics, appropriate colors and materials, ritual furnishings in proper scale and with humble proportions and a seating plan that draws the asssembly as close to the ritual actions as possible.

Ideas and Concerns. In some new and renovated churches, the tabernacle is now being situated in or next to the wall directly behind the altar table. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) lists two acceptable locations (No. 315). The other is in a chapel that is obvious but distinct from the main part of the church. The U.S. bishops’ pastoral instruction Built of Living Stones suggests that when the tabernacle is directly behind the altar, it is “helpful to have a sufficient distance to separate the tabernacle and the altar” (No. 80).

There is a difference between the celebration of the Eucharist and the reservation of the sacrament. The General Instruction (2002) does not call attention to the reserved sacrament during Mass. The instruction does not favor the distribution of the reserved sacrament during the Liturgy of the Eucharist (No. 85).

I recommend creating different areas in the church to accommodate unique rituals. The part of the building designed for enacting the Eucharist, a sacrificial banquet, is neither the logical nor the historical setting for the baptismal water bath. These two very different ritual acts require distinct symbol systems and architectural settings. The Rite of Infant Baptism (1969) and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972) both list baptism by immersion as an option. Yet many churches and cathedrals still do not have baptismal fonts that honor these options.

San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Tex., is a good example of how to restore a historic building and incorporate current instructions of the Roman Catholic Church. The altar table was placed in a more central location and the tabernacle was placed into an elaborate retablo located well behind the altar table to foster private prayer and adoration of the sacrament. The historically significant baptismal font was placed at the main entrance along with a new font in order to make available for the church’s initiation rites all the current options. The architects for this project are Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke Architects (St. Paul, Minn.) and Fisher-Heck Architects (San Antonio, Tex.).

-- Richard S. Vosko

View a slideshow of newly designed churches.

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Frank Hartge
12 years 11 months ago
For hundreds of years tabernacles were on a shelf integrated with the altar. The faith of the peoople was demonstrably stronger in those years. Only in recent decades with the turning around of the altars and the "hiding" of the tabernacles have we seen a loss of faith in the real presence of the eucharist. Perpetrators of such design will have much to answer for.
12 years 11 months ago
Until the 50s and then VII, fequent communion was almost unknown.
People's participation was  very individual til post VII.
Eucharistic faith is what  is holding a divided Church together today.
Loss pf faith in the presence of Christ strikes me as a gratuitous  statemewnt.
The emphasis on presence, I think, has come from a desire to emphasize "distinctive Catholicism" and a demphasis on ecumenism.
I'm not sure that's a very good step in the divided Church.
David Smith
12 years 11 months ago
So the architectural priorities are attention to and privileging of climate change, global warming, ecological sustainability, and everything green.  Apparently, that's all summed up in the phrase "eco-theology".  Then, you've got to be sure that the building looks like other buildings in the area.  Once you've taken care of those primary imperatives, you can devote yourself to being sure that you've got a good meeting space, where everyone can see and participate actively with everyone else.  Lastly, you make sure that it's possible to baptise people by dunking them and to place the eucharist where the Council said it should go.  Got it.

One very nice thing about the result is that if enough Catholics leave the Church so that you haven't got a viable parish any more, the building is easily convertable into an office space.
David Smith
12 years 11 months ago
Note to the web editor - Tim?

When you put links to articles in an Adobe Flash element - as you normally do at the top left of the home page - those links are invisible to users of iPods, iPhones, and iPads.  That's probably an increasingly large percentage of your audience.

Then, when there's no other - non-Flash - link available, these people don't even know the articles exist unless they've first read the page elsewhere.

A quick fix would be to add HTML links outside the Flash window.

12 years 11 months ago
I am glad to see that Catholic worship space is still being designed in the Vatican II imagination.  The spaciousness of the worship area, which include the worshipers, can invite us all into a deeper communion with each other.  And the light enhances this. Lately, I have visited a few newer churches and have been dismayed with a return of emphasis on the tabernacle as the center of attention as well as a definite separation of presider from the congregation.  Being in an open worship space can also invite us into our own inner space and realize how vast it is. Thank you.
12 years 10 months ago

Sorry if I am not bowled over by the choices of the "sacred space planners," but the ongoing destruction of piety by "humble" environments needs to be halted.  Bigelow Chapel is a place of encounter with God, or a committee room for the UN, furnished on tthe cheap with a visit to IKEA?  What this article refuses to address is that the Catholic tradition has long preferred a common posture of priest and people towards the altar, not versus populum.  It is the reduction of the Church to a mutual admiration society which has wrought considerable damage in piety: lex orandi, lex credendi (or, rather, uncredendi).

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