Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Gather Us...Where?

It is sometimes a little frustrating to talk to fellow Catholics about Catholic matters.

Oh, not anyone here, of course. But I've had the experience, as I'm sure you've had too, of entering in to a conversation either in the real world or online, and saying something rather mild about what Church art or architecture or music should be like, only to have the other person or group of commenters act as though you've suddenly been transformed into a pearl-and-silk-wearing elitist who should be raising money on a PBS television fund raiser, because you're obviously out of touch with the Common Man who likes his churches bare, simple, and festooned with felt banners: and who are you to judge his tastes as inferior to your own?

The most recent time this happened to me I eventually gave up. People who are convinced that a church's architecture should be a reflection of the kind of space that makes people comfortable, and that all those stuffy old cathedrals did was re-emphasize a "false" idea that the clergy were practically minor deities who stood with their backs to the people mumbling to show how important they were and how unimportant the lay people were, aren't really going to listen to anything I say. I had someone actually tell me, in effect, that in place of all that hierarchy we now understood (based on Vatican II documents, apparently) that the Church is really a bunch of concentric circles and that the "presider" and his "helpers" should properly be summoned out of the assembly to maintain the integrity of this new image of Church. I had heard that such people existed, but had never before encountered one outside of a chancery. Circles? Really?

Of course, the "circle" model of Church does explain the whole "church-in-the-round" architecture that has been so prevalent in recent years. And if you haven't already read it, Michael S. Rose's book Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again is an excellent read, explaining how the ugly and uninspiring architecture of most twentieth and twenty-first century Catholic churches isn't accidental, but driven by this sort of revisionist theology that sees us all as God's good buddies, joining hands in an endless round of "Here I Am, Lord," both in this life and beyond. One can only be glad that the people responsible for this stuff didn't imagine "Church" as some other geometric shape; ugly as a church-in-the-round can be, I can only imagine what the result might have been if some genius or other had decided that the irregular decagon was the right new way to imagine the Church.

Why are issues like these so contentious for Catholics? Because at their heart they are not about anyone's tastes or preferences; they really are about competing visions that encompass not only architecture and music, but what it means to worship as a Catholic, and, ultimately, what it means to be a Catholic.

Richard Vosko has been one of the foremost Church architects in recent times. A perusal of his web site shows clearly that his understanding of the concepts of worship are quite different from what the Church actually teaches, as may be seen in his philosophy statement. And his philosophy shows in his work: examples like this, of a new church, and like this, of a church "renovation" project, seem to indicate that Vosko sees worship as being all about the gathering of the community; God, and what we owe to Him, is almost an afterthought (if, indeed, anyone is thinking of Him at all).

Compare any of the churches shown on Vosko's site to this, and you may see what a paradigm shift has been taking place. Even if you were to object that it's hardly fair to compare a simple parish church with an ancient Cathedral, it's still true that the pattern of Church architecture has been openly and hurriedly changed in the past sixty or so years, so that between Notre Dame in Paris and Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles there is scarcely any resemblance at all. And just as smaller churches once kept in mind the same architectural principles that governed the building of the huge cathedrals, so today are the principles behind Los Angeles' Cathedral's architecture likely to be the ones governing the construction of your own parish church, whether you like it or not.

There is one thing I give the "wreckovators" of recent years credit for, and it is this: they understood from the beginning how important all of this is, how they would have to smash and destroy the symbols and spaces of the past to make way for their new humanistic vision of what Catholicism ought to be. Though their inadvertent iconoclastic followers may truly be unaware of the agenda behind the work of their superiors, and therefore accuse traditionalists of trying to impose mere matters of taste on the congregation, the people behind this new iconoclasm understood all too well that a lot more than personal preference was involved. They understood that only by shattering the prayers in stone of the former ages could they erect buildings that would capture their own notions; chief among these is the persistent claim that God appears when the assembly does, couched in language that disguises the humanistic pantheism that underlies these statements. Lest anyone doubt that these designers and architects really do worship man, and not God, you have only to look at the temples they've designed, temples in which God is not even visible, and is often relegated to an ugly misshapen box in an even uglier closet, out of the way, so He doesn't jar anyone's sensibilities with His Real Presence.


Alexandra said...

Reality in a nutshell, thanks. :)

Susan said...

You should get out more. I have definitely been to some irregular decagon-shaped churches.

I am so, so lucky in my parish. It's not perfect but it's good enough that I have trouble believing some of the stuff you write. I do believe you--I know you speak from experience. Just be encouraged that there are some good churches out there that are doing pretty well without even really trying. We've just undergone a huge renovation--actually it's still in progress and it is really stunning. We are blessed to have a fairly prominent church architect as a member of our parish. He made an interesting observation to us on Sunday. He's noticed that urban parishes are the easiest to renovate. They were all dirt-poor in the 60s and 70s so even if they changed things it was mostly "redecoration." They couldn't afford anything too major. Since most of the urban churches were built by sensible immigrants in the 19th century, they were beautiful to begin with and can be put back to rights with minimal effort. Our parish mostly just needed a new paint job and some things removed. Lucky for us, they decided to go all out and redo the floor, the pews, the altar (leaving the orientation open!), returning the communion rail, new cofessionals, the works. I'm very blessed.

No real point to all of this, but hope you are encouraged by some signs of life!

Mamselle Duroc said...

Great, great post! I don't think there's anything more I could add to what you just said.

Opal said...

My husband and I were taking a "tour" of the LA Cathedral last night and were shocked and saddened. One good thing they did do, in my opinion, was to make the reconciliation rooms bigger to accomodate those in wheel chairs, but that is about the only thing positive that we saw.
One of the most disturbing pieces of "art" is what is on the front (I guess) of the Cathedral itself. At first glance, one has to wonder, is it a girl or a boy? Is it Mary or Jesus? They broke all tradition IF it is in fact Mary by her outfit, but what should be more disturbing is that you really aren't SURE if it is female or male (the song Take a Walk on the Wild Side comes to mind). Gross.
Then go to what is called a tabernacle that resemembles tubes juting from the floor? Huh? different does not equal dignified.
Then you come to the whole shape of the cathedral...which it doesn't have! It clearly mirrors the state of the church in some areas today...anything goes! I am also reminded of the story "Emporers New Clothes"...someone was definitely taken for a ride!
It does not command majesty, nothing heavenly or religious. And really, I don't need any help returning to "base things".

Right on Red!