Renovating the Catholic Church: An Architect’s Perspective

Painting all the walls white, replacing the pews with chairs, relocating the tabernacles to one closet and piling all the statues in another, ripping out every conceivable object in the sanctuary…and leaving one square table (the altar) and a potted palm on the back wall.

The second kind are the “Salvaging Renovations” where so-called “modern” churches…usually built in the sixties and seventies and easily mistaken for lecture halls or gymnasiums are being transformed into sacred spaces that look more like churches and attempt to implement the liturgical indications following Vatican II. This article will consider the latter and is addressed to those who are considering the renovation of their church. Since this can be a very perplexing adventure, here are a few observations frommy own experience that may prove helpful.

1. The architect and unity of purpose

Since you, the client, will be inundated with advice from every conceivable quarter, the best thing to do is get professional help early. The question is: what kind of professional help? Pastors are constantly being approached by commercial purveyors of church goods who are ready and willing to sell anything. Recently liturgical “specialists,” often with their own agendas, have presented themselves, sometimes very forcibly, as the sole authority for church design to the exclusion of anyone else. Then there are others who have their special interest projects. The best course is to employ the professional whose job historically has been to create churches in the first place, who is able to design and coordinate all the elements into one integrated whole, namely the architect. His job is to give unity of purpose and without unity of purpose, there is no beauty. Find a competent, creative architect who also knows the liturgy and can work with you as a team from beginning to end. The architect`s job is to help you define and analyze all the relevant facts and design problems and to provide a creative, coordinated solution or a “master plan.”

This is not to say that all church goods supplier or decorators or liturgical
specialists or those pushing special projects are unsuitable or unnecessary, but
their contribution should be coordinated with the architectural, artistic and
engineering requirements that should be included in the master plan. While never
forgetting that everything must, in the end, serve the liturgy, such a plan will
avoid fragmentation and a smorgasbord of elements which may look more like a
museum than a church. “The success of a church building project depends
more on the cooperation between client and architect than on any other single
factor.” [1]

2. The necessity of research

It is important that the team do as much research as possible before coming
up with a proposal. It is dangerous to “jump start” the project with quick answers. Since we`re talking about the renovation of existing churches, it is important that there be an appreciation and understanding of the existing architecture. Since all churches differ in their physical configuration, you need a workable set of architectural drawings of the existing church (not always available) plus photo coverage of the main elements. The more technical information you acquire, the better. If no plans of the existing church are available, it is advisable that you have someone measure the church and draw up new ones. This will save a lot of trouble later.

What does the local church require? It`s important that everyone involved be
sounded out as to their ideas, opinions and suggestions. In our egalitarian age
where the pastor is no longer the reigning monarch, everyone should feel free to
put in his “two cents.” Few people like committees or meetings, but they are necessary even if they do take a lot of time. Take notes, listen, ask questions like: Why do you want to renovate the church? What don`t you like about the existing church? What do you like about your church? What changes would you like to see? Etc. From all of this, you will probably learn a lot more than you expect since, after all, there does exist the “sensus fidelium,” and this will also insure that no one feels left out of the initial planning process.

What does the Catholic Church require? The purpose of church architecture is to serve the liturgy. If all aspects of today`s liturgy were standardized, clear and authoritative, then the architecture would be the same. Unfortunately, even before Vatican II, there was great confusion about the purpose and goals of liturgical architecture and this is currently being discussed at great length by liturgists, clergy, philosophers, theologians, historians, architects, artists, writers and editors in conferences, consultations, magazines, movements, newsletters, etc. Quoting Msgr. Francis Mannion, “Considerable theological disagreement attends discussion of the nature and function of art and architecture in Catholic worship.” [2] From an architect`s point of view all of these discussions are interesting if somewhat theoretical and while they are being discussed, they cannot provide answers to all the practical, immediate problems raised by those who are right now either renovating or building churches and who urgently need answers.

Certainly the local Ordinary through his diocesan liturgical office must be consulted from the very first. As Msgr. Richard Schuler has written, “Our bishops are our masters in liturgical renewal. They alone, with the approval of the Holy See, can determine what and how the liturgy is to be celebrated. They have spoken through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which, together with the papal and curial statements since the closing of the council, direct us and we must obey.” [3] The question then becomes, which documents? Unfortunately this is not always easy, primarily because there are so many and secondarily because the document “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” (EACW) has been very controversial since it was issued in 1978. It has been quoted extensively since that time and has been employed as an authority for many church projects. However it has no canonically obligatory force according to Msgr. Fredrick R. McManus, “the [EACW] statement is not, nor does it purport in any way to be, a law or general decree of the conference of bishops.” [4] Furthermore Msgr. Schuler agrees when he writes that, “It has no legal or authoritative character.” [5] As of this writing the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy is preparing a revision of this document which has been termed “inadequate.”

3. The crucial elements of space planning

However, the principles indicated in the other documents can give some helpful suggestions and they generally leave the architect some latitude in regard to “space planning” – that is the relationship between the various elements and their location. (The Appendix gives a partial list of these documents.) The exact location of the sacristy, choir, baptistery and confessionals are not specified since they depend, of course, on the configuration of the existing church. Here are a few quotes:

The church buildings “and requisites for worship, as signs and symbols of heavenly things, should be truly worthy and beautiful.” [6]

The Sanctuary Area: “The sanctuary should be marked off from the nave either by a higher floor level or by distinctive structure and décor. It should be large enough for all the ministers to carry out their functions conveniently.” [7]

The Celebrant`s Chair: “should express his office of presiding over the assembly and of directing prayer. Thus the proper place for the chair is in the center of the sanctuary facing the people, unless the structure or other circumstances are an obstacle….Every appearance of a throne should be
avoided. The seats for the ministers should be located in the sanctuary in
places convenient for their functions.” [8]

The Confessional (or Room of Reconciliation): “The proper place [for confessionals] is a church or an oratory.” [9] “…it is considered desirable that small chapels or rooms of reconciliation be provided in which penitents might choose to confess their sins through informal face-to-face exchange with the priest, with the opportunity for appropriate spiritual counsel. It would also be regarded as desirable that such chapels or rooms be designed to afford the option of the penitent`s kneeling at the fixed confessional grill in the usual way, but in every case the freedom of the penitent is to be respected.”

[10] “In accord with ancient tradition, images of Christ, Mary and the saints are venerated in churches. They should, however, be placed so as not to distract the faithful from the actual celebration. They should not be too numerous, there should not be more than one image of the same saint, and correct order of saints should be observed. In general, the piety of the entire community should be considered in the decoration and arrangement of the church.”

[11] “…ordinarily the lectern or ambo would be a fixed pulpit and not a simple moveable stand. Depending on the structure of the church, it should be so placed that the ministers may be easily seen and heard by the faithful.”

[12] “The baptistery may be situated in a chapel either inside or outside the church or in some other part of the church easily seen by the faithful.” [13] “In the case both of a baptistery that is erected apart from the main body of the church for the celebration of the entire baptismal rite and of a font that is set up within the church itself, everything must be arranged in such a way as to bring out the connection of baptism with the word of God and with the Eucharist, the high point of Christian initiation.”

[14] “Church décor should be noble and simple rather than sumptuous. It should reflect truth and authenticity so as to instruct the faithful and enhance the dignity of the sacred place.”

[15] There are also indications for the treatment of other items like the processional cross, crucifix, candles, choir, organ, nave, foyer and symbols in
general. However, it seems to me that the most crucial elements that challenge
the architect are: the altar, the tabernacle and the reredos.

The Altar: “The main altar should be freestanding so that the ministers can easily walk around it and Mass can be celebrated facing the people. It should be placed in a central position which draws the attention of the whole congregation. The main altar should ordinarily be a fixed, consecrated altar.” “…the table of a fixed altar should be of natural stone, but any solid, becoming, and skillfully constructed material may be used with the approval of the conference of bishops. The support or base of the table may be of any solid, becoming material.”

[16] Certainly the central focus of the church must be altar resting on a raised
“platform” (defining the Sanctuary). All architectural elements should make this very clear. However, when the altar is located in a large, open space, there is the danger that it can get lost spatially and lose its prominence. In this case a baldachino or tester directly above it not only helps to fix its importance in space but also allows for better lighting. Certainly the seating should be so arranged that the congregation has an unobstructed view of the altar.

The Tabernacle: “It is highly recommended that the holy Eucharist be reserved in a chapel suitable for private adoration and prayer. If this is impossible because of the structure of the church or local custom, it should be kept on an altar or other place in the church that is prominent and properly decorated.”

[17] “The Eucharist is to be kept in a solid, unbreakable tabernacle, and ordinarily there should be only one tabernacle in a church.”

[18] The location of the tabernacle continues to be problematic. When the
tabernacle was placed on the altar, things were simpler, architecturally. The
main focus of the church pointed to that one spot. Now that the two have been
separated by pulling the altar away from the back wall and relocating the
tabernacle, there is a confusion about “focus.” Even though the primary focus continues to be the altar, the question arises as to where to locate the tabernacle as the secondary focus. Consequently we have witnessed a variety of solutions which have often depended more on the whim of those in charge than any clear directive. Sometimes it is in a column, sometimes on a side altar, sometimes on a pedestal in weirdly-shaped boxes (many are unrecognizable). Sometimes it remains at the “back” of the church in a closet, sometimes visible but many times hidden from the congregation. This situation has been confusing and disturbing for many Catholics who grew up reverencing Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as Rev. Michael Carey notes in a recent article in this Review.

[19] Of course location IS important. Normally you place your best treasure in the
most conspicuous location in your house, not in a corner or in a column. Therefore the problem can be summed up: IF the tabernacle is not to be placed in the most conspicuous place (assumed to be within some part of the sanctuary) and IF the church is too small to allow for a separate Blessed Sacrament Chapel, then where can it be located in order for it to be “conspicuous” and “prominent” and where it can be properly decorated since all the directives insist on this? Rev. Carey restates the problem when he says that “the tabernacle should be physically so related to the altar that people can pray before both of them at the same time.”

[20] However, this is a difficult problem architecturally, that is, to provide two simultaneous “foci.”

I would propose one solution which has to do with the “axis.” Since most church plans, even “churches-in-the-round,” have a strong axial arrangement. Anything directly on this axis is “prominent.” Anything off that axis is secondary. When the tabernacle is placed to the left or to the right in the Sanctuary, its location IS architecturally secondary. Since it is reasonable that we abide by the laws of symmetry, there is the problem of “balancing” something of equal importance on the other side. And what other element could possibly be of equal importance to the tabernacle? So it seems that the only feasible place is directly behind the altar on the main axis. The tabernacle “table” could even be raised a few steps so that
it can be seen beyond the altar. If, for some people, this location would seem
to provide a “confusion” between the altar and the tabernacle and would force the celebrant to have his back towards the Blessed Sacrament during Mass, then a decorative screen or panels could be temporarily placed in front of the tabernacle during Holy Mass or other liturgical ceremonies at the altar.

The Reredos:Although not “regulated” anywhere to my knowledge, it would seem architecturally desirable that the area directly behind the altar (reredos or retable) which the congregation faces should have some interest and artistic merit. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with having a blank wall behind the altar during Mass, but it is necessary that the architect consider the impact of this prominent, highly visible space outside times of Mass since the beauty and sacred character of the church should be continuous. A beautiful reredos need not be a distraction during Mass. Effective lighting alone can be a powerful help, just as in a theater. By employing strong light on the altar during Mass while lowering the reredos lighting and reversing the process at all other times, one can effectively change the “scene” between the two “foci” mentioned above.

4. Employing the best artists

If any kind of new art is to be commissioned, it should be created by the best available artists and craftsmen since God deserves the best we have excluding anything cheap or shoddy. “The Vatican Council never intended to destroy true art, but rather to foster and preserve it.” [21] As Pope Paul VI has pointed out, “In commissioning artists and choosing works of art that art to become part of a church, the highest artistic standard is to be set in order that art may aid faith and devotion and be true to the reality it is to symbolize and the purpose it is to serve.”

[22] These artists should be on board from the beginning to promote a good working relationship with the team and to insure that a unity and harmony in the design concept be established and maintained. “At all times the Church needs the
service of the arts and allows for popular and regional diversity of aesthetic expression. While preserving the art of former times, the Church also tries to
adapt it to new needs and to promote the art of each age. High artistic standards should be followed when commissioning artists and choosing works of art for the church. These works of art should nourish faith and piety and be in harmony with the meaning and purpose for which they are intended.”

[23] Even “antiques” and salvaged art from demolished churches can be adapted for current projects successfully. The unfortunate fact is that much beautiful work has been, and continues to be, destroyed or re-used for profane purposed in night clubs and bars. For a number of years my colleagues and I have been scouting churches planned for demolition and, if possible, purchasing the art work and storing it for future use. Much of this art is not only priceless but would be impossible to have fabricated today. This effort is reminiscent of the work of the monks in the Dark Ages salvaging the “pagan” classic art that is enjoyed in museums today.

5. The bottom line: the Glory of God

Once the work is started, it is imperative that the team continue to maintain
direction over all aspects of the work to avoid fragmentation, a hodgepodge of
conflicting and confusing elements. Although the team cannot design all of the
elements, still it must give the general direction to the craftsmen and artists
who do. The real challenge in renovation work is to make it look like it`s part
of, or at least a natural development of, the original architecture no matter
what the “style.”

As far as style goes, there is no set Catholic “style.” In the words of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural characteristics and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites.”

[24] Perhaps we over-rate the importance of “styles” since as Nicholas Pevsner has said, “A style in art belongs to the world of the mind, not the world of matter.”
With good design various so-called “styles” can work well together; it depends on how well it is done. The final work should not look like some curious foreign appendage from a catalogue. There should be no elements which are jarring when placed in the original context. Ideally everything should look like it was always there. If this is done, then the project should result in a real work of art which can indeed give God glory. In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved.”

[25]Appendix – A partial list of documents dealing with Church architecture

  • BB Book of Blessings
  • CIGI Christian Initiation, General Introduction
  • CCL Code of Canon Law 1983 (quotes from GIRM and EACW)
  • CSL Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium Vatican Council II, Dec. 4, 1963
  • DCA Rite of Dedication of Church and Altar
  • DCC Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
  • EACW Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, 1978. (USA) [under revision]
  • GIRM General Instruction on the Roman Missal
  • LM Lectionary for Mass
  • TS The Sacramentary of the Roman Missal, 1974
  • UCB US Conference of Bishops 1974

There are many follow-up documents which are too numerous to list here. Several of interest:

  • The Instruction of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship on Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Liturgicae Instaurationes
  • September 5, 1970.
  • “Excellence in Art” by Pope Paul VI: circular letter of April 11, 1971.
  • Instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on Putting into Effect the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Inter Oecumenici) Sept. 26, 1964.
  • Address of Pope Paul VI to the Secret Consistory on the Present State of the Church, June 27, 1977.
  • There is a “summary” by REv. Mark G. Boyer, The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say (The Liturgical Press, St.Johns Abbey, Collegeville, MN).
  • “The Place of Worship” (Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of
  • Churches) by Veritas, Irish Institute of Patoral Liturgy.
  • “Towards a New Era in Liturgical Architecture” by Msgr. M. Francis Mannoin (Keynote Address at the Liturgical Architecture Consultation at Notre Dame
  • University, December 1996).
  • “The State of Art – Architecture Reform” by Msgr. Richard Schuler, Adoremus
  • Bulletin, April 1997.
  • “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW)” by Msgr. Fredrick McManus, the Jurist, vol. 55. (Canon Law Journal of the Catholic University of America).
  • “The State of Art; Architecture Reform”: “The authors … attempted to put into effect their ideas of church construction and renovation…It had no legal or authoritative character, and was not binding as law, having no greater weight than the opinions of those currently members of the advisory body. And yet, the document was printed and circulated and quoted as if it enjoyed equal authority with the statements of the ecumenical council itself. Herein lies the basis for the damage done to American churches, some beyond repair. This text became the guide manual for those who promoted these ideas, and very soon it was taken up by the clergy and many church decorators. In an unbelievably short time it caused more harm to our churches, especially in the Midwest, than the Vandals did in northern Africa and Spain in the fifth century.”
  • GIRM General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 1969, 253.
  • CCL Canon 964. UCB US Conference of Bishops 1974 pp. 681. GIRM 278. 
  • CIGI Christian Initiation, General Introduction, 25.
  • BB Book of Blessings, no. 1083. GIRM no. 279.
  • Ibid. 262, 263.
  • “A Theology of the Sanctuary” by Rev. Michael Cary, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, March 1997.
  • “The State of Art; Architecture Reform”.
  • “Excellence in Art” by Pope Paul VI: circular letter of April 11, 1971. GIRM no. 254.
  • CSL Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Chapter VII, 123.
  • Feast of Faith by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Ignatius Press).