Michael Desanctis—Are new church designs taking us backward?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

...the design of St. John situates musicians in an old-fashioned choir loft at the rear of the nave, as opposed to a site more integrated with the assembly seating. The design makes no provision for the baptism of adults by immersion.

It also breaks with the widespread practice of placing the tabernacle somewhere other than at the heart of the sanctuary, the rules for which are clearly outlined in “Built of Living Stones” (2000), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ directive on church architecture. In St. John Neumann Church, the reserved Blessed Sacrament is afforded optimum visibility behind the altar, where it is doubly tented beneath the domes of a metal tabernacle and marble ciborium.

Whether buildings like these are compromises, aberrations or the first fruits of a full-blown “movement” in American Catholic church design is still uncertain. Yet church architecture always raises the question, What is a church? Is it a temple in which God lives? A tent within which a pilgrim people assembles? Or many other things? And what does a post-Vatican II Catholic church look like if the answer is “both” or a variant of “all of the above”?

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish Ministry* Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman Catholic

9 Comments
Posted May 21, 2012 at 11:26 am

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The URL for this article is http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/42986/



1. Katherine wrote:

Placing the reserved sacrament in the main church is bad?  I know many Catholic churches have moved it to side chapels.

May 21, 3:26 pm | [comment link]
2. Already Gone wrote:

The sentence in the article is somewhat misleading.  According to the USCCB the location is up to the Bishop, but should not be on the altar itself.

§ 72 ...The Code of Canon Law directs that the Eucharist be reserved “in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer.”

§ 74 There is a number of possible spaces suitable for eucharistic reservation. The revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that it is more appropriate that the tabernacle in which the “Blessed Sacrament is reserved not be on the altar on which Mass is celebrated.“98 The bishop is to determine where the tabernacle will be placed and to give further direction. The bishop may decide that the tabernacle be placed in the sanctuary apart from the altar of celebration or in a separate chapel suitable for adoration and for the private prayer of the faithful.

My diocese, the Diocese of Arlington (Northern Virginia), has buildt about a half a dozen new churches in the past ten years, all of which have followed the traditional principles outlined in this article.  Unfortunately, my parish church is one of the inner suburb ones from the 1960’s that followed the more “experimental” model.  It’s constructed as a half-round, windowless sanctuary (it won an award back in the day for the best example of “Vatican II” architecture), but at least the tabernacle is behind the altar (opposite a space where a Bible was once displayed, presumably to symbolize the Word and Sacrement, but which now contains a statute of Mary).

May 21, 4:02 pm | [comment link]
3. Laura R. wrote:

I was received into the Catholic Church just over two years ago and did not realize that the Bishops had published a directive that the tabernacle should not be placed on the altar.  I had a choice between two large Catholic parishes near where I live; one has a fairly recent church building with the tabernacle in a side chapel, and the other, the cathedral parish, dates from the late 1930’s and has the tabernacle on what I assume is the old altar, directly facing you from the center aisle; there is a chapel for perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament close by.  I’m now a member of the cathedral parish, and find the design of the other church to be strange and rather lopsided; not to have the Blessed Sacrament at the center of everything seems to send entirely the wrong message.  Furthermore, there is a practical function to having the tabernacle at center of the sanctuary:  the priests have easier access to it when Holy Communion is to be distributed.

May 21, 6:02 pm | [comment link]
4. Katherine wrote:

#2, do you know why the General Instruction specifies that the tabernacle is not to be on the altar?  Is this because it would be in the way where the priest faces the people behind the table?  As Laura R indicates, and my experience indicates, when the priest faced liturgical east the tabernacle was normally on the altar.

May 21, 8:29 pm | [comment link]
5. David Keller wrote:

The entire Earth is going to hell in a hand basket and were arguing about where to put the reserved sacrament? I can’t even think of a snappy retort.

May 21, 8:37 pm | [comment link]
6. Katherine wrote:

We’re not arguing about it.  The article is about Catholic parishes returning to more traditional church designs, something I think is good but the writer of the article thinks is “backward.”  I’ve been in a few “modern” Catholic churches that might as well be barns, and in a few traditional, older ones where the tabernacle and presence light have been moved out of sight in a side chapel.

May 21, 8:43 pm | [comment link]
7. C. Wingate wrote:

OK, so did Desanctis even notice who St. John Neumann hired?!? What did he expect from the firm that has been the locus classicus of Anglo-Catholic church design for well over a century? He should consider it fortunate that they did build a tripartite Gothic pile with a big rood screen!

May 21, 11:43 pm | [comment link]
8. Valais wrote:

Technically, it was always inappropriate to place the tabernacle on the altartable (mensa) itself, but on the reredos or gradines attached to the consecrated tabletop (mensa). The GIRM, in forbidding the tabernacle from being placed on the consecrated altar (the mensa itself) restated traditional norms. It was the free-standing altar, with no reredos or gradines, which prevented the tabernacle from being placed “on the altar”.

May 22, 1:29 am | [comment link]
9. Katherine wrote:

Thanks, Valais.  That’s clear.  The photo in the linked article of the more traditional new Catholic church interior is beautiful.  It says something that the liberal writer thought this was “taking us backward.”

May 22, 11:22 am | [comment link]


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