Catholic Identity, the Building, the Reactions

It has become evident recently that a plethora of opinions and reactions to liturgical renewal exist, especially as it applies to sacred space. This fact is reflective of the concern of many Catholics, and it needs to be seriously addressed. Today, an ever-greater number of Catholic laity are well-educated professionals who expect that an approach to renewal will reflect a more collaborative method of decision-making. A model for renewal that does not include listening to their concerns will often meet with rejection. I suggest that proposals for renewal need to be tested in the light of the experience of Catholics as well as by the teaching of the Church. If so, renewal will become acceptable to such individuals, rather than becoming a challenge to their identity. Their history and their culture would thus be respected and upheld as valuable.

An understanding of the anthropological process of critical self-reflection becomes an important element here. Critical self-reflection demands that an observer rethink categories and reorient perspectives that involve the effects of the liturgical renewal.

It is interesting to note that when the Center for Pastoral Liturgy at Notre Dame celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 1995, even liturgists felt that the first among significant losses in the last 25 years of renewal was “Catholic identity.”

The question may arise whether traditional symbols found in our church buildings may be changed. My respondents have seemed to accept many of their symbols as having eternal value that rise from a community history. They often report that any new symbols proposed must respect the older symbols.

My research has encouraged many responses from Catholics. In the light of reflection upon this experience of comments and concerns, I offer recommendations that may enhance successful implementation of renewal or refurbishing processes. One may wish to reflect upon the following: What is the Catholic identity of this group of people? On what do they focus upon entering their church building? Do they look for symbols that express “Catholicism” for them? A strong Eucharistic presence and Eucharistic sensibility may be noted. This concept is not unanimously accepted as primary, yet it is nonetheless a critical element of Catholic identity. Ideas for construction or renovation seem to be appreciated by these individuals when they have been applied with consideration for their local parishes, rather than being applied as universal concepts. (For example, a baptismal pool may not be appropriate to every parish, and indeed may be offensive to some parishioners. This sensibility could change in the future.)

Does the proposed renovation exhibit a respect for the history and experience of this group of people? It would be difficult to respond to this if an architect or artist were not willing or able to spend time in a community and begin to know these people in many contexts. Their history can be celebrated in many ways that can bring about feelings of trust rather than suspicion.

What is the history of the parishioners’ relationship with leadership in the parish? What models have been used? If the community has had a negative relationship with its leadership, there may be a hesitancy to express trust in new proposals. Healing can occur if the leadership is willing to listen without an agenda of proposed changes.

How does a proposal for change effect the concept of the church seen as “the house of God” apart from its use as “the house of worship?” This is a key distinction. The building is their sacred building, home to sacred things, and not just an edifice for sacred events and ceremonies, and especially not just Sunday Mass.

Responses I have received indicate a sensibility that proposals received by parishioners come from a different energy, one that talks about “worship space.” Reference to “focus” in a church building is not clearly definable, but is certainly related to the sense of sacred. My respondents referred to this need for the familiar and comfortable, as they sensed an absence of these elements in the outside world. Their “sense of peace” had been attacked. Their understanding of focus may be, in some cases, in conflict with renovation proposals. Church buildings vary as to focus. Foci have shifted several times over the last thirty years.

Has the process of listening to Catholics been blocked by the goals, vocabulary, and influences of liturgical reform? Renewal has been proposed with great enthusiasm, yet frustratingly blocked during the process of implementation. Have proposals addressed the experiences and considerations of their congregations? To ask this question is not to minimize the proposals, but rather to suggest a process that may successfully implement suggestions that minister to the congregations who will experience a renovation. Have liturgical artists, architects and leadership been led to a rethinking of pre-established categories and perspectives throughout the process of renewal? This may be evident in the development of flexibility and the use of the collaborative model of decision-making.

Communication was a high priority concern in the experience of my respondents. That concern may need to be addressed in a renovation process. The simple, yet often neglected, art of listening may prove to be the most important component of a renewal or renovation project.

This form of anthropological methodology can be successful inasmuch as it brings forward the voices of parishioners, relating what is sacred for them, how that sense of sacred applies to their church building, and what factors establish Catholic identity in their minds. If one can propose that such liturgical processes are indeed a “ministry,” then I would also propose that this ministry must be carried out with such knowledge, with sensitivity to feelings and as a response to needs.

Results of my research indicated the “things” that respondents felt make a church “Catholic.” Although my sampling was not from the entire Catholic population, nevertheless, from my experience in North America, I believe it to be true in a general sense. Let the reader investigate and find similar results:

From their experience in churches, many Catholics feel the following items express their Catholicity, and they desire to see them present and visible in their church space in the following order:

First Place: The Tabernacle (39%)
Second Place: The Crucifix (26%)
Third Place: The Altar (13%)
Fourth Place: The Baptismal Font (7%)
Fifth Place: The Stations of the Cross (7%)

Kneelers, statues, stained glass, holy water, confessionals were also of note, but to a lesser extent than the overpowering “top two” categories. Since I have done this research, I have never entered a church without thinking of these first two priorities found in the minds of most Catholics I know.

As the millennium is upon the Church, it is interesting that a strong, building, and emerging group of Catholics are policing what is happening in their buildings. With all the energy of the news reporter in the movie “Network,” they are loudly saying that they are “mad, and they are not going to take it any more!” This anger has been deeply felt in the liturgical community, who with the kindest of hearts, but sometimes with the strongest reaction, propose liturgical and architectural reform. Most distressing to them, and I count myself among them, is the recent questioning of past proposals and liturgical documents by the American bishops. This has also expressed itself in Rome’s response to concerns over translations proposed by ICEL, (The International Commission for English in the Liturgy). There seems to be a great loss of confidence here. Much of this response has been a bottom up movement, initiated by Catholics who have addressed concerns to their bishops. We are only now reflecting on what this is saying and how we should move forward. One such document that may be thought out of touch with the sensibility of such Catholics has proposed, and sometimes demanded locally, that the Tabernacle be moved to a separate chapel away from the body of the church. Whether this directive is adhered to in the future will not only effect the sensibility of Catholics in general, but also the future plans and proposals of artists and architects.

Lest many Catholics become, what I have phrased: “voices crying in the wilderness,” I would hope and propose that the future would bring an openness to dialogue that comes from those who see sacred environmental change as a process that looks at the self and at others. I dare to suggest that answers to this current dilemma, and the research that needs to be done by liturgical reformers and church architects, for that matter, may be found with the assistance of some of the methodology of cultural anthropology.

Rev. William J. Turner is a presbyter and pastor in the Diocese of Lansing, MI. He continues post doctoral research in the field of cultural anthropology, Catholic identity, and ritual.