The Spirit of Mediator Dei

It is generally thought by liturgists and theorists of liturgical architecture that little occurred in the area of renewal of church design before the Second Vatican Council. The architectural modernism of the post-Conciliar era has therefore often been thought to represent the Council’s artistic intentions. However, before the Council, church architecture had already undergone significant change in response to the Liturgical Movement and Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947). Statements of popes, architects, and pioneers of the Liturgical Movement point to a liturgical and architectural context, which presents a vastly different approach to architecture than the stark interiors presented by many architects after the Council. Despite the prevailing belief that architectural modernism was the only available option for the modern church, the early twentieth century provides considerable evidence of representational, historically-connected and often beautiful architectural designs responsive to the same principles canonized in the documents of Vatican II.Sacrosanctum Concilium grew directly out of the ideas expressed in the Liturgical Movement and Mediator Dei, and must be read in that context to convey a full understanding of the authentic spirit of Vatican II regarding liturgical architecture.

The Liturgical Movement in America
Architects and liturgists of the early twentieth century proclaimed an almost unrelenting criticism of Victorian ecclesiastical design. It was, they argued, the product of a pioneer mentality in American Catholicism in which poor and under-educated patrons hired uninspired architects and purchased low quality mass-produced liturgical goods from catalogs. In response, architect-authors like Charles Maginnis and Ralph Adams Cram called for more adequate ecclesiastical design and furnishings. At the same time, the Liturgical Movement began to establish its presence in the United States. The movement’s leaders believed that American liturgy had suffered under an individualist pioneer mentality as well, leading to a minimalist liturgical practice and general lack of understanding about the place of the Eucharistic liturgy in the life of the Church. The Liturgical Movement mingled with the pre-existing traditionally-based architectural design methods of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and over the next several decades wrought considerable improvement in ecclesiastical design.

One of the earliest American mouthpieces of the Liturgical Movement was the Benedictine periodical Orate Fratres, a journal of liturgy founded by Benedictine monk Virgil Michel and based on his studies of philosophy and liturgy in Europe in the 1920s. One of the journal’s first articles, entitled “Why a Liturgical Movement?,” was written by Basil Stegmann, O.S.B., who was later to become an active participant in the American liturgical discussions. He explained the need for liturgical reform to an American church still generally unaware of European developments. Stegmann cited Pius X’s 1903 Motu propio which expressed the pope’s “most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish again” and which claimed that “the foremost and indispensable fount is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.” Stegmann called for all members of the Church to become intimately united with Christ and form “what St. Paul calls mystically the body of Christ.” The movement’s new concentration on the baptistery, altar and improved participation naturally lead to changes in church design. Other features of the Liturgical Movement included a “profound spirit of fidelity to the Church,” a patristic revival, a new interest in Gregorian chant, the use of the Liturgy of the Hours for laypeople and the more frequent following of Latin-vernacular missals.

The early proponents of the Liturgical Movement sought to improve liturgical quality by putting the primary features of the liturgical life in their proper place. Previously, the prevailing individualist approach to liturgy meant that worshippers not only failed to follow along with the liturgical action, but often busied themselves with other things, often pious enough, but unrelated to the Eucharistic liturgy. With relatively little interest in making the liturgical action visible to the congregation, altars were sometimes set in deep chancels and attached to elaborate reredoses that overwhelmed their tabernacles. Various devotional altars had their own tabernacles, which quite often doubled as statue bases. Overly large and colorful statues only compounded the problem. With the Blessed Sacrament reserved in multiple tabernacles, the centrality of the Eucharistic liturgy as a unified act of communal worship became less clear. Since clarity of Church teaching on the Eucharist and liturgy were key features of the Liturgical Movement, architecture changed to serve its ends.

Liturgical Principles and Church Architecture
The Liturgical Movement called for clarity in representing the centrality of the Eucharist and the pious participation of the membership of the Mystical Body of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy. At the most basic level, architects of the Liturgical Movement wanted to raise the quality of American liturgical life. By making the liturgical regulations of the Sacred Congregation of Rites more widely known, they hoped to bring about consistent practice in order to increase the reverence for the Mass and other devotions. Their concerns were not merely legalistic, however. Intimately connected with these goals was the desire to increase the active and pious participation of the laity, and architectural changes followed almost immediately to serve that end.

Maurice Lavanoux lamented in a 1929 article in Orate Fratres that American architects and liturgists often failed to veil the tabernacle, ordered low quality church goods from catalogues, and designed reredoses that enveloped the tabernacle and thereby failed to make it suitably prominent.5 Art and historical continuity still had their place, but now the two primary symbols, the altar and crucifix, would dominate. Lavanoux asked that artists treat the altar with proper dignity, not simply view it as a “vehicle for architectural virtuosity.” He quoted M.S. MacMahon’s Liturgical Catechism in describing the new arrangement of the altar according to liturgical principles. Instead of the old Victorian pinnacled altar with its disproportionately small tabernacle, MacMahon wrote,

“the tendency of the modern liturgical movement is to concentrate attention upon the actual altar, to remove the superstructure back from the altar or to dispense with it altogether, so that the altar may stand out from it, with its dominating feature of the Cross, as the place of Sacrifice and the table of the Lord’s Supper, and that, with its tabernacle, it may stand out as the throne upon which Christ reigns as King and from which He dispenses the bounteous largesse of Divine grace.”

The intention to simplify the altar originated in a desire to emphasize the active aspect of Mass and clarify the place of the reserved Eucharist.


Advocates of architectural and liturgical clarity received a new mouthpiece with the premiere of Liturgical Arts magazine in 1931. Its editors wrote that they were “less concerned with the stimulation of sumptuous building than…with the fostering of good taste, of honest craftsmanship [and] of liturgical correctness.” The resistance to mere sumptuous building and the emphasis on honesty were means by which the Liturgical Movement sought to correct the architectural mistakes of the nineteenth century while maintaining a design philosophy appropriate for church architecture. This call for honesty and simplicity was to be extraordinarily influential for two reasons: first, it was echoed strongly in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and second, with a changed meaning it became the leitmotif of Modernist church architects.

Specific architectural changes appeared quickly in new construction and renovations. Altars with tall backdrops were replaced by those with a solid, simple rectangular shape and prominent tabernacles. Edwin Ryan included instructions on the design of the appropriate altar in the inaugural issue of Liturgical Arts. He asked for “liturgical correctness” and included an image of two prototypical altars fulfilling liturgical principles. The rectangular slab of the altar remained dominant, and the tabernacle stood freely. Its rounded shape facilitated the use of the required tabernacle veil. The crucifix remained dominant and read prominently against a plain backdrop. The tester or baldachino emphasized the altar and marked its status. Ryan made it clear that these suggestions were not meant to limit the creativity of the architect and that “within the requirements of liturgical correctness and good taste the fullest liberty is of course permissible.” A built example from the firm of Comes, Perry and McMullen gave the high altar of St. Luke’s Church in St. Paul, MN a figural backdrop. The sculpture group stood behind the altar and not on it, was dominated by the crucifix, and contrasted in color with the large tabernacle. Clarification of the place of the altar and the tabernacle did not necessarily mean a bare sanctuary and absence of ornamental treatment.

Another influential journal, Church Property Administration, provided information on the liturgical movement and its architectural effects. With a circulation of nearly 15,000 in 1951 that included 128 bishops, 11,007 churches and 802 architects, the magazine reached a popular audience but included numerous articles on architecture which evidenced the ideals of the Liturgical Movement. Michael Chapman penned a piece called “Liturgical Movement in America” in 1943 that spoke of liturgical law, tabernacle veils and rubrics, but his underlying thrust grew out of the context of the liturgical movement. The changes at the altar, he claimed, were meant to “direct the attention of our people to the inner significance of the Action performed at it.” The simplification of the altar and sanctuary was intended to help the altar resume “its functional significance as the place of Sacrifice; its very austerity serving to focus the mind and soul upon Him who is there enshrined, rather than on the shrine itself.” Chapman also critiqued nineteenth century architects for reducing tabernacles to mere cupboards and reiterated that liturgical law forbade the nonetheless common practice of putting a statue or monstrance atop a tabernacle.

The common abuse of using tabernacles as stands for statues and altar crucifixes became one of the immediate issues to resolve. This small but significant problem tied directly to the Liturgical Movement’s aim to clarify the place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. Maurice Lavanoux lamented with “a sense of shame” that he had once designed an extra-shallow tabernacle “so that the back could be filled with brick as an adequate support” for a statue. Altar, tabernacle and statues were meant to be brought into a harmonious whole through placement, treatment, and number. The various parts would amplify the true hierarchy of importance without diminishing the rightful place of any individual component of Christian worship or piety. One author in Church Property Administration titled his article “Eliminate Distractions in Church Interiors,” and suggested that all things which “distract attentiveness and reduce the power of concentration” be removed or improved.10 As H.A. Reinhold, one of the pioneers of the liturgical movement, put it, liturgical churches would “put first things first again, second things in the second place and peripheral things on the periphery.”

In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, much discussion continued concerning the appropriate church building and the kind of design it required. The great majority of architects and faithful held to their traditions without fear of appropriate updating. While certain Modernist architects built high profile church projects, such as Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut (1950-54) and Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (1961), most church architects avoided this type of modernism. Even in 1948 when Reinhold suggested the possibility of semicircular naves, priests facing the people, chairs instead of pews, and organs near the altar and not in a loft, he would preserve his more traditional sense of architectural propriety. Before the Council, a middle road of architectural reform emerged, one that shared ideas with the Liturgical Movement and Mediator Dei.

The Spirit of Mediator Dei
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pius XII praised the new focus on liturgy. He traced the renewed interest to several Benedictine monasteries and thought it would greatly benefit the faithful who formed a “compact body with Christ for its head” (§5). However, one of the introductory paragraphs explained that the encyclical would not only educate those resistant to appropriate change, but also address overly exuberant liturgists. Pius wrote:

“We observe with considerable anxiety and some misgiving, that elsewhere certain enthusiasts, over-eager in their search for novelty, are straying beyond the path of sound doctrine and prudence. Not seldom, in fact, they interlaid their plans and hopes for a revival of the sacred liturgy with principles which compromise this holiest of causes in theory or practice, and sometimes even taint it with errors touching Catholic faith and ascetical doctrine” (§8).

Pius was concerned with abuses of liturgical creativity, a blurring of the lines between clerics and lay people regarding the nature of the priesthood, and the use of the vernacular without permission. In matters more closely related to art and architecture, he warned against the return of the primitive table form of the altar, against forbidding images of saints, and against crucifixes which showed no evidence of Christ’s passion (§62). Mediator Dei offered strong recommendations for sacred art as well, allowing “modern art” to “be given free scope” only if it were able to “preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither toward extreme realism nor to excessive ‘symbolism’…”(§195). He deplored and condemned “those works of art, recently introduced by some, which seem to be a distortion and perversion of true art and which at times openly shock Christian taste, modesty and devotion…” (§195). Jesuit Father John La Farge, chaplain of the Liturgical Arts Society, lost no time in taking the words of Pius XII to the readers of Liturgical Arts in 1948, even before the official English-language translation was available.13

By the 1950s, the use of contemporary design methods had begun to merge with the liturgical movement and provided a new set of buildings which have received little notice in the liturgical and art historical journals. With a few notable exceptions, most architects worked within the requests of Mediator Dei while adapting new materials and artistic methodologies to church design. Despite some arguments against a supposed “false” and “dishonest” use of historical styles like Gothic, architects continued to either build overtly traditional churches or use new idioms which maintained a logical continuity with those that came before. Architects like Edward Schulte and others who echoed Pius XII’s call for moderation in liturgical innovation found few allies in the architectural media. Without much fanfare, they simply continued to design church buildings that served the needs of the day.

Schulte, a Cincinnati architect and onetime president of the American Institute of Architects, took an approach to church design that truly grew organically from that which came before. His Blessed Sacrament Church in Sioux City, Iowa appeared in Church Property Administration in 1958 and provided a dignified and substantial answer to the problem presented by the architectural Modernists: how to make a modern church which espoused new ideas in liturgical design.14 The generous openings of the west facade and the single image of “Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament” embodied noble simplicity as expressed by the Liturgical Movement without sacrificing content or resorting to an industrial aesthetic. The interior presented a large sanctuary with a prominent tabernacle, a dominant crucifix, all of it at once appropriately ornamental and without distractions. The limestone piers supported visible truss arches which fulfilled much of the movement’s demand for “honesty” in construction. The adoring angels painted on the ceiling appropriately enriched the church in a style which copied no past age. Schulte satisfied the demand to focus attention on the high altar by placing his one side altar outside the south arcade. Most strikingly, he placed the choir behind the high altar, satisfying the requests of those such as Reinhold and others to restore what many liturgical scholars believed to be an ancient arrangement.

Another novel yet historically continuous approach to the Liturgical Movement produced the Church of the Holy Trinity in Gary, Indiana. Published in 1959, it used a style called “modern classic” but partook of the ideas generated by the Liturgical Movement. Architect J. Ellsworth Potter gave the exterior a campanile, porticoed entrance, and a dignified ecclesiastical air growing from continuity of conventional ecclesiastical typology. The plan proved a departure, however, turning the nave 90 degrees and putting the sanctuary against the long end. This arrangement gave all of the congregation direct sight lines to the sanctuary’s prominent tabernacle and forceful imagery. By providing seating for 432 with only 12 rows of pews, the church brought “the congregation of Holy Trinity closer to the main altar.” Fulfilling the Liturgical Movement’s requests for an increased prominence for Baptism, the baptistery was a substantial chapel-like room. Instead of competing with the high altar, another special shrine was pulled out from the main nave and given its own small chapel. The desires of the Liturgical Movement were incorporated within a church which otherwise maintained a recognizable architectural continuity with older churches. It grew organically from those that came before.

In one other example, an article entitled “Dignified Contemporary Church Architecture” appeared in Church Property Administration in 1956 and presented the Church of St. Therese in Garfield Heights, Ohio. Designed by Robert T. Miller of Cleveland, the building used a palette recalling his early days as a designer of industrial buildings, but nonetheless maintained a sense of Catholic purpose. The very large church seated 1,000 people, using materials of steel, concrete block, and brick. Despite the incorporation of industrial building methods, the architect was content to let the “modern” materials be a means rather than an end. The tall campanile proved visible for miles and the west front of the building offered a grand entry. A well-proportioned Carrara marble statue of St. Therese in a field of blue mosaic with gold crosses and roses was surrounded by an ornamental screen inset with Theresian symbolism. A dramatic three-story faceted glass window with abstracted figural imagery gave the baptistery a grandeur it deserved. The sanctuary received dramatic natural lighting over the high altar and its prominent tabernacle. Images of Joseph and the Virgin form part of the scene, but without altars of their own. The symbolism in the aluminum baldachino joined with the precious materials of the altar to establish its proper status. The altar carried the simple but essential message “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.” Modern materials came together with a decorous arrangement of parts to form a dignified contemporary church.

These churches were built in the spirit of Mediator Dei. They eschewed the claims of some for unusual shapes, banishment of ornament, and the use of exposed industrial materials. Despite the prevailing notion that the post-war United States saw nothing but modernist architecture, in 1954 three “traditional” churches were being built for every one “modern” church. Ironically, Modernist architect-heroes disproportionately found their way into the secular press, impressed other architects and persuaded building committees. No matter how clearly the traditional architects adopted features of the Liturgical Movement, they could not compete with the excitement of the stylistic avant-garde. The Modernist critique of traditional architecture reached all levels, from educational institutions to popular culture to chancery offices.

While leading architectural journals praised the latest concrete designs, William Busch, a liturgical pioneer and collaborator with Virgil Michel in the Liturgical Movement, asked readers to understand the true nature of a church building. In 1955, he penned an article entitled “Secularism in Church Architecture,” discussing the term “contemporary” and its associations with modern secular buildings. Secularism in church architecture, he feared, would lead to buildings which would “lack the architectural expression which is proper to a church as a House of God and a place of divine worship.”18 Furthermore, he denied claims of some architectural modernists by writing:

“A church edifice is not simply a place for the convenient exercise of prayer and instruction and for the enactment of the liturgy. The church edifice itself is a part of the liturgy, a sacred thing, made holy by a divine presence through solemn consecration: it is a sacramental object, an outward sign of invisible spiritual reality.”

The concept of the church building as a “skin” for liturgical action, as would be presented later in documents like Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (BCL, 1978), was absolutely proscribed. In fact, Busch criticized architect Pietro Belluschi, who would become one of the major forces in American church architecture, for seeing a church as “a meeting house for people.” He asked instead:

“Where is the thought of church architecture as addressed to God? And where is the thought of God’s address to man in hallowing grace? Are we to imagine modern society as in an attitude of more or less agnostic and emotional subjectivism, and unconcerned about objective truth and the data of divine revelation?”

H.A. Reinhold, a prominent voice of the Liturgical Movement, also urged moderation. He asked that architects neither “canonize nor condemn any of the historic styles,” rather, “appreciate all of these styles of architecture, each for its own value.” Although he spoke of “full participation of the congregation” he cautioned against centralized altars.

Other writers and architects had different ideas, and many church architects who ignored Mediator Dei often received considerable notoriety. Articles in Liturgical Arts became more and more clearly aligned with a “progressive” notion of liturgical reform at the same time that architectural modernism under architects like Le Corbusier and Pietro Belluschi were taking hold. Even before the arrival of the Second Vatican Council, Liturgical Arts was discussing abstract art for churches, presenting images of blank sanctuaries, and encouraging Mass facing the people. Modernist architects and liturgists who privileged what Pius XII called “exterior” participation in reaction to the individualism of the previous decades held the majority opinions and established the normative principles of new church architecture.

The language of the Liturgical Movement found its way into the documents of Vatican II and remains relatively unchanged despite the variety of architectural responses that claim to grow from it. Phrases such as “noble simplicity” and “active participation” were formative concepts in pre-Conciliar design which nonetheless allowed for a traditional architecture, one suitably elaborate yet clear in its aims. In contrast to the conceptions of post-Conciliar architecture promoted by architectural innovators, the 1940s and 1950s provide contextual clues for the architecture of the Liturgical Movement. It is reasonable to ask whether the writers of Sacrosanctum Concilium had the larger history of the liturgical movement in mind when they called for “noble beauty rather than mere extravagance” (SC, §124).

Similarly, in understanding Vatican II’s statement giving “art of our own days…free scope in the Church” (SC, §123), it can be remembered that Pius XI (reigned 1922-39) had chastised certain modern artists for deviating from appropriate art even as he argued that the Church had “always opened to door to progress…guided by genius and faith.” Moreover, the very words of Pius XII’s Mediator Dei which read “modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church” found their way into Sacrosanctum Concilium. The proper context for this “free scope” comes in relation to Pius’ other exhortations from Mediator Dei: preservation of images of saints and the representation of the wounds of Christ on the crucifix (§62), the priority given to interior elements of divine worship (§24), the encouragement of extraliturgical devotions (§29-32), the warning against seeing ancient liturgical norms as more worthy than those developed subsequently (§61) and the prohibition of the table form of the altar (§62). Mediator Dei appeared only 12 years before plans for the Council were announced, yet almost immediately after the Council, architects and liturgists were defying its requests. Even Paul VI critiqued artists for abandoning the Church, and for “expressing certain things that offend us who have been entrusted with the guardianship of the human race.” While he asked artists to be “sincere and daring,” he also said to them:

“One does not know what you are saying. Frequently you yourselves do not know, and the language of Babel, of confusion, is the result. Then where is art?”

Paul VI asked of artists the same thing that the Liturgical Movement asked of architects: clarity and lack of confusion. In spite of great efforts to the contrary, architectural and liturgical disorientation has characterized the period since the Council, and many search for ways to reestablish that clarity. Understanding the “spirit of Mediator Dei” and its resultant architecture may prove very useful.

That the artistic recommendations of Vatican II grew so directly out of the context of the Liturgical Movement and the recommendations of Mediator Dei gives credence to the idea that some of what came before Vatican II might provide insight into understanding what the Council fathers intended. The liturgical architecture of the decades before the Council need not be ignored or seen as outdated relics of a past age. In fact, forty-five years later, pre-Conciliar church architecture inspired by the Liturgical Movement might yield significant clues for proper implementation of the renewal.

Denis R. McNamara is Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.