Bearers of the Heavenly Jerusalem: Vatican II and Development in Church Architecture

by Denis McNamara, appearing in Volume 15

When I give presentations in parishes or teach in the classroom, I am often asked many intelligent questions by students, building committee members, architects, pastors, and parishioners. These questions have given me great insight into the needs and desires of the People of God. The questions that follow are among those most frequently asked, and shorter summary answers are provided here for the reader’s convenience.

Didn’t the Second Vatican Council do away with traditional, beautiful churches? What about “noble simplicity”?

The documents of the Second Vatican Council relating to art and architecture are in complete continuity with the Church’s great tradition, even as they set certain guidelines for the liturgical renewal. The document on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, asked that sacred art be composed of “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” that were meant to be expressive of “God’s boundless beauty” (SC, 122). It also asked that all sacred arts be “in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws” (SC, 122). It is interesting to note that the Council never used the phrase “noble simplicity” to refer to liturgical art and architecture. It actually asked that churches strive for “noble beauty” (SC, 124). The term “noble simplicity” was mentioned in the Council’s documents in relation to the rites (SC, 34). So, beauty is in fact the goal of new church architecture, according to the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Is it possible to build traditional churches today? Can we afford it? Does the architectural and artistic talent exist?

Since the advent of postmodernism in the 1960s, the architecture world has been reexamining the place of traditional forms for new work. A large and flourishing movement generally known as New Classicism has been operating successfully for more than two decades. In recent years, designs for new traditional Catholic churches have been appearing with greater frequency. The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, WI, the university chapel at Thomas Aquinas College, CA, and the monastery of the Benedictines in Clear Creek, OK, have proven that traditional architecture is possible today. Scores of other projects are doing the same. The process of reaching backward to seek out high style, “star architect” modernism (despite its use at the cathedrals in Los Angeles and Oakland) has emerged as a strikingly outdated mode of building new churches.

Traditional architecture need not be more expensive than other quality ways of building. Cutting-edge modernism is often extraordinarily expensive because of its demands for custom materials. Traditional architecture can be elevated with more elaborate designs and richer materials, or it can be reduced with simpler designs and materials, which nonetheless partake of legitimate traditional design.

The most important consideration in building a traditional church is to hire an architect who specializes in traditional work. Many architects will promise something “traditional” to a church client by adding a few pointed windows or extra moldings to an otherwise modernist design. This sort of design should be completely rejected or else the result will be the “strip mall classical” or “Disneyland Gothic.”

Dedicated in 2009, St. Michael the Archangel Church in Leawood, Kansas, exemplifies the use of traditional designs in new churches and of signs and symbols of heavenly realities. Photo: Author

Isn’t using traditional styles for architecture just copying the past? Isn’t there room for new development in church architecture?

There is always room for development in Catholic architecture, just as there is always room for development of doctrine as we come to understand better the revelation of Christ. But simply absorbing current trends in theology is not an answer; they must always be tested against the inherited teaching of the Church. The same is true in architecture. The Church welcomes new technology and styles of the current day, provided that they bring due honor and reverence to the rites (SC, 123). Using “new” artistic and architectural conventions simply because they are new does not always engage a proper level of theological inquiry. Similarly, using old forms just to be antiquarian is not adequate either. New traditional architecture should never be an exact copy of an old building. The past serves as a treasury from which to draw, and we should not be afraid either to depart from it where necessary or use it quite faithfully when appropriate.

Since the people are the “living stones” of the Church, why would we need anything other than a simple meeting hall for Mass?

The people are indeed the living stones of the earthly Church. However, the documents of the Second Vatican Council remind us that the Sacred Liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ, head and members (SC, 7), where we “ take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army” (SC, 8). The job of liturgical art and architecture is to make a building that not only serves the needs of the earthly congregation, but also allows them, through the use of sacred images, to “see” the full community of the liturgy: angels, saints, the Trinity, and even the souls in purgatory. The building itself is a sacrament of the city of heaven, described in scripture as orderly, perfected, radiant, gem-covered, and golden. A church building, therefore, aids in our full, conscious, and active participation by showing us by way of foretaste the very realities in which we are participating. The church building not only shows us our earthly reality, but allows us to glimpse the realities of our destiny at the end of time when God has completely restored the world.

This mural designed and executed by Felix Lieftuchter in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, West Virginia, shows a foretaste of the glory of heaven and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Photo: Author

The upper room of the Last Supper was a simple place for the Passover meal. Jesus never wore fancy vestments or drank from gold cups. Why should we do this in the liturgy? Shouldn’t we give money to the poor instead?

Because the Sacred Liturgy is in one sense a memorial of the Last Supper, many people often think that the liturgy is supposed to imitate the earthly lifetime of Christ. However, it should be remembered that at the Incarnation, Christ veiled his divinity and power with only a few exceptions, such as his miracles and the Transfiguration. The Catholic liturgy is not primarily a recall of the earthly Christ, but a foretaste of the heavenly Christ of the Second Coming. The fourth-century bishop Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote of Christ: “At the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At the second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross; ... in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels. We look then beyond the first coming and await the second.” The earthly liturgy recalls the shadows of the Last Supper and Passover, but more importantly, it serves as an image of the realities of the heavenly Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The earthly chalice is not only a recall of the cup of the Last Supper, but of the glorious, golden, radiant feast of heaven. Similarly, the church building should show us the order and perfection of heaven.

Building beautiful buildings should never be a substitute for feeding the poor and nursing the sick, but it is not an “either/or” question. The poor and the sick are also expected to participate in the liturgy, and they deserve access to the foretaste of heavenly reality as much as anyone. Moreover, the poor are the least likely to have beautiful homes and personal artwork. A beautiful church gives them a refuge of beauty, which they need more urgently than do the wealthy. Serving the poor means serving their human need for liturgical beauty as well as food and shelter.

Didn’t the early Christians worship in simple private homes? Why, then, should we build elaborate public buildings?

Though scriptural evidence speaks of the earliest Christians “breaking bread” in their homes, it also speaks of them returning frequently to the temple for prayer. A number of the important discourses and cures in the Acts of the Apostles happen within the temple courts. Because Herod was a client-king of the Roman Empire, the temple was a grand, high-style architectural ensemble of the type common in imperial Rome. Christ and the apostles walked on the temple mount amid Corinthian columns, classical moldings, and a large basilican hall called the Royal Stoa, which contained wood carvings and looked almost indistinguishable from early churches in fourth-century Rome. Christianity was not only born into Israel, but also into the Roman Empire, well before the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the religion of the empire.

But even if Christianity had been born in a cultural vacuum, it would still need to develop an art and architecture that could serve as sacramental bearers of the heavenly Jerusalem. So to revert to building churches as “houses” today is to embrace a false antiquarianism that says “older is always better.” The church building is not primarily a house, but rather a ritually public and sacramental building where the many gather to anticipate the glory and perfection of heaven.

This reconstruction of the Temple Mount shows how classical architecture was part of the designs of the religious structures used in the earliest days of the Church. Photo: Author

What are the ideas we should consider when thinking about the design of the altar?

In recent decades, the altar in a Catholic church has usually been described as a “table of the community.” In one sense, this is true. A Catholic altar is indeed the table around which the earthly congregation gathers to worship God. But the altar is also a sacrament, a visible sign of otherwise invisible realities. And the prime reality is this: the altar is the glorified table of our future heavenly banquet as well as a symbol of Christ himself.

The book of Revelation tells us that the future holds for us an eternal celebration with God and the heavenly beings when the “rescue mission” of God is complete. God will be “all in all” and his divine presence will completely restore everything. The results of the Fall—death, sorrow, suffering, sin—will be overcome and God will be fully reunited to his creation once again; the two will become one. For this reason, the heavenly celebration is called the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb.” Christ, the Bridegroom, has become one with the Church, his Bride. The heavenly celebration that ensues is not completely unlike the wedding receptions we have on earth, where festivity reigns and we share a banquet eaten on a beautifully decorated table, dressed with linens, candles, and flowers. But the altar signifies a feast of eternal, cosmic, and heavenly importance: Christ’s mission to re-join God and creation is complete! So our worship is a celebration, a doing on earth what is done in heaven. The sacred meal of the liturgy, then, happens on a “table” in a church building, which indicates eternal importance, permanence, radiance, and perfection. We become accustomed to heaven by doing the things of heaven, even while still on earth.

However, the celebration of Mass is also a sacrificial feast. It therefore requires not only a table, but also an altar as a place of offering. The feast is hosted by Christ whose body is simultaneously the “place” of offering (the altar), the offerer (the priest), and that which is offered (the victim). Christ then is the truest altar. Our earthly altar conversely signifies Christ and gives us the old expression “the altar is Christ,” which is why the priest kisses it as he enters the church. To kiss the altar is to kiss Christ.
As a sacramental sign of Christ, the altar is treated in a way that makes its “Christ-ness” most evident. It is made of stone and is affixed to the floor, signifying the permanence and eternity of the Son of God. It is marked with five small engraved crosses indicating the five wounds of his body. When the altar is dedicated by the bishop, it will again be treated as a body: sprinkled with holy water like a Baptism and rubbed with sacred oils in an anointing, which indicates Christ as “the Anointed One of God.” It is then “dressed” in white linen altar cloths, signifying the white robes of heavenly beings, while at the same time showing that the “table” is prepared for the greatest feast ever celebrated. From this table is served God himself in the Eucharist.

The altar at St. Michael the Archangel, before it is dedicated, awaits the reception of relics. As a symbol of Christ, the altar is built with materials that signify the permanence, perfection, and sacrifice of the Son of God. Photo: Author

What issues should we consider when designing our ambo?

The origins of the ambo trace back to the early Church where it was set apart and reserved for the public proclamation of the scriptures and the subsequent preaching on those readings. An ambo, then, is more than a lectern or pulpit; it is something of a “sanctuary” for the word of God. As such, it is not only functional, but also a sign to those who see it that something important happens within it. Although it dropped out of use in the course of the Church’s history to be replaced primarily by a preaching pulpit in the years before the Second Vatican Council, the proper ambo was revived and the term came back into use. To say “ambo” is to use the very language of active participation in the public proclamation of scripture that the Second Vatican Council desired.

At the ambo we are spiritually nourished with the revealed word of God, just as at the altar we are nourished par excellence with the Body and Blood of Christ. For that reason, an ambo should exhibit a clear relationship in design and materials with the altar itself.

What should we consider when planning our baptistry?

In the early centuries of the Church, baptistries were often buildings separate from the main body of a church. Those who were not yet baptized were not yet considered “citizens” of the Church, and as such received their Baptisms outside the church, then processed into the church building in triumph. Many such baptistries exist to this day in the great churches of the world. As centuries passed, Baptism was often reduced to a sprinkling of water on the head of a child, and fonts began to shrink and lose their architectural significance. In the twentieth century, Baptism was understood anew as a sacrament of birth, death, and ritual washing. The fullness of the sign was seen as better expressed in immersing (immersion) the catechumen in water rather than a mere sprinkling (infusion), and the notion of larger fonts in which adults could walk became popular. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, a greater emphasis was placed on Baptism as an entry into the ecclesial community, and so baptistries became more prominent and were often located within the body of the church, sometimes at the rear of the church’s central aisle. While this made baptistries more visible, it made it awkward for funeral and bridal processions. Because many pastors wanted their baptistries to be visible at the Easter Vigil, fonts were then often located in the front of the church.

There is no one “correct” place to put a baptistry in a church, but the placement should adhere to several principles. First, the location of the baptistry should suggest “entering” the church as one receives this sacrament of Initiation. The recent trend of putting baptistries in the sanctuary behind or next to the altar should by all means be avoided; Baptism signifies the entry into the church, not the final destination. Second, since Baptisms in large parishes usually involve many family members and multiple children, giving adequate seating and good sight lines to the baptistry is important, though not essential. Third, since Baptism is a preparation for fulfillment in the Eucharist, some connection with the altar is desirable, either in sight lines or materials.

The baptistry is a place of important sacramental activity, so its materials and design should announce that fact. The fiberglass tub baptistries seen in recent years should absolutely be rejected. The octagonal shape of the baptistry connects to a longstanding tradition of symbolizing the “eighth day,” the day after God’s seventh day of creation, signifying the eternal rest of the glorified paradise of heaven. Since Baptism provides the entry point to that paradise, the architecture itself should give a foretaste of that glory. But the glory of Baptism arises out of the symbolism of the baptistry as “womb and tomb.” The centralized plan of the baptistry harkens back to the ancient form of tombs, which were often round buildings based on the shape of burial mounds. Baptism provides the entry to new life, but only as a “death” to the old self, where one descends down several steps, as if descending into burial. After the ritual cleansing with baptismal water, the newly baptized person then rises up the steps on the other side, indicating a rebirth as a new creation, out of the tomb, which is simultaneously like coming forth from a mother’s womb, “born again,” in the proper sense of the term.

The architecture of Cincinnati's Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, renovated by Edward Schulte in the 1950s, reveals the presence of the heavenly beings in the liturgy. Photo: Author

Why did we build so many ugly churches after the Second Vatican Council? Why did we take out the marble high altars from older churches and paint over the murals?

In the early and mid twentieth century, the culture still had a great trust in modernity and its notions of progress. The Church, too, desired to prove that the Faith could find expression in our own day as it had in other times and was particularly eager to be a leaven for the world after the Great Depression, two world wars, the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weapons. While the Church sought to be an antidote to the destruction of the early twentieth century, many strains of the art world moved toward a nihilistic or mechanistic understanding of technology as the answer to modern problems. In the elite circles of architectural philosophy and practice, the machine and the factory (and their materials of glass, steel and concrete) became the model for new buildings. Though this mechanistic understanding of buildings was often foreign to sacramental theology, building a church that embraced the modern world was often seen as a good by individual pastors and bishops. Only later did people start to see that some of the principles of modernism needed to be rethought for ecclesiastical use. We are now living in that postmodern time when many churches are re-engaging with beauty and tradition once again.

Interestingly, after the Second Vatican Council, a strain of theology emerged in the Church, which redefined churches as “meetinghouses” and found its inspiration in the so-called house churches of the time of the apostles. Although this sort of uncritical antiquarianism had been widely condemned by Church authorities over the centuries, including Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, many Catholic theologians nonetheless argued that a church building had no import other than as a place of comfortable hospitality, a “skin for liturgical action,” which “need not look like anything else past or present.”

Though highly influential in the late 1970s through the 1990s (and even today in some circles), this is no longer the prevailing notion of church architecture. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically states that churches “are not simply gathering places, but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC, 1181). In other words, a church is an image that shows the realities of the heavenly future when God’s reconciliation with humanity is complete.

In the late 1960s and forward, then, many people who accepted this redefinition of the church as a meetinghouse for the community’s sacred meal then saw old altars, altarpieces, statues, and murals as relics of the “old” way of understanding the Church. In order to best express the new notion of a church as meeting house, they removed and destroyed many precious artifacts. Under Pope Benedict, the Church has come to understand better the Second Vatican Council as a call for reform within a hermeneutic of continuity rather than rupture, and people are learning to see the value of many traditional forms in the Church once again. However, it should be noted that an uncritical look at the past should be discouraged. There were in fact many reforms that were needed before the Council, and careful theological examination is required in “restoring” old forms in order to avoid simply repeating preconciliar excesses.