Conjoining Rood and Road

On the Automobile and the Place of Worship

by Michael E. DeSanctis, appearing in Volume 22

There’s a scene that unfolds at weekend liturgies in the place where I worship with stunning predictability. At a point somewhere in the midst of the Communion Rite worshipers begin migrating toward the exit doors, lured, one assumes, by the promise of more exciting Sabbath hours spent elsewhere. Imperceptible, at first, the trickle from the Mass of a person or two steadily builds to a great flood of defectors that leaves whole sections of the church looking as if they’d never been occupied at all. The effects of this on the parish’s ritual life are dramatic, as our celebrations never really end as much as disintegrate at the edges in a way that reduces any recessional hymn-singing to the most anemic sort of “exit music.” 

The picture I describe is in no way new, nor is it unique to my parish. Sadly, a half-century after having been invited by Vatican II to become full shareholders in the Church’s rites—a role, one assumes, that necessitates them seeing every liturgical celebration through to its proper conclusion—many lay Catholics in the United States exhibit a public piety that is haft-hearted. More restless than ever, the products of a national culture besieged by stimuli and ever in motion, they regard the rites of their own church as too slow-paced to be engaging. Should they comply, say, with requests from the pulpit to silence their cell phones at the outset of the Mass, they still face the challenge of quieting themselves—difficult for people unaccustomed to silence. It is precisely while worshiping, in fact, that Roman Catholics in this country act least Roman. Romanità, the native manner of the Eternal City that makes its dining tables no less than its altars the sites of unhurried elegance, doesn’t transfer well to the parish communities of Middle America, where liturgy is less often savored for its beauty than “gotten through” with greatest expedience.

Figure 1: Creeping Asphalt: Timeline comparison of four parish campuses in the same city and their accommodation of automobiles. Photo: GoogleMaps

Driving to Mass: Catholics, Automobiles, and the Dematerialization of the World

Among those rightly troubled by these circumstances are admirers of sacred architecture, who sense that various cultural and technological forces have conspired to rob American Catholics of their sensitivity to place along with their underlying “sense of the sacred.”1 Though this may seem a recent development stemming from the crush of electronica and other distractions with which the faithful now contend, I would argue that their appreciation for the physical dimension of worship actually began to be challenged a century ago, with the advent of the automobile. It is certainly by car that the majority of Catholic Americans continues to arrive at the Mass today and later depart for the far-flung residential developments that comprise the amorphous mega-parish.2 Apart from their homes, the first inorganic environments which believers occupy on a Sunday morning are their vehicles, mechanical preludes to the act of worship that dictate everything from the choreography of their approach to a familiar church building, to the likeliness of their entering the latter by way of its ceremonial doorways or some lesser portal, to where they eventually take their seats.3 Should automobiles have no other impact on believers’ weekly encounters with sacred architecture, their presence on a parish campus virtually guarantees that even the loveliest of churches will be surrounded by an expanse of asphalt bearing little connection to its outward form or interior purpose. As the car is a feature of Catholic liturgical experience today, so, one might say, is the tar (Fig. 1).

Figure 2: Fourteen-foot drive thru. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

Anecdotal evidence abounds for the impact that auto-culture has had on both the place and pace of ritual activity among American Catholics. It is virtually impossible, for example, to find a parish whose weekend Mass schedule is not partly determined by the simple logistics of filling and emptying its parking lot.4 Equally rare is the pastor who lacks at least one story of ritual-gone-bad over a mishap involving a hearse, limousine, motorcycle, or other form of ceremonial transportation. Those eager merely to weatherproof the motorized flow of worshipers to and from the thresholds of their churches by erecting elaborate entrance canopies are surprised to discover that at fourteen or fifteen feet—the height now required to accommodate the inflated vertical dimension of emergency vehicles and parishioners’ trucks, mini-vans, and SUVs—such structures prove largely useless against the elements they are intended to repel (Fig. 2). Likewise, the parish administrator hoping to control the circulation of on-site traffic by means of speed bumps, pylons, flags, and assorted pavement markings soon discovers how quickly their campus comes to resemble a Department of Motor Vehicles testing facility or go-cart track. Compounding the effect are the large, marquee-style signs bearing flashy, LED graphics that have cropped up on parish campuses in recent years (Fig. 3). The latter nearly always compromise the appearance of nearby buildings but are popular with pastors precisely for their ability to convey information to passing vehicular traffic.

Figure 3: Flashy LED screens at parish churches. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

A National Mythology Transformed into an Ecclesial One

So closely is the automobile connected to the developing egos of American Catholic adolescents, apparently, that many parishes now treat their newly-licensed teen drivers to something resembling a Confirmation ceremony. During these “Rites of Ignition,” as they might be called, the teens are presented to a congregation during the Mass and handed sets of shiny, new car keys, the way Catholic youths in a previous time might have been awarded scapulars, rosaries, and other sacramentals for maturing in the faith. Indeed, the objects are sacramentals of a sort—not diminutive “Keys to the Kingdom” exactly, but potent enough in their own way to offer their holders a taste of the vastly expanded geography of American adulthood. A website maintained by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry suggests that recipients of the typical “Blessing of Teen Drivers” be sprinkled with holy water,5 a gesture rich enough in baptismal symbolism to rebirth them into their new roles as operators of the family sedan. Whether it is proper to celebrate such rites within the context of the Eucharist is a question not likely to bother the average Catholic sixteen-year-old, who takes from the Church’s own actions only that attainment of a driver’s license is an achievement worthy of public adulation.6

The initiation of Catholic teens into the intermingled cultures of road and rood actually begins much earlier in life, when the adult believers around them demonstrate how handily the mechanical wonders of the age can assume ecclesiastical roles. Consciously or not, their senior role-models signal the Church’s complicity in granting elevated status to the automobile with every wedding plan that specifies inclusion of a “stretch-limo,” trolley or similarly oversized vehicle. Likewise, their gambling on a chance at owning the cars and trucks many parishes offer as part of fundraising raffles (Fig. 4) legitimizes the updated version of the medieval “Cult of the Carts” that prevails today, as does the presence in many rectory garages still of luxury vehicles belonging to the resident clergy.7 (If the Church’s supreme pontiff enjoys as fine a motorized sedia gestatori as the world-famous “Popemobile,” teens are led to reason, why begrudge the local pastor his lowly Lexus?)

Figure 4: A paved apron was added to this parish campus to display the cars they offer annually as raffle prizes. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

Living and Worshiping Where our Cars are Happiest

It is by their decision to live and worship today primarily as suburbanites, however, that adult Catholics in the United States introduce their children most directly to a lifestyle inseparable from the automobile, if only by consigning them to the hours of commuter travel that life beyond the fringes of any city today requires.8 For even the most ascetical believer, cars have come to provide both the literal and the symbolic means of mobility within a whole network of public relationships beyond the realm of religion. The faithful rely on them not only to move bodily through space, but also sociologically through the cultural-economic strata that distinguish one class of God’s children from another. Not surprisingly, then, the flight of American Catholics from the working-class “parish-neighborhoods” of their past to the roomier expanses of exurbia has been accompanied by an increase in both the number and size of the vehicles they own. A modest, single-bay garage adjoining an equally modest, three-bedroom bungalow proves inadequate to the needs of today’s Suburban Catholics, whose vehicles have grown heftier even as their families have shrunken in size.

On a subtler but no less important level, pastors rightly worry about the cacophony of messages that rises from the paved expanses surrounding their churches, some related to the very size and form of parishioners’ vehicles and others to the manner in which they are decorated. During weekends especially, the grounds of Catholic churches come to be draped in great suits of chain mail10 emblazoned with images and words that can be wholly antithetical to Catholic moral teaching. What is a pastor to do, for instance, at first sighting of a “Hummer” (Fig. 5), popular, commercial version of the U.S. Military’s Human Transport Vehicle, or “Humvee?” What is he to say to the owner of a car with bumper stickers, decals, or similar marks of personal expression that are in any way off-color? Does a “Hooters” sticker or the campaign emblem of a pro-choice or pro-death penalty politician constitute merely a “near occasion of sin” or does its proximity to a Catholic place of worship promote such scandal as to be a matter for the confessional? What about anti-immigration slogans, or mud flaps decorated with the silhouettes of naked women, or Confederate flags embroidered with the slogan, “It’s heritage, not hate!”—actual examples all?

Figure 5: Clash of symbolism: Super-sized military vehicle-cum-family sedan parked outside building dedicated to peacemaking. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

Guidance from the Episcopate

Surprisingly little guidance concerning automobiles has been offered pastors by members of the American episcopate. No mention of cars is made, for example, in the liturgical directives published by Roger Cardinal Mahoney,12 who, as then-shepherd to over three million Catholics in the sprawling, auto-dependent Archdiocese of Los Angeles, must be particularly aware of the role they play in the lives of his flock. While the cardinal’s statement challenges the faithful to resist “the hurried pace” and “tyranny of the clock”13 that pervade their culture, it never points to the specific tools of technology that indeed have come to enslave North Americans and contribute to the kind of free-floating, commuter worship that so commonly afflicts them. 

Even when the automobile is identified by name, as is the case in a similar set of directives14 issued by Donald Trautman, Bishop of Erie, PA, and twice chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, it is treated as a minor component of parishioners’ preparation for worship, as innocuous a part of the Sunday experience as “. . . getting everyone into the bath [and] into their clothes.”15 Little more is made of the issue in instructions on church design from the Diocese of Wilmington, DE, which offer the somewhat counter-intuitive stipulation that parking lots be located “in areas apart from the main entrance,”16 or from the Diocese of San Diego, CA, which attacks the problem of parking obliquely by requiring sufficient spaces for the faithful “ . . . within and outside the church building.”17 All that is said of automobiles in Built of Living Stones, the instruction on sacred architecture promulgated in 2000 by the USCCB is that they should not be allowed to dominate the site of a church. Parking lots and passenger drop-offs, the instruction suggests, need to be “convenient yet unobtrusive” and able to offer their users some degree of transition “. . . from everyday life to the celebration of the mysteries of the faith.”18

As a half-century of urban analysis and design research reveal, unfortunately, automobiles are inherently obtrusive things, capable of devouring some 200 square feet of space within the confines of a single, painted parking bay. Together, one hundred of them can easily consume an acre of land surrounding a parish’s place of worship. If not planned for with care, their bulky frames can quickly spoil the appearance of the most beautiful of natural or architectural settings, as much by standing idle as by passing through a community’s most sacred setting.

The Dissolution of Parochial Boundaries

Among the more obvious effects of the automobile on the liturgical lives of American Catholics is their ability to travel greater distances in less time to worship at any parish of their choosing. The pastoral implications of this are great: today the parish priest is less the spiritual leader of a community of souls linked to a specific, geographical location than an accommodator of nomads in search of just the sort of ecclesial experience that meets their fancy. Lay Catholics now think nothing of claiming official membership in one parish while selectively worshipping in others for reasons including what might be called the “alumni factor,” their sentimental attachment to the sights and sounds of the churches of their childhood. The last phenomenon is particularly intriguing as it often affects individuals who have consciously fled older, more densely-populated, urban settings for suburban ones only to find themselves returning by car each weekend to the very parish-neighborhoods where their religion was formed.19 All of this roaming around has prompted an authority in at least one bishop to issue a statement reminding his flock of the fundamental territoriality that underlies the canonical definition of a parish. Writing in The Observer, official newspaper for Diocese of Rockford, IL, while he was still vicar general there, David D. Kagan, now bishop of the Diocese of Bismarck, cited article 518 of Canon Law to explain that parishes should ordinarily have “. . . real, physical boundaries so that all the Catholics living within them can identify with the Church and with the pastor, and the pastor and the Church can know and minister to the Catholics entrusted to their care.” Parishes, Kagan adds, are comprised of communities of believers that are “stable and identifiable” and that live in “a certain area.”20

The notion that one parochial community might be distinguishable from another by means of geographical markers, demography, or even an entirely different architectural vocabulary strikes Catholics today as rather foreign, given the general diminishment of older ethnic allegiances and their ability to travel more freely from one parish to another, no matter how great the distance between them. While it remains true that believers generally build their view of the Church on experiences shared at the parochial level, they are now freer than ever to choose the particular version of parish life from which this view follows.

Mass Transit—Privatization of the Sacred Journey

Along with contributing to the demise of their parochial affiliation, the automobile also privatizes an aspect of the Sabbath day experience that unfolds from the driveways of believers’ homes to the paved aprons of their churches. Rather than participating, as they once did, in great parades of solidarity that wound through parish-neighborhoods as prefigurations of the solemn entrance procession at the Mass, Catholics now rendezvous at a place of worship as autonomous souls, each enclosed in private bubbles of conditioned air and stereophonic sound. That the “walk to Mass” should be supplanted long ago by the “drive to Mass” is no minor matter. The former encouraged worshippers to depart early from their homes, as they had only their legs to transport them to church. Conversely, the latter, based as it is on trust in the speed and power of our vehicles, encourages worshipers to leave their homes later, so as to arrive just minutes before the Entrance Rite begins. This partly accounts for the fact that the parking lots of most churches grow fullest just minutes before the outset of a service.

It is likewise no small matter that the very device Catholics use for traveling to the Mass is a privately-owned commodity containing a defined volume of space that is perceived as “belonging” to its owner in a way that a public sidewalk never could. When Catholics once walked to church en mass, they were required to share sidewalks with fellow parishioners and others and thus observe a certain public etiquette. The walk to Mass was a fairly quiet affair, even for families that made the trek together. If conversation occurred at all, it was in subdued tones not likely to call attention to itself or break the quiet of a neighborhood’s Sunday morning. Seeing others like oneself making such a sacrifice had a way of making believers feel part of something solemn and important, even before reaching the doors of their churches, where rubbing shoulders on a sidewalk gave way to rubbing shoulders in pews.

Wrapped in their private, metal skins and lost in vehicular traffic that might be going anywhere on a Sunday morning, believers arrive today at the Mass with little to offer fellow worshipers in the way of bodily testimony. Their trips to church unfold with an anonymity that can easily carry over into a liturgical attitude. The auto-sensitive layouts of many church buildings themselves often allow worshippers arriving by car to slip into a comfortable seat without the least bit of interaction with other members of the assembly. This is especially true in locations that suffer seasonally from snow, rain, or other inclement weather, where the intent of parishioners bundled up against the elements is to move from the warmth of their cars to the warmth of their seats as quickly as possible. 

The larger pathways that Catholics follow on their way to the Mass have become more circuitous than when they were members of a pedestrian church. While believers of a previous era may have visited a number of venues after the Mass, today, because of the speed of their cars and the availability of anticipatory liturgies on Saturday evenings, they can easily add trips to the bank, liquor store, dry cleaners, beauty salon, or any number of locations in busy weekend schedules and treat the Mass as just one of many “tasks” to be completed. The beauty of liturgy and its sacred setting are no longer the high points of modest journeys beyond the confines of their homes, but mere equivalents to the many other experiences that comprise weekends no longer given to rest and reflection.


It is certainly naïve to hope that American Catholics might somehow forego the use of their cars on weekends so as to regain the lost art of walking to church and with it a manner of worship not measured in horsepower or speed. Automobility is a fact of life for followers of Christ in the twenty-first century, and mimicking the behavior of believers from an age given more to traveling on foot will not, in itself, produce the sort of engaged liturgists the bishops of Vatican II hoped to make of all believers. Neither will the Catholic Church’s adoption of the drive-in and drive-thru models of church design with which Protestantism has experimented so extensively. The unapologetically locus-bound nature of Catholic worship demands the fixity of its participants and a collaboration between priest and people wholly different from the “transactions” of the closed-circuit banking kiosk or fast-food service window. Likewise, its radically incarnational character obliges Catholic liturgy to be beautiful in a way that escapes the sacred site doubling as a “park-n-ride.”

Figure 6: Sacred Liturgy’s appropriation of the world: Large-screen television monitor in Saint Peter’s Square, Rome. Photo: Michael E. DeSanctis

If, in fact, there’s reason to believe that automobiles might contribute positively to the setting of sacred worship, it comes from the Church’s own history of subsuming into its ritual practice the mechanical advances of every age. There was a time, after all, when pipe organs were as new to Catholic churches as electrified lamps and amplified sound, chair lifts, and elevators—even the sanitary plumbing required for public restrooms—all of which are now standard features of the place of Catholic prayer. Recent examples of the Church’s “appropriation of the world” can be found at the great, stational churches of Rome itself, including Saint Peter’s Basilica, whose ancient naves and piazza spaces now feature Megatron screens and other large-scale telecommunication devices for the viewing benefit of large assemblies (Fig. 6). At the same time, the vehicle-free Saint Peter’s Square reminds us that automobiles need not dominate a sacred site and that its visitors will gladly traverse considerable distances on foot if they deem the journey worthwhile. Daily, of course, people of all ages and physical abilities meander through Bernini’s vast, uncovered forecourt as part of an uphill trek to the Basilica, their spirits lightened by having escaped the debilitating frenzy of Rome’s own streets.

Photo: Serena Sturn Architects, Holbrook, Illinois

Serpentine parking arrangements with extensive landscaping distinguish the ecclesiastical site from the commercial one. Above: Marmion Abbey, Aurora, Illinois, 1998. Below: Saint Bede Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2005. Photo: Kerns Group Architects, Arlington, Virginia

The more modest grounds of American churches, too, can be oasis-like places marked by the tranquility and order modern Catholics secretly desire even while enduring the very freneticism their automobiles make possible. To the extent that architects and pastors alike prevent sacred sites from resembling the mean, paved expanses of commercial parking lots, they minister wisely to the faithful (Figs. 7A and B). Like the church squares of Europe, the grounds of even the humblest American parish can be venues for collecting and serving people, not just their vehicles, and places where the juncture of road and rood points to the life-long journey of the spirit to which every Christian is called.