Eucharisticum Mysterium 55 & the Four Modes of Presence

by Timothy V. Vaverek, appearing in Volume 4

Last autumn I published an article in Antiphon documenting a discrepancy in the 1967 English text of Eucharisticum Mysterium 56 which I speculated may have contributed to a misunderstanding and narrowing of liturgical principles and architectural norms in the United States. I suggested these ill effects arose because the mistaken text of EM 56 recommended that the tabernacle be placed off the altar in a separate chapel (whereas the authentic text permitted placement on an altar in the main church) and because the misprint created the impression that the principles of EM 55 should guide the design of new churches. EM 55 describes the Mass as a liturgical celebration during which four principal modes of Christ’s presence emerge clearly and successively in the assembly, the Word, the priest, and the Eucharistic species. This liturgical theory closely parallels and may well have influenced post-conciliar church designs in the United States. Unfortunately, the Church intended EM 55 to serve only as a practical recommendation on tabernacle placement, not as a statement of a new liturgical theory to be used in designing churches. The present article will examine how the theory found in EM 55 can favor a particular type of church design and how that design fails to reflect the authentic intentions of the Church. This analysis will reveal some of the underlying reasons for the long-standing controversy over church architecture in the United States and will suggest a direction that could help bring closure to that debate.

The Rationale of EM 55 and Its Architectural Implications
The Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium (25 May 1967) desired, in light of the manifold ecclesial pronouncements on the Eucharist, “to draw out practical norms from the total teaching of such documents” so that the Eucharistic mystery and “the relationships that are recognized in the Church teaching as existing objectively between the various facets of the mystery [might] become reflected in the life and mind of the faithful.” EM 3 presents a number of doctrinal themes from Church teaching which are to be used in the Instruction as “the source of the norms on the practical arrangement of the worship of this sacrament even after Mass and of its correlation with the proper arrangement of the Mass.” Several of these themes are elaborated in part one of the Instruction as principles for liturgical catechesis. EM 55 is found in a subsection of part three entitled “Where the Blessed Sacrament is to be Reserved” and, read in this context, it is clearly intended to be a practical recommendation derived from previously established principles such as those discussed in EM 3. Therefore it is contrary to the nature of the passage and the stated intention of the Instruction to read EM 55 as establishing new theoretical liturgical principles:

In the celebration of Mass the principal modes of Christ’s presence to his Church [footnote: see n. 9 of this Instruction] emerge clearly one after the other [successive clarescunt]: first he is seen to be present in the assembly of the faithful gathered in his name; then in his word, with the reading and explanation of Scripture; also in the person of the minister; finally, in a singular way under the eucharistic elements. Consequently, on the grounds of the sign value, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that, through reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle, Christ not be present eucharistically from the beginning on the altar where Mass is celebrated. That presence is the effect of the consecration and should appear as such.

EM 55 is not meant to be anything more than a practical recommendation on tabernacle placement. In the discussion which follows we are not concerned with the actual recommendation made by EM 55 that the tabernacle should be separated fromthe altar used at Mass (which may be justifiable for a variety of reasons), but with the specific liturgical theory EM 55 has enunciated.

Despite the fact that EM 55 makes no claim to establish a liturgical theory to guide architectural designs, there is a temptation—made all the stronger by the mistaken official English text of EM 56—to use the principles of EM 55 as a theoretical basis for church design. After all, EM 55 itself uses this novel theory as the source of its recommendation regarding tabernacle placement. Thus, while EM 55 does not actually establish a new theory de jure, its principles might appear de facto to provide useful and legitimate architectural criteria for new designs. Since the four modes of Christ’s presence are said to emerge clearly one after the other during the liturgy, it would seem that church designs should lead worshipers to focus attention successively on the congregation, the ambo, the chair, and the altar. At the same time, the primacy given to clearly seeing these distinct modes favors maximizing proximity and minimizing architectural or decorative features which might attract attention or obstruct vision. The imagined designs thus have four foci and seek to establish those foci without the use of extraneous architectural or ornamental elements. The result is a building that is principally a utilitarian structure shaped by the minimalistic requirements of the rites so that the modes and rites are free to speak for themselves.

A circular church with the altar, ambo, and chair centrally located meets these criteria, especially if it is of modest size and has no internal columns. The congregants are then located as closely as possible to each other and to the place where the other three modes will appear. The lines of sight are unimpeded and directed naturally toward the modes without needing other elements to draw attention. Since the assembly itself is a single mode of presence, its unity in the celebration is perhaps best expressed by placing the altar, ambo, and chair in the midst of the assembly with as little distinction as possible between the congregation and the central sanctuary. The equal dignity of the modes suggests that neither altar, ambo, nor chair should be placed at the exact center. The practical drawbacks to this design are the same as those for the theatre-in-the-round: 1) some of the assembly faces the backside of the central space; and 2) there is no backstage or wing space allowing for hidden storage, access, and movement of equipment and personnel. These shortcomings can be overcome by a compromise in which the floor plan is semicircular or fan-shaped rather than a full circle.

The Inadequacy of the Principles in EM 55
I do not think it is overstating the case to say that the type of design described above has characterized much of church architecture during the post-conciliar period in the United States. The widespread use and encouragement of this style has created controversy because the pattern does not fit well with the designs of most pre-conciliar Catholic churches in the United States and therefore does not accord with the sensibilities of those attached for historic, personal, or esthetic reasons to more traditional or classical styles. The result has been thirty years of debate and frustration regarding the design of new churches and the renovation of existing ones. Such conflict is natural to human life and is at times unavoidable in the life of the Church as she adapts to changing historical circumstances. The roots of the present conflict, however, run deeper than the challenge of change and adaptation. The design criteria discussed above, which so closely parallel the theory of EM 55, do not in fact fully correspond to the Church’s understanding of the church building or liturgy and, in some details, actually violate the existing legislation governing the design of churches. These discrepancies arise because the Church’s understanding of the church building and the liturgy center on the Church’s participation in the Pasch of Christ and have nothing to do with EM 55’s novel theory of successive manifestation of four modes of presence.

It is essential to keep in mind that the rationale of EM 55 was not presented by the Church as a statement of new theoretical principles for use in liturgical theology or church design. To be sure, EM 55 seeks to justify its practical recommendation on tabernacle placement by appealing to what it evidently believes are legitimate theoretical principles, but the context assures us that EM 55 is intending to apply existing principles and not to introduce new ones. That EM 55 does not provide an adequate statement of the Church’s previously established liturgical principles can be demonstrated by a comparison with the underlying texts of EM 9 and Sacrosanctum Concilium 7. SC 7 does not speak of four modes of presence and neither it nor EM 9 states that the modes emerge clearly one after another during liturgy. A more fundamental departure from SC 7 and EM 9 is the failure of EM 55 to mention the sacrifice of the Mass and the Church as ways in which Christ is present. These are startling omissions. After all, the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s saving death, resurrection, and ascension is present in the Mass as the source and summit of the entire life of the Church. And the Eucharistic celebration is not merely an ad hoc gathering of two or three believers as EM 55 states; it is the public worship of God performed by the Church, the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members ordered in a hierarchical communion. Indeed, for Vatican II the celebration of Christ’s Pasch under the headship of the bishop is the principal manifestation of the Church. EM 55 does not convey this paschal and ecclesial vision of the liturgy, or ground its novel theory on established principles. Therefore, it is not a legitimate source of liturgical theory.

The goal of the liturgy in the thought of Vatican II is the full, conscious, and active participation of the Church and her members in Christ’s Pasch by which God is glorified and humanity redeemed. This participation leads to communion with God and humanity in Christ. Thus, the focus of the liturgy is on transforming union in Christ and His Pasch, not on the various modes of His presence. Liturgy understood as participation is primarily a matter of being and becoming rather than one of seeing or performing. The significance of Christ’s presence to the Church (in far more than four principal ways) is that by this means we are enabled to become participants in the Pasch (this is the entire point of SC 7). When mistakenly used as a liturgical theory, the novel rationale of EM 55 shifts the focus of liturgy from the end (participation in Christ and His Pasch) to a few particular means (the four modes). Liturgy is then easily considered to be about making or seeing Jesus present in our midst rather than about being united to Him in His Paschal Mystery. We find here, ironically, a continuation of an impoverished pre-conciliar liturgical theory that now awaits the arrival of Christ not only in the Eucharistic species and the priest, but also in the assembly and the Word. Vatican II reminded us that something much more than Christ’s appearance is at the heart of the liturgy: our participation with Christ in His saving work.

Authentic Architecture vs. Defective Designs Based on EM 55
The implications of the teaching of Vatican II for architectural design are profound. A liturgy which is a participation in the Pasch calls for a building which is the place of the Pasch, an architectural manifestation of the Church and the Kingdom with space for symbols of Christ, His saving work, and the angels and saints. It is an iconic building which elicits and fosters communion through contemplation of the Church and the Kingdom—and not merely through the seeing of the symbols and the doing of the rites. Just as the life of the Church is not limited to participation in the liturgy, so the building’s iconic function of symbolizing the Church cannot be reduced to its ritual function in liturgy. The building is therefore more than a utilitarian ritual space. Its function is to be a symbol of the Church even when the liturgy is not being celebrated. Based on this identity and function as a sign of the Church, the building is enabled to be an evangelical witness, a place of prayer, and an aid to full participation in the liturgical and devotional celebrations which take place within it.

Because the building is a symbol of the Church, the people of God who possess an organic and hierarchical structure expressed in diverse ministries and charisms, the general plan of the church should convey this image in its unity and diversity by having distinct places for congregation, choir, and priests. For this reason “the part of the church that brings out [the] distinctive role of the ministerial priest,” the presbyterium (called the sanctuary in the United States), “should be clearly marked off from the body of the church.” This distinction of the presbyterium reveals the hierarchical ordering of the Church under the headship of Christ present in the apostolic ministry of the clergy. This explains why a layperson who leads a celebration in the absence of the clergy does not sit in the sanctuary. A church without a clearly distinct sanctuary risks being headless and disordered.

The focal point of the entire building is the altar because the altar is the symbol of Christ and the place of His Pasch, the table from which we are fed His Word and His Body and Blood. The altar, then, is the center of the thanksgiving accomplished in the Eucharist and, in a sense, the other rites of the Church are arrayed around it. The altar is also the center of the presbyterium where the priest presides in the person and name of Christ who is the High Priest, head and bridegroom of the Church leading the people in prayer, proclaiming the Gospel and offering the sacrificial banquet. As the symbol of Christ and center of worship, the altar therefore stands within the sanctuary at the head and heart of the church. It is fitting, then, that the location of the altar be singled out from the beginning of the building’s construction by placing a cross on the spot where the altar will be raised. A church not centered on the altar is not centered on the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

The church building as representing the body of Christ, by Cataneo, 1550. Public Domain

Unlike the altar that is a consecrated image of Christ and the center of the church, the priest’s chair and the ambo are functional appointments rather than focal points or liturgical symbols per se. Hence the chair and ambo are not themselves objects of reverence, or even attention, during the liturgy. They simply serve as places where specific liturgical functions are carried out and they are located and designed to focus attention on the liturgical action, not on themselves. That the altar rather than the chair or ambo is the center of the liturgy and is properly the table from which the Gospel and Eucharist are taken and distributed to the people signifies that the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist are not actually separate ceremonies, but form a single act of worship flowing from Christ and His Pasch. It is impossible to juxtapose Word and Sacrament (or altar and ambo) because the Sacraments are the greatest proclamation of the Gospel; in them Word and deed are conjoined so that mankind is drawn to participate in the very Mystery of Christ they proclaim.

The liturgical theory in EM 55 cannot adequately explain the Church’s design criteria of hierarchical arrangement and the centrality of the altar because of its failure to mention the Church and the Paschal Mystery, the source and summit of the Church’s life. This fundamental flaw leads to an impoverished architectural style and is content to foster the manifestation of four modes rather than to draw the ordered assembly into contemplative participation with Christ in His Pasch. Lacking any reference to the Pasch, the building loses its authentic identity as an icon of the Paschal Banquet which is the Kingdom and becomes merely a shell that houses liturgical ceremonies. Consequently, the role of the altar as the center of the entire Paschal celebration, a position mandated by the Church, is surrendered to the shifting foci of assembly, ambo, chair, and altar. This loss of center in turn threatens the unity of the celebration, for example, by separating the liturgy of the Word (centered on the ambo) from the liturgy of the Eucharist (centered on the altar). Because the assembly is considered only as a group of disciples gathered in His name rather than as a assembly of the Church, the building does not reflect the hierarchical ordering of the community and so cannot function as a symbol of the Church. This leads to designs which fail to distinguish the presbyterium (sanctuary) from the main body of the church as urged by Church law. Designs based on the liturgical theory of EM 55 therefore literally place the assembly in a false relation to its visible head and to the altar, signifying a false relation to Christ and His Pasch. It is worth noting that these design criteria, lacking any reference to the Paschal banquet and the ordered Church, tend to parallel the sacramental and ecclesiological vision of congregational Protestantism. This can be seen in a striking way by comparing post-conciliar design and remodeling in the United States to the Gothic churches renovated by the Dutch Reform.

We have seen that architecture based on the liturgical theory of EM 55 is in a variety of ways prevented from expressing the truth about the Church and the liturgy: that there is no Eucharistic assembly (or Church) without hierarchical ordering, that Word and Sacrament flow from the altar of Christ’s Pasch to the people through the apostolic ministry of the clergy, and that the Paschal sacrifice and banquet of Christ celebrated around the altar is the origin and consummation of our lives and of all creation. In short, architectural styles based on the principles of EM 55 are incapable of expressing adequately the theology of the Church and the particular vision of Vatican II for the Church in our time. Because they fail to articulate the Church’s vision such designs are destined to ignore or distort post-conciliar reforms and liturgical law, resulting in buildings which are fundamentally inadequate—if not false—symbols of the Church and which therefore subject people to inauthentic expressions of the Church and the liturgy.

The use of the liturgical theory of EM 55 in the design of churches is tempting because it offers what seems at first glance to be a nice, short, simple statement on the liturgy, apparently sound enough to resolve the question of tabernacle placement, and seemingly mandated by the mistaken 1967 English text of EM 56 as a basis for church architecture. In addition, the principles it espouses have been widely accepted and implemented in the United States for thirty years. But EM 55 was not intended by the Church to be used as a statement of new theoretical principles, and its failure to mention the Pasch and the Church renders its theory inadequate as a guide for liturgy or architectural design. It is understandable that few people have time to read or reread the Church’s diverse pronouncements on liturgy and architecture and therefore rely on isolated passages that have been most frequently cited on a given issue. In the case of EM 55 this proves dangerous because EM 55 has been taken out of context and used as if it were an authentic statement of established liturgical theory when it is not.

The misuse of the principles of EM 55 as a theoretical foundation for church architecture results in design criteria that distort the purpose and structure of the church building. The building is reduced from being an icon of the Church as envisioned by the Council to being a functional space manifesting four modes and the rites. Architects and those involved with church design should therefore avoid developing or using design criteria based on the liturgical theory in EM 55 and its faulty notion of four successive modes of presence. Likewise they should not be guided by any theory of church design which begins with ritual requirements. Instead, all designs should begin with the role of the church building as a symbol of the Church and the Kingdom, the place of the Pasch, as stated in the Rite of Dedication of a Church, and by the ecclesiology of Sacrosanctum Concilium and Lumen Gentium. From this starting point designs should then consider the requirements of the liturgical books and the genuine devotions of the faithful. Through a continual return to these and other authentic sources of liturgical theology and law it will be possible over time to bring church design into harmony with the actual vision of the Church. The result will be buildings which manifest and celebrate not only the four particular modes of presence mentioned in EM 55, but others as well and, above all, the Church’s ongoing participation in the Wedding Feast of the Paschal Lamb, the eschatological Kingdom present now in mystery.