Liturgical Renewal and Contemporary Sacred Architecture

by Daniel Estivill, appearing in Volume 29

In order to celebrate the new churches built in the Diocese of Rome at the start of the third millennium, a book was published, entitled Churches in the Roman Periphery 2000–2013: From the Great Jubilee to the Constantinian Year.1 In presenting the publication, Professor Antonio Paolucci noted in his article with the title Ancora manca il modello (A paradigm is still missing), “When is a building destined for worship . . . just right? That is, when can we define it as being altogether beautiful, functional and symbolically effective?”2 The query, much more than a superficial question, requires a profound reflection—so much so that in the final paragraph of his article, after having examined the most important churches built in the period cited above, the author concludes: “A building which is beautiful, functional, symbolically effective and able to serve as a model still does not exist, at least, according to my own observations.”

The Root of the Issue Raised With these reflections, I would like to start again from Professor Paolucci’s first question in order to come up with a response that helps us understand what might be considered the real reasons that make it highly improbable, if not impossible, to find a truly “beautiful, functional and symbolically effective model.” With this investigation, even if quite brief, I will attempt to demonstrate how the issue raised is not rooted in architectural trends—as it seems to emerge from the aforementioned article—but in liturgical doctrine that inspires the ideas behind the design and building of new churches. Although the root of the question is not in architecture, the point of departure for our reflection must, however, be in the concept of architectural work itself. In this regard, we need to keep in mind that every work of architecture must respond to three fundamental questions.

The first concerns the material dimension of the building—its stability from a structural point of view, its maintenance needs, and the efficiency of its technical systems. The second point is tied to the carrying out of the various human activities for which the structure is destined. In other words, the structure must be “functional” (citing an often used term). The third and final dimension, which defines the quality of the architectural work, regards its dual capacity to express beauty through its forms while also being able to communicate its symbolic message.

When dealing with a building for Christian worship, it is not difficult to understand that it is natural for an architectural work to be conceived in all three of its dimensions as a response to the demands of those commissioning the work—in this case, the Church, which needs these types of buildings to carry out its liturgical life.

Historical Context of the Problem In light of what has been said, it becomes rather clear that during the historical development of sacred architecture, when a church as a building loses its identity, it is most likely due to changes in ecclesial life that are expressed in new and diverse liturgical forms. The architectural monument is a response to these liturgical forms. At this point, it seems necessary to identify what particular historical moment this might have been.



Fig. 1: Interior of the Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, Rome. Project of the Jesuit Father Orazio Grassi, 1650. Photo: Daniel Estivill

If we observe churches and monuments from past to present aspiring to be expressions of a Catholic sacred architecture, we can conclude that it would not be completely correct to consider Baroque the most recent style capable of offering a Catholic template for a church (fig. 1), as suggested by Professor Paolucci in his article. Indeed, while this style marked the last great artistic current coming from the heart of the Catholic Church, other styles that developed later cannot be overlooked—for example, Neo-Classicism and revivals such as Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque. They offered many good contributions to sacred architecture, keeping in continuity with tradition a model of beauty, functionality, and symbolic efficacy, as well as reflecting Catholic identity. This was possible because the liturgy had not undergone such substantial changes as to require altering the structure of the sacred space. As a result, the forms of style have been appropriate for the requirements of the one and the same liturgy.

The Architectural Key to the Problem Another observation becomes evident concerning the key area of every liturgical space: the altar. It is quite evident that the most visible architectural element of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council was the turning of the altar towards the people with the resulting change in position of the celebrant. With amazement, however, it is to be noted that in its constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, the Council offered no rules concerning such a change. Instead, the postconciliar document Inter oecumenici noted: “The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people.”3 Nevertheless, in practice, this disposition of the altar marked a distinctive sign of the liturgical reform promoted by the Second Vatican Council, to the point of allowing a rushed adoption in churches by placing a second altar in front of the “old” altar. Thus, the template of the altar facing the people became, with the passing of time (now over half a century), a real diktat which has only recently become a topic of debate. Discussion over the orientation of the altar, already profoundly dealt with by contemporary theologians and liturgists, unfortunately has also been the center of often sterile and inconclusive debates, not infrequently portrayed absurdly in terms of progressivism (versus populum) against traditionalism (versus Deum).

The Consequences of the “Copernican Revolution” Regarding the Altar The first consequence of the new placement of the altar is the unilateral insistence on the dialogical character it implies. It is clear that the dialogical form is part of the essence of the liturgy, as the many dialogues between the faithful and the priest called for in the rubrics demonstrate.



Fig. 2: Interior of the Church of Maria Geburt, Aschaffenburg, Germany. Neo-Gothic building renovated in 2009. Photo: Daniel Estivill

At the same time, in the case of the altar, this dialogue acquires a very unique nuance, since the Eucharistic Prayer is the great prayer of the entire Mystical Body directed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. This explains why the altar, when facing the assembly, creates a dialogical structure whose participants are the celebrant and the people (fig. 2). Instead, with the other disposition, it was clear that the axis of communication linked the people to God through the celebrant. As a result, it could be said that the new orientation of the altar, versus populum, makes the divine axis less clear and the other two subjects of communication—the priest and the lay faithful—more evident. In other words, we have gone from a spatial form clearly founded on transcendence and directed towards a precise focal point to a distribution of the spaces based on immanence and, therefore, flexibility—open to free creativity and to the protagonism of the subjects involved. It is necessary to note that in this new arrangement the risk of making arbitrary choices is rather high. This change brought forth the keen observation of then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who stated in an interview: “The great danger of our times for the liturgy is that . . . a mentality prevails according to which it is enough to ‘create’ a liturgy corresponding to our own ideas and making the community itself the protagonist.”4



Fig. 3: Interior of the Church of San Giuseppe, Monza. Work by Justus Dahinden from Zurich, 1975. Photo: Daniel Estivill

The second consequence is of a semantic nature, in that the new position occupied by the celebrant calls us to view the altar more like a meal table rather than a sacrificial altar. This implies an emphasis on the convivial character of the Eucharist as opposed to the sacrificial nature of the Sacrament. It is not by chance that many altars detached from the wall have taken on the form of a table (fig. 3) around which the “participants”—including the celebrant—would ideally take their places. The transformation from the altar form to that of the meal table has been praised by many as an authentic return to our roots, with the argument that the Church should revive in its liturgical forms the meal in which Jesus instituted the Sacrament. Nevertheless, in the first place, it cannot be overlooked that that very meal had a sacrificial nature. Secondly, Jesus Himself instituted the Eucharist, referencing explicitly His sacrifice on the Cross. Therefore, Benedict XVI rightly affirmed: “By his command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:25), . . . the Lord expresses, as it were, his expectation that the Church, born of his sacrifice, will receive this gift, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the liturgical form of the sacrament. The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship.”5 This does not mean an abolition of the convivial nature of the Eucharist (since it continues to be the “Eucharistic banquet,” but not a banquet recalling the Last Supper), but rather, a celebration that is an anticipation of the eschatological banquet.

A third consequence lies in the implicit relativism in some rubrics concerning the placement of the various liturgical elements in the presbyteral area. It is obvious then that once the centrality assigned to the altar disappears as the point of convergence for the eyes of the celebrant and congregation, the strong symmetry, which is a sign of a stable and solemn order, also breaks down into a free dislocation of all the objects that make up the immediate area around altar. Thus, it could be said that the transformation of the altar has spread into a type of “telluric current” involving all the other liturgical elements (including the tabernacle, the celebrant’s chair, the ambo, the crucifix, the candlesticks, etc.), such that they begin to float in space according to the whim of the architect and the imagination of whoever commissions the edifice on behalf of the church.

A Meaningful Example An example can clarify the concept here. The instruction Inter oecumenici states, “At the discretion of the Ordinary, the cross and candlesticks required on the altar for the various liturgical rites may also be placed next to it.” To put it simply, with this norm, the placement of these sacred vessels is basically relativized: the cross and candlesticks are “required on the altar” but “may also be placed next to it.”6 This placement has been interpreted in practice as a go-ahead to remove the cross from the altar and place it elsewhere (next to, behind, right or left, etc.), as if the cross were an obstacle to dialogue among the participants at the Eucharistic banquet. In practice, the result has been that the cross is no longer placed on the altar.

The one who reported this error in liturgical furnishings was none other than the same Joseph Ratzinger—Benedict XVI—who wrote: “The cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community . . . Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of the recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord?”7 This timely observation shows not only how the orientation of the altar is linked to the cross on top of it, but also how the disconnection of the two elements can influence the attitude of those participating in the liturgical celebration. Of course, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed these observations as a theologian, but he was also aware as a liturgist that one cannot simply change everything in a church, because “stability is needed” for the liturgy. Also, a radical return sic et simpliciter to the Baroque altar would cause confusion.

At this point, however, architects would need to give an authoritative opinion that responds to the real core of the issue regarding the orientation of the altar. This challenge might find a response to the extent that people put aside any strange ideologies that go against the authentic spirit of the liturgy. This danger exists, as Cardinal Ratzinger reminded us: “Some liturgists would like you to believe that any idea not in full agreement with their rubrics would be a step backwards. This cannot be! This is a biased attitude! We need to reflect with an open mind and not immediately dismiss every reflection, accusing it of being ‘partisan to Saint Pius V.’”8

In Conclusion In light of these brief reflections, it could be said that a beautiful, functional, and symbolically effective building able to serve as a model cannot appear mysteriously out of nowhere, but as a result of an authoritative and precise orientation in terms of sacred architecture on the part of the Church, just as has taken place in previous times. This will happen, however, only when the Church will be able to speak clear words to architects regarding liturgical matters, so as to avoid misleading interpretations. Indeed, a look through history teaches us to appreciate that the great buildings for worship we have today in front of our eyes are the result of clear doctrinal concepts, anchored in tradition, but at the same time open to the historical needs of the moment. Indicative are the treatises on sacred architecture like that of Saint Charles Borromeo after the Council of Trent. In every era the Church knew how to ask artists for expressive forms able to ever better respond both to the needs coming from the unchanging and true spirit of the liturgy and to the legitimate aspirations of contemporary people. Today this historical law has become one of the greatest challenges the Church must urgently face.

Therefore, if in the present, now a half century after the Second Vatican Council, we must concede that it is impossible to identify an architectural model of a church capable of reflecting Catholic identity, perhaps it is due (among other things) to the fact that the postconciliar liturgical reform is currently in a phase of prudent rethinking, self-examination, and adjustment following the initial euphoria after the Council. This explains clearly the rise of the idea in the liturgical field of a “reform of the reform,” launched recently by various theologians and liturgists in response to the call of Benedict XVI. The desired liturgical renewal should be the result of a new movement whose objective is to bring forth the authentic patrimony of the Second Vatican Council, consolidating at the same time the theological foundations of the liturgy. At this point, it seems clear that the new spring in sacred architecture is also linked to the correct interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In this sense, it is well known that there is a proliferation of texts regarding the theme of rereading the conciliar documents according to a hermeneutic of renewal in continuity, as proposed by Benedict XVI in his memorable speech to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005. Just as it brought forth a passionate debate in the theological domain, the challenge put forward by the pope emeritus should bring impetus to a calm and deep reflection in the fields of liturgy, music, art, and sacred architecture.