Louis Bouyer and Church Architecture

Resourcing Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy

by Uwe Michael Lang, appearing in Volume 19

The present Holy Father’s thought on liturgy and church architecture was considerably influenced by Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), a convert from Lutheranism, priest of the French Oratory (a religious congregation founded by Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle in the seventeenth century and distinct from the Oratory of St. Philip Neri) and protagonist of the liturgical movement in France.1 Bouyer has left an enormous oeuvre extending not only to the study of the sacred liturgy but to other fields of theology and spirituality. Although he taught for several years in American universities and many of his books were published in English, Bouyer’s passing away on October 22, 2004 at the age of ninety-one seemed to have gone largely unnoticed in the Anglophone world.2

Father Louis Bouyer. Photo: wikimedia.org

Joseph Ratzinger and Louis Bouyer were friends who held each other’s work in high esteem. Both were called to the International Theological Commission when it was instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Bouyer recalls the working sessions of the Commission in his unpublished memoirs, and comments especially on Ratzinger’s clarity of vision, vast knowledge, intellectual courage, incisive judgment, and gentle sense of humour. In his remarkable book-length interview of 1979, entitled Le Métier de Théologien (The Craft of the Theologian), which has unfortunately not yet been published in English, Bouyer praises the appointment of the outstanding theologian Joseph Ratzinger as Archbishop of Munich.3 Cardinal Ratzinger, in his turn, in a contribution published originally in 2002, recalls the founding of the international theological review Communio Initiated by a group of friends, Communio including the noted theologians Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Louis Bouyer, and Jorge Medina Estévez, who later became the Cardinal-Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.4

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, the present Pope’s debt to Bouyer is especially evident in the chapters “Sacred Places – The Significance of the Church Building” and “The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer”, where the French theologian is cited throughout.5 In the short bibliography, Bouyer’s book Liturgy and Architecture features prominently. This work was published originally in English in 1967 by the University of Notre Dame Press; its German translation, used by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, appeared as late as 1993. The theme of orientation in liturgical prayer occupied the theologian Joseph Ratzinger as early as 1966, at the height of the post-conciliar liturgical reform;6 his first significant contribution to the debate dates from the late 1978 and was included in the important volume The Feast of Faith, published in German in 1981.7 However, it appears to have been the work of his friend Bouyer that led Ratzinger to a more profound approach to the subject as is reflected in The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Jewish origins of Christian worship

One of the characteristics of Pope Benedict’s theology of the liturgy is his emphasis on the Jewish roots of Christian worship, which he considers a manifestation of the essential unity of Old and New Testament, a subject to which he repeatedly calls attention.8 Bouyer pursues this methodology in his monograph Eucharist, where he argues that the form of the Church’s liturgy must be understood as emerging from a Jewish ritual context.9

In Liturgy and Architecture, Bouyer explores the Jewish background to early church architecture, especially with regard to the “sacred direction” taken in divine worship. He notes that Jews in the Diaspora prayed towards Jerusalem or, more precisely, towards the presence of the transcendent God (shekinah) in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Even after the destruction of the Temple the prevailing custom of turning towards Jerusalem for prayer was kept in the liturgy of the synagogue. Thus Jews have expressed their eschatological hope for the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the gathering of God’s people from the Diaspora. The direction of prayer was thus inseparably bound up with the messianic expectation of Israel.10

Bouyer observes that this direction of prayer towards the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem gave Jewish synagogue worship a quasi-sacramental quality that went beyond the mere proclamation of the word. This sacred direction was highlighted by the later development of the Torah shrine, where the scrolls of the Holy Scripture are solemnly kept. The Torah shrine thus becomes a sign of God’s presence among his people, keeping alive the memory of his ineffable presence in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Ratzinger notes in his Spirit of the Liturgy that in Christian sacred architecture, which both continues and transforms synagogue architecture, the Torah shrine has its equivalent in the altar at the east wall or in the apse, thus being the place where the sacrifice of Christ, the Word incarnate, becomes present in the liturgy of the Mass.11

Syrian Churches

Bouyer’s Liturgy and Architecture made available to a wider public in the 1960’s current research on early Christian sacred architecture in the Near East.12 The oldest surviving Syrian churches, dating from the fourth century onwards, mostly follow the model of the basilica, similar to contemporary synagogues, with the difference, however, that they were in general built with their apse facing towards the east. In churches where some clue remains as to the position of the altar, it appears to have been placed only a little forward from the east wall or directly before it. The orientation of church and altar thus corresponds to the universally accepted principle of facing east in prayer and expresses the eschatological hope of the early Christians for the second coming of Christ as the Sun of righteousness. The bema, a raised platform in the middle of the building, was taken over from the synagogue, where it served as the place for the reading of Holy Scripture and the recitation of prayers. The bishop would sit with his clergy on the west side of the bema in the nave facing towards the apse. The psalmody and readings that form part of the liturgy of the Word are conducted from the bema. The clergy then proceed eastward to the altar for the liturgy of the Eucharist.13 Bouyer’s theory that the “Syrian arrangement” with the bema in the nave was also the original layout of Byzantine churches has met with a very mixed reception among scholars.– What is widely agreed, however, is that the celebrant would have stood in front of the altar, facing east with the congregation for the Eucharistic liturgy.

A Louis Bouyer Church plan. Photo: wikimedia.org

Roman Basilicas

Early Roman churches, especially those with an oriented entrance, such as the Lateran Basilica or Saint Peter’s in the Vatican (which is unique in many ways), present questions regarding their liturgical use that are still being debated by scholars. According to Bouyer the whole assembly, the bishop or priest celebrant who stood behind the altar as well as the people in the nave would turn towards the east and hence towards the doors during the Eucharistic prayer.15 The doors may have been left open so that the light of the rising sun, the symbol of the risen Christ and his second coming in glory, flooded into the nave. The assembly would have formed a semicircle that opened to the east, with the celebrating priest as its apex. In the context of religious practice in the ancient world, this liturgical gesture does not appear as extraordinary as it might seem today. It was the general custom in antiquity to pray towards the open sky, which meant that in a closed room one would turn to an open door or an open window for prayer, a custom that is well attested by Jewish and Christian sources.16 Against this background it would seem quite possible that for the Eucharistic prayer the faithful, along with the celebrant, turned towards the eastern entrance. The practice of priest and people facing each other arose when the profound symbolism of facing east was no longer understood and the faithful no longer turned eastward for the Eucharistic prayer. This happened especially in those basilicas where the altar was moved from the middle of the nave to the apse.

The Byzantine development of the richly decorated east wall as “liturgical east” as illustrated by the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. Photo: wikimedia.org

Another line of argument can be pursued if we start from the observation that facing east was accompanied by looking upwards, namely towards the eastern sky which was considered the place of Paradise and the scene of Christ’s second coming. The lifting up of hearts for the canon, in response to the admonition “Sursum corda,” included the bodily gestures of standing upright, raising one’s arms and looking heavenward. It is no mere accident that in many basilicas (only) the apse and triumphal arch were decorated with magnificent mosaics; their iconographic programmes are often related to the Eucharist that is celebrated underneath. These mosaics may well have served to direct the attention of the assembly whose eyes were raised up during the Eucharistic prayer. Even the priest at the altar prayed with outstretched, raised arms and no further ritual gestures. Where the altar was placed at the entrance of the apse or in the central nave, the celebrant standing in front of it could easily have looked up towards the apse. With splendid mosaics representing the celestial world, the apse may have indicated the “liturgical east” and hence the focus of prayer.17 This theory has the distinct advantage that it accounts better for the correlation between liturgy, art, and architecture than that of Bouyer, which must accommodate a discrepancy between the sacred rites and the space created for them. Pope Benedict alludes to this theory in the beautiful comments he made on orientation in liturgical prayer in his homily during the Easter Vigil 2008.18

Even if we assume that priest and people were facing one another in early Christian basilicas with an eastward entrance, we can exclude any visual contact at least for the canon, since all prayed with arms raised, looking upwards. At any rate, there was not much to see at the altar, since ritual gestures, such as signs of the cross, altar kisses, genuflections, and the elevation of the Eucharistic species, were only added later.19 Bouyer is certainly correct in saying that the Mass “facing the people,” in the modern sense, was unknown to Christian antiquity, and that it would be anachronistic to see the Eucharistic liturgy in the early Roman basilicas as its prototype.

Bouyer acclaims Byzantine church architecture as a genuine development of the early Christian basilica: those elements that were not appropriate for the celebration of the liturgy were either changed or removed, so that a new type of building came into being. A major achievement was the formation of a particular iconography that stood in close connection with the sacred mysteries celebrated in the liturgy and gave them a visible artistic form. Church architecture in the West, on the other hand, was more strongly indebted to the basilican structure. Significantly, the rich decoration of the east wall and dome in Byzantine churches has its counterpart in the Ottonian and Romanesque wall-paintings and, even further developed, in the sumptuous altar compositions of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, which display themes intimately related to the Eucharist and so give a foretaste of the eternal glory given to the faithful in the sacrifice of the Mass.20

The Liturgical Movement and Mass “facing the people”

Drawing on his own experience, Bouyer relates that the pioneers of the Liturgical Movement in the twentieth century had two chief motives for promoting the celebration of Mass versus populum. First, they wanted the Word of God to be proclaimed towards the people. According to the rubrics for Low Mass, the priest had to read the Epistle and the Gospel from the book resting on the altar. Thus the only option was to celebrate the whole Mass “facing the people,” as was provided for by the Missal of St Pius V21 to cover the particular arrangement of the major Roman basilicas. The instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites Inter Oecumenici of September 26, 1964 allowed the reading of the Epistle and Gospel from a pulpit or ambo, so that the first incentive for Mass facing the people was met. There was, however, another reason motivating many exponents of the Liturgical Movement to press for this change, namely, the intention to reclaim the perception of the Holy Eucharist as a sacred banquet, which was deemed to be eclipsed by the strong emphasis on its sacrificial character. The celebration of Mass facing the people was seen as an adequate way of recovering this loss.

Bouyer notes in retrospect a tendency to conceive of the Eucharist as a meal in contrast to a sacrifice, which he calls a fabricated dualism that has no warrant in the liturgical tradition.22 As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood,”23, and these two aspects cannot be isolated from each other. According to Bouyer, our situation today is very different from that of the first half of the twentieth century, since the meal aspect of the Eucharist has become common property, and it is its sacrificial character that needs to be recovered.24

Pastoral experience confirms this analysis, because the understanding of the Mass as both the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Church has diminished considerably, if not faded away among the faithful.25 Therefore it is a legitimate question to ask whether the stress on the meal aspect of the Eucharist that complemented the celebrant priest’s turning towards the people has been overdone and has failed to proclaim the Eucharist as “a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands).”26 The sacrificial character of the Eucharist must find an adequate expression in the actual rite. Since the third century, the Eucharist has been named “prosphora,” “anaphora,” and “oblation,” terms that articulate the idea of “bringing to,” “presenting,” and thus of a movement towards God.


Bouyer painted with a broad brush and his interpretation of historical data is sometimes questionable or even untenable. Moreover, he was inclined to express his theological positions sharply, and his taste for polemics made him at times overstate the good case he had. Like other important theologians of the years before the Second Vatican Council, he had an ambiguous relationship to post-Tridentine Catholicism and was not entirely free of an iconoclastic attitude.27 Later, he deplored some post-conciliar developments especially in the liturgy and in religious life, and again expressed this in the strongest possible terms.28

Needless to say, Benedict XVI does not share Bouyer’s attitude, as is evident from his appreciation of sound and legitimate developments in post-Tridentine liturgy, sacred architecture, art, and music. It should also be noted that Joseph Ratzinger does not take up the later, more experimental chapters of Liturgy and Architecture, where new schematic models of church buildings are presented. Despite its limitations, however, Bouyer’s book remains an important work, and it is perhaps its greatest merit that it introduced a wider audience to the significance of early Syrian church architecture. Louis Bouyer was one of the first to raise questions that seemed deeply outmoded then, but have now become matters of intense liturgical and theological debate.29